Future of Mill Pond Dam to be decided Tuesday at Durham town election


Max Scheinblum, Staff Writer

DURHAM – As winter comes to a close and temperatures rise, residents of Durham wonder if this is the last time they will see a frozen Mill Pond at the center of town. The answer could come Tuesday, March 8, when the town of Durham holds its annual election at Oyster River High School, where the fate of the Mill Pond Dam will be settled. 

The question on the ballot is as follows: “Shall the town reverse the action taken by the town council on November 1, 2021?” 

The action in question is the town council’s decision to remove the dam, which eventually led to a referendum petition by a group of residents. Both pro-dam and pro-removal groups have launched websites in recent months to further their beliefs, and both sides have actively campaigned alongside the dam to raise awareness for the vote in the past weeks. 

But as one quandary goes to rest, another comes to light: what’s next? 

Kitty Marple, Durham town council chair, said the dam removal contract with Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB), who prepared the 2020 feasibility study for the council, is currently halted as the town awaits the results of the vote. 

“The contract is in stasis right now. So, if we vote to keep the dam then that contract will be voided,” she said. “If the “yes” side wins, the town council would have to make decisions on how to proceed with stabilization options.” 

Marple noted that the council would likely collaborate with the pro-dam group to pursue stabilization options the group has independently explored. She mentioned one member had spoken with a civil engineer on ways to restore the dam while maintaining its historical value, therefore qualifying it for historical grant money to help save taxpayer dollars.  

Marple also noted that VHB would likely be contracted to help with any stabilization options.    

“My sense is that VHB has a lot of this information [about the dam], so it makes total sense to stick with them,” she said. 

If the “no” side wins, the contract with VHB would resume and the firm would complete the project as outlined in the 2020 feasibility study. The town anticipates a 12-18 month design and permitting process, where it will also work to secure grant funding to help ease the bill. Construction is expected to take place in 24-36 months. 

“I would anticipate local public engagement opportunities over the course of that timeframe dealing with important design aspects, to include historic mitigation, environmental, aesthetics, recreation, and more,” Todd Selig, town administrator, wrote in an email. 

For precarious issues such as sediments, Durham will work with various environmental agencies to ensure the project won’t violate any regulations, according to April Talon, town engineer. 

“If the town chooses to remove the Mill Pond Dam, we will be required to get various permits from the environmental agencies. We are going to follow the advice and guidance of the state agencies that issue permits,” she said. “I hope people would be comfortable with not only the town, but NOAA, and NHFG, and even the Army Corp of Engineers [working on this project].” 

Talon also stated that if the town receives grant money from any environmental agency, then that would be another reason to abide by their requirements. 

“If the town were to secure grant funding from NOAA for dam removal and river restoration, that means that we would be tied to them and have to follow their guidance,” she said. “I would hope that people would trust that those agencies wouldn’t allow the town to do anything that would harm the downstream reaches of the river.” 

The town is also trying to reconcile with what has gone wrong in the past decade of the dam debate, even as it looks towards the future.  

The most pressing of those issues is maintenance, or lack thereof, which the pro-dam group has criticized throughout the process. Their main gripes concern lack of action following a 2014 study that recommended reduced phosphorus inputs to College Brook, a feeder stream to Mill Pond, to aid the long term health of the impoundment. 

“I cannot say that we did a great job maintaining the Mill Pond. I just can’t say that,” Marple said. “I don’t know if it was a lost cause, if putting money into it would be like putting money into an empty hole. I guess it just was not a priority.” 

The group has also criticized the town for not holding a “town hall” style meeting for an open conversation about the issue. But Marple felt as if the council had allowed ample time for public comments at town council meetings, and didn’t want the result of a potential session to lead to more debate and unrest. 

As the dam awaits its future, Marple is comfortable with whatever the outcome turns out to be. 

“Is the town and VHB completely right on everything? No. But I want to remove the dam, and I’m going to just deal with the consequences as they come about. The people who want to keep the dam are not wrong, they have a difference of opinion,” Marple said. “With regard to the vote, it will be a little disappointing [if “Yes” wins], but if the people of Durham want to keep the dam then I’m going to move on and we’ll deal with it how we have to.”