The town of Camden is developing a plan for how it could remove a 200-year-old dam that no longer serves an official purpose. But opponents who call it an iconic part of the downtown are organizing against the idea.
The design and engineering plan for removal of the Montgomery Dam will be the final result of a grant the town got from the Maine Coastal Program two years ago. That will effectively kick off a longer public process around removing the dam, which would have to be authorized by voters.
But the prospect has drawn growing opposition from downtown property and business owners who say the dam and the waterfall it creates is a major part of Camden’s image. A citizen’s group, Save the Dam Falls, was formed this summer to back preservation.
“The waterfall is a treasure. It’s a treasure like the harbor, it’s a treasure [like] Harbor Park, it’s a treasure like Mount Battie,” said Tom Rothwell, a member of the group and co-owner of the Camden Deli, which sits directly above the dam. “My attitude is that they have no right to be destroying any of these treasures.”
The town-owned dam is the last of six dams that the Megunticook River pushes past before flowing into Camden Harbor. The waterfall the dam creates is a destination in downtown Camden. But town officials say it poses substantial risks, including flooding, that will only become more severe as storms intensify due to climate change.
“That’s why the scientists are recommending removing it because [flooding] could kill this town and people are not taking that seriously,” Select Board member Marc Ratner said at a meeting last month. “Do you want to see beauty for another couple years or 10 years or 20 years, or do you want to save the town?”
Discussion of dam removal began in 2019, when the town commissioned a river restoration and engineering firm to conduct a feasibility study on the removal and alternatives including such as full or partial reconstruction. The study found that full removal would best reduce the potential for upstream flooding as well as operation and maintenance needs, plus allow for the best fish passage conditions and provide for the ecological recovery of the watershed.
In recent months, officials have been trying to gather feedback from the public on the design of a dam removal. The plan would also include changes to the existing seawall in need of repairs and the lower portion of Harbor Park, a public park designed by the Olmsted brothers, which abuts the area where the Megunticook River flows into Camden Harbor.
Rothwell and others opposed to the dam’s removal are criticizing how the town is handling discussions and feel that officials have already made up their minds on removal without looking into other options.
“I want a clean watershed,” Rothwell said. “I want to see some enhancement and improvement and they don’t want to do any of that, they just want to get rid of it.”
The town is not currently preparing a design plan for partial removal because the grant funding can only be used toward a solution that would “reduce flooding to the greatest extent possible,” Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell said.
Camden is still accepting feedback through the end of the month on what residents would like to see in a plan. Caler-Bell said the design concept needs to be sent to the engineers by the beginning of September.
Once the town receives the final engineering plan, officials have said there will be a series of public hearings held. Caler-Bell said it will be up to the selectboard to decide what plan, if any, goes to voters for final approval at the annual town meeting in June.
“It could be that we go through this sort of exercise of designing for dam removal and river restoration and we find out that isn’t the direction that the community wants to go in,” she said.