Timeline Pushed Back For Fairlee Dam Fixes

Thetford — Residents coordinating efforts to replace the deteriorating Lake Fairlee Dam said they hope to pinpoint firm numbers about construction costs before seeking bond votes next spring in the three towns that share the lake’s shoreline.

Skip Brown, chairman of the Tri-Town Committee, said that the group of residents from Thetford, Fairlee and West Fairlee had originally hoped the leaking dam could be fixed this year, but the timetable proved too ambitious.

“I’m glad the process slowed down because ... we’re doing it better than if we had to do it in a hurry,” Brown said Monday.

A public informational meeting is scheduled for Aug. 2, and three additional meetings are expected to take place in the fall.

Instead of trying to bond for repair costs during the most recent Town Meeting cycle and then find a contractor to do the work for the bonded amount, Brown said the committee has shifted its focus to determining exactly what the work will cost by putting it out to bid first.

Preparing for the competitive bidding process will require additional engineering work and permitting, estimated to cost $35,000 to $40,000, Brown said. In an unusual arrangement, those funds are expected to be fronted in a no-interest loan by significant landowners along the lake.

The Aloha Foundation, which owns summer camps along the lake, has already agreed to loan up to $20,000 for the engineering work to get the dam bid-ready, said Executive Director Jim Zien.

The Lake Fairlee Association, a non-profit that oversees things like milfoil control on the lake, has also agreed to loan money but has not decided on an amount, said Brown, who is also part of that association.

Other camps are being approached about contributing, he said.

The loans for engineering work would be paid back to the contributors out of any bond money that is approved by the three towns during Town Meeting in March.

If bonds are not approved by the towns, Brown said, “it’s not the end of the story because the dam has to get fixed,” and the committee will work toward Plan B.

Although the privately owned dam sits in Thetford, all three towns and the camps share an interest in its well-being.

The dam’s failure would drain much of Lake Fairlee into the Ompompanoosuc River, significantly dropping the waterline and leaving mud-flats in front of more than $63 million of lakef ront property.

Preliminary engineering studies confirmed what was clear to the naked eye: The dam, built more than 200 years ago, is badly in need of repair.

Those studies were funded through initial “seed money,” including a total of $20,000 from several camps and the Lake Fairlee Association, and a total of $30,000 in taxpayer contributions that were approved during each town’s Town Meeting in 2013.

A concerted effort to find a way to save the dam began in early 2012.

Zien, of the Aloha Foundation, said he was pleased with the progress thus far and that all parties are cooperating.

“It would have been great if we had gotten to the point where we had all the numbers and all the rationale addressed so we could have gone to Town Meeting in March, but it takes time to get these things done ... and we’re relying on the engineers to bring us to a much more definitive level of design and costing,” he said.

He’s highly concerned about the dam’s failure, but no more so than three years ago, he said.

In a post on the town s’ email listservs last week, Brown said the repair work is expected to include the placement of a temporary cofferdam, the “complete removal” of the existing dam, and the installation of a “properly engineered dam in the same location.”

A privately owned camp house, which straddles the middle of the dam, will be lifted up during construction and lowered back down onto the new pilings when the new dam is complete.

Early guesses suggested the work could cost in the realm of $1 million. Randolph-based consulting engineers DuBois & King then offered preliminary estimates of $450,000, but Burlington-based contractor PC Construction said it could be much higher. Brown said the refined estimates are in the “three-quarter million” dollar range.

“That said, you don’t know what the real cost is until you get the permitting done and get past the s t ate and the feds and so on,” he said.

Brown said the costs for replacing the dam will likely be divided among the towns based on each town’s percentage of lake shore property — 47 percent in Thetford, 36 percent in Fairlee and 17 percent in West Fairlee — which was the formula used to divide the towns’ contributions to the seed money.

In addition to seeking bond money, the committee expects to ask voters in March to approve the creation of a tri-town body to own the dam and oversee its maintenance.

Fairlee Selectman Frank J. Barrett Jr., who helped launch the Tri-Town Committee, said the owner of the dam and camp house, Massachusetts resident Bryan Gregory, has been cooperative and that title work to transfer the dam to the towns’ ownership is proceeding.

“The good thing is that we’re approaching this in the ideal way” by putting it out to bid before bonding for the money, he said. “There’s always the chance that one of three towns or two of three towns or all three towns say, ‘No way,’ but it’s not a matter of if the work needs to be done. The work needs to be done, so it’s our job as committee … to get our ducks in a line.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.