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Group Urges Rebuild Of Lake Fairlee Dam

West Fairlee — Officials coordinating efforts to replace the Lake Fairlee Dam will host the first of four planned public presentations this afternoon, when they will try to persuade residents that it’s more cost-effective to replace the deteriorating dam soon than wait to deal with the problem when it becomes an emergency.

The Tri-Town Committee, comprised of residents from lakeshore towns West Fairlee, Fairlee and Thetford, has been working since early 2012 to find a solution for the dam, pointing to the estimated 8 to 12 feet of stinking mud-flats that would be left at the lake’s border in the event the structure were to fail.

But the odor, they say, would be the least of the towns’ problems. At the meeting today, committee member Donn Downey will try to demonstrate how the dam’s failure could negatively affect the values of more than $60 million of lakefront property.

Estimates on the negative impacts to those homes’ appraisals have ranged from 10 to 40 percent, he said.

“So the people around the lake, their property tax bill actually goes down, but everybody else’s tax bill goes up to make up for it,” said Downey, a Thetford Selectboard member. “And that’s what’s so compelling about this. That’s the bottom line of the whole issue.”

That point, said committee member Frank J. Barrett Jr., a Fairlee Selectboard member, speaks directly to critics in town who argue that the dam’s future is a problem facing only “lake people” or the commercial camps around Lake Fairlee.

“We want to remind everyone (during the meeting) that this is not driven by the lake community, it’s not driven by the Aloha Foundation. It’s driven and has been from the start by the Selectboards that share mutual concern,” Barrett said.

“We want people to understand we’re not looking to protect people’s property, we’re looking to protect the tax base.”

Barrett said committee members were also surprised to learn at a recent meeting that Vermont’s permitting process for building a new dam is much more extensive — and expensive — than the permitting process to replace an already-existing dam.

If the dam were to be wiped out, he said, building a new one would fall into the former category, therefore providing another incentive to get the work done quickly.

Barrett said DuBois & King notices further deterioration every time it’s at the dam, which is situated in Thetford, and engineering studies completed in the past two years show that it’s “not a question of if the dam fails; it’s a question of when.”

Current cost estimates to replace the dam, built more than two centuries ago, are around $750,000, Barrett said.

However, the committee has used money from a no-interest loan by lakeside camps and the non-profit Lake Fairlee Association to hire Randolph-based engineers DuBois & King to finish replacement designs and undertake the permitting process so that the project can be put out to bid this fall.

In that way, each of the three towns could have firm financial numbers to work with if they agree to individually bond for their share of the funding during Town Meeting in March, with hopes of getting the work done next summer.

Bidding out the project before seeking approval for a bond “just takes care of any uncertainties,” Barrett said, “because we only get one real bite at the apple here, and the fact that it’s three towns, we have to get this thing right.”

The committee is proposing that the towns share the costs using equalized lakefront property values, meaning Thetford would take on 47 percent; Fairlee, 36 percent; and West Fairlee, 17 percent.

Under that formula — the $750,000 cost estimate and a hypothetical negative impact to lakeshore property values of 20 percent — Downey computed that saving the dam as quickly as possible would increase the municipal tax rate in Thetford by 1.3 percent; Fairlee, 2 percent; and West Fairlee, 1.8 percent.

Allowing the dam to fail, he said, would increase non-lakefront properties in Thetford by 1.6 percent; Fairlee, 2.3 percent; and West Fairlee, 3.3 percent; while tax rates for lakefront properties would fall in each of the towns by at least 17 percent.

Downey said those numbers do not include school taxes, which could extend the disparities.

Committee Chairman Skip Brown said the group hopes to reach residents through additional meetings in West Fairlee, Fairlee and Thetford, which are expected to take place around late September and early October.

“The good news is that the reaction that we get is positive,” Brown said. “The bad news is that a lot of people, it’s not on their radar yet. They may have heard about it, there’s some recognition, but they don’t have any vested interest yet, but I think that will change as we get closer to Town Meeting.”

This afternoon’s meeting is slated for 4:30 p.m. at Assembly Hall of Middlebrook Day Camp, formerly Wyoda, on Route 244.

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