WESTBROOK — After years negotiations, a project to allow for more natural fish passage through the Saccarappa Falls section of the Presumpscot River took a step forward this week when the Planning Board approved the site plan necessary to do the work.
Sappi North America was before the Planning Board Tuesday to remove two spillways by the Saccarappa Dam along with the nearby electric powerhouse and to make make modifications to bedrock in the area. Once that is done, a Denil fishway will be installed on the southern falls to facilitate fish passage.
Barry Stemm, Sappi’s engineering manager, said the dam removal will not only allow fish to pass through this section of the river, it will also reduce the potential for flooding in that section of the city and improve water quality between Saccarappa Falls and Mallison Falls, behind the Maine Correctional Facility in Windham.
The removal could also lead to more recreational opportunities in that area, something the city and the Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corporation is looking into. With Sappi no longer having a need for the land around the falls, the city may acquire it to extend the Riverwalk and provide access to the island in the middle of the river, which Abigail Cioffi, director of Discover Downtown Westbrook said holds “immense potential for downtown development.”
Cary Tyson, a Bridge Street resident who lives less than a half-mile from the falls, said although the project sounds “advantageous to the community,” he would like to see the powerhouse building retained because of its “architectural quality.” He said he has seen similar buildings in other parts of the country turned into breweries, retail shops or museums. Cioffi said because Westbrook is a Main Street America community, Discover Downtown Westbrook has been tasked with speaking out against the removal of historic buildings.
“Without being privy to the years of negotiations by all parties, we would like to believe there might have been a way to preserve the building without affecting other conditions of the agreements,” she said.
She added the powerhouse building could have been a “natural fit to the historic walking trail DDW is working on.”
Economic Development Director Daniel Stevenson said both the Maine State Historic Preservation Office and Westbrook Historical Society have no issue with the removal of the powerhouse, which dates back to 1907.
The building is falling down, he said, and “frankly it needs to come down as part of getting those fish Denils up and to make the project work.” He said Sappi has indicated it is willing to work with the city and Discover Downtown Westbrook to salvage some of the old equipment inside.
Michael Shaughnessy, president of Friends of the Presumpscot River said he regrets seeing the powerhouse come down, but it is a necessary part of the process.
“This has been part of the discussion for a very long time … it has come to a place where we are going to get a lot more history back than we are losing by this powerhouse,” he said.
Planning Board member Dennis Isherwood said he “appreciates” people coming out to try to save the powerhouse, but the time has come for the building.
“I am going to go with what I have heard and seen about the building – that it is time for it to be replaced,” he said just prior to making a motion for the board to approve the site plan for the project.
With the Planning Board approval now in hand, Sappi awaits the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s OK on a license surrender agreement. Once that comes in, work can begin. Stemm said the $5.5 million project will start this spring and continue through spring 2021.
The process to remove the dams from Saccarappa Falls and restore fish passage has been going on for years. Negotiations began more than five years ago and an agreement between Sappi, the city, Conservation Law Foundation, Maine Department of Marine Resources, Friends of the Presumpscot River and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, was reached in November 2016.
Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or email@example.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews
The Planning Board approved a site plan by Sappi North America Inc. to remove two spillways and former electric powerhouse at Saccarappa Falls and modify bedrock to allow for better fish passage along the Presumpscot River
City officials say the former electric powerhouse, constructed in 1907, cannot be salvaged.