Public hears options for future of Potter Hill dam site

By Ryan Blessing Sun staff writer

WESTERLY — The public is getting a look at several options for the future of the Potter Hill dam and mill site, the latest move in efforts to re-imagine what was once a thriving industrial center into a space for passive recreation and fish migration.

It’s a project that could face an uphill battle based on reaction from many who attended a Nov. 14 forum to gauge public opinion about what Westerly plans to do with the dam that the town now owns.

Engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill has presented eight possible alternative options for lowering the level of the headpond, the body of water upstream of the dam. Those options range from a 6.8-foot lowering of the water level there to a reduction of just 6 inches. Each incorporates a series of riffle or step pools, which allow watercraft to pass over a fishway.

The Westerly Town Council will select three of the options presented, Fuss & O’Neill water engineer Nils Wiberg said. The firm will then do further modeling and technical analysis and return to the public with the results in order to get more feedback. No matter what options are presented, the ultimate decision is the Westerly council’s.

Many who live along the Pawcatuck River near the mill aired concerns about what implications removing the dam would have on their land, particularly if doing so floods their existing wells.

Some worried that with as little as a six-inch drop in the headpond, mud flats would be exposed on their property in dry seasons. Lowering it by a foot would eliminate a passageway for rescue boats and other traffic to travel up river, others said.

“Why don’t we keep the water level where it is today?” Westerly resident Peter Ogle asked. “There are fishway designs that will do that.”

Ogle said he didn’t know anyone who lived on the river two years ago, but got involved because of the project’s potential effects further downstream.

“I was concerned that if you take the dam down, are you going to affect the flooding in downtown Westerly? That’s a serious issue. Their flood modeling doesn’t answer that question.”

Still others say that Hopkinton has been sidelined or ignored during the process.

“They’ve been marginalized out of the process up until this point,” State Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, speaker pro tempore of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. “The people that are going to be most affected are the people in Hopkinton, because many of them have dug wells instead of drilled wells.”

Homeowners whose wells would be affected would be able to have their wells replaced at no cost to them as part of the project, officials said.

Westerly Town Manager Shawn Lacey said the town is working with the University of Rhode Island and Fuss & O’Neill on a study of any potential impacts on wells.

“The replacement of wells, if the choice is to go with lowering the headpond height, the cost of replacing people’s wells is going to be factored in to the cost of the project,” he said.

Wiberg said opportunities exist for passive recreation at the mill site, and for a restoration of the wetland system to how it was before the dam was built.

“There’s a real opportunity here with the mill site,” Fuss & O’Neill landscape architect Andrew Bohne said.

Ideas and concepts for a park space adjacent to DEM land are intended to start a conversation, he said.

“They’re not what’s going to be built, it’s to start a dialogue,” he said.

Drone footage of the ruins provided engineers with a bird’s-eye view of the site.

Among potential uses are incorporating some of the existing walls, windows and patio spaces into a park setting and offering opportunities to walk along the river, Bohne said.

“Obviously the river itself is an incredible amenity to have,” he said.

The team involved in studying the site and presenting options is composed of officials from federal, state and municipal offices, plus organizations including Save The Bay, the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association and Southern Rhode Island Conservation District. The towns of Westerly and Hopkinton are represented.

A key goal of the team’s work is to minimize the cost to taxpayers, and Lacey said various funding opportunities are being explored. Some of that funding is contingent on how much the headpond level is lowered, if at all, he said.

“If we choose to leave it as it is, most likely we would not qualify for any funding through partners,” he said. “That’s not to say there isn’t other funding available, but we’re hoping to do this at minimal or no expense to the taxpayers.”

The town has $400,000 set aside for the mill site and is applying for grant funding, Lacey said. Another forum for public input is being scheduled for next month in Hopkinton, he said.

In 2019, the council approved petitioning the property into receivership as a means to finally get the former mill buildings taken down. Town officials had been trying since at least 1980 to address the dilapidated structures.

In 2020, Westerly received a $100,000 grant, the first phase of a multi-year funding award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center, matched by the town, The Nature Conservancy and other potential sources to study fish passage improvements and flood mitigation, including full or partial dam removal.

PARE Engineering performed an assessment of the dam in August 2022 that included cost analysis of leaving it intact and repairing it. Probable cost of repairs ranges from $2.7 million to $8.8 million, according to the report.

The dam dates to the 1780s in various forms, and presents a public safety hazard, according to town officials. Though not in an unsafe condition, its status could change if allowed to deteriorate, according to the 2022 report.

The main mill building was built in 1843 and the facility closed in 1958. In 1977 it was the site of a massive fire that destroyed most of the buildings. Many of the granite walls remain intact, however, the floors and ceilings have completely collapsed.

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