Derry board revisits future of Williams Dam

Site of Williams Dam at Route 11 and Route 100 in Londonderry. On the cover: The Williams Dam sits beneath the Veterans Memorial Bridge, in this view, looking west.

By Cherise Madigan
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Londonderry Select Board revisited the Williams Dam at its Monday, Oct. 19 meeting, continuing a discussion that has played out for years without resolution. Now, new safety classifications expected from the Vermont Department of Dam Safety in the near future poses a question for the Town of Londonderry: to study and repair the dam or remove it?

The Williams Dam, located under Route 11 at the intersection with Route 100, was built in 1900 and harkens back to Londonderry’s past as a mill town. Today, the “waterfall” created by it is a popular feature of the North Village. Across the United States, dam removal has been a growing trend over the last three decades, with more states removing dams to restore wetlands, streams and wildlife habitat, as well as eliminate failing dams.

Select Board chair George Mora says the Williams Dam has been listed as in poor condition.

Owned by the Town of Londonderry, the dam has been reported to be in poor condition,  according to Board Chair George Mora.

The new safety regulations will be phased in ahead of 2022, she says, and may move the Williams Dam from the “low hazard” classification to “severe hazard,” considering criteria regarding the amount of water impounded by the dam and potential environmental damage if it fails. Emergency Management Director Kevin Beattie questioned whether the Williams Dam would in fact be moved up to the “moderate” or “severe” classification, as it posed little risk for loss of life or property.

Mora added that past evaluations have estimated that the amount of silt built up behind the dam could cause “significant” damage to wildlife in the West River, which may also impact the dam’s new hazard classification.

“Even without that, just the ownership of the dam going forward is going to become more and more of an expense to the town,” she said. “There are registration fees, there will be required inspections.”

Mora laid out two potential options:

  • The town could try to raise money to fix the dam, though there are not many grants  available for such projects, according to Town Administrator Shane O’Keefe.
  • There is more funding available for removal of dams, Mora said, which could present a second potential resolution of the issue.

“Given the cultural significance of the dam, there’s a lot of opposition in town to removing it,” she added. “One way or another, I think we need to address it.”

Board member Taylor Prouty suggested gauging public opinion on the issue and if there was support for fundraising to save the dam — as well as potential donors. Town Health Officer Richard Phelan said that removing the dam could leave a drop that may cause erosion around the bridge near the dam in the future.

Beattie also noted that dredging the silt from the dam before removal would be a “huge project with a lot of environmental issues” and said that, in the short term, funds will need to be dedicated to an engineering study and emergency management plan.

Dredging the silt from the dam before removal would be a ‘huge project with a lot of environmental issues’ and, in the short term, funds will need to be dedicated to an engineering study and emergency management plan.

Kevin Beattie
Derry Emergency Management director

Mora agreed that the cost of such measures would not be insignificant and suggested bringing an estimate to residents at Town Meeting. Another complicating factor, she said, is the fact that the town has not been able to get the dam insured.

Board member Tom Cavanagh said that removing the Williams Dam could pose a safety hazard for the North Village, however, since it is the “sole supply of water for the Town of Londonderry Fire Department.” He added that the Fire Department may express opposition to the notion of removing the dam.

While there is no money in the town budget for an engineering study this year, Mora asked O’Keefe to begin collecting cost estimates for the engineering study which Phelan guessed would total approximately $50,000. The board also agreed to begin working up an article on the issue for Town Meeting as well as looking into grants.

Town Office-Garage generator connection

The problematic connection between the Town Garage and the Town Office generator that O’Keefe acknowledged at the last meeting was revisited on Monday, since the project is currently on hold because of misunderstandings concerning the required infrastructure. New estimates from the town’s contractor, Lawrence & Lober Electric Inc., present two choices that are close in cost.

O’Keefe explained that the town has already spent about $7,000 on the project. The first option is to continue the project with the additional equipment needed, at a cost of $14,700 on top of what was spent. The second option is to scrap the connection despite the time and funds invested, and purchase a new generator, at a cost of about $14,200.

After some discussion, the board agreed that the currently Town Office generator, to which the Town Garage would be connected, could be expected to run for at least another decade. The board then authorized O’Keefe to continue coordinating the connection on behalf of the town, using up to $15,000 from the Town Building Reserve Fund.

Lawsuit, Covid-19 travel, plowing …

At the end of the meeting, the board entered into an executive session with Town Attorneys Bob Fisher and Jim Carroll to discuss the case of Contos vs. Town of Londonderry, citing attorney-client privilege, though no action was taken.

In his regular update on the Covid-19 pandemic, Beattie encouraged Londonderry residents to continue being cautious as cases are rising throughout the country, including in the Northeast. He issued a reminder that residents traveling to “red” or “yellow” counties on Vermont’s travel map would need to quarantine for two weeks.

“Vermont is seeing an uptick of cases, not at an alarming rate at this point but it’s definitely going up,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of cases in local schools [at Burr and Burton Academy as well as Manchester Elementary and Middle School] as well as some other local cases, so keep your guard up.”

Jeff Such, alternative on the Deerfield Valley CUD, will be the lead rep on the Southern Vermont CUD.

The board agreed to put out a bid option for plowing at Pingree Park at at Town Hall in S. Londonderry.  Parks Board member Marge Fish had sought plowing at Pingree Park this winter since its shorter trails would be great for families with young children looking to snowshoe, She added that the dog park at Pingree is also used throughout the winter. And town Treasurer Tina Labeau said that because SoLo Farm and Table Restaurant will not be opening this winter –thus not plowing — the town would need to coordinate plowing for the Town Hall in South Londonderry.

Londonderry resident Jeff Such, the town’s alternate on the Deerfield Valley Communications Union District, requested that the board also seek membership in the abutting Southern Vermont Communications Union District, which nearby Peru and Landgrove are also members of. Belonging to both organizations would leave Londonderry better positioned to achieve high-speed internet for more residents, he said.

The board voted unanimously to request membership in the SV CUD with Such as its representative and Ellen Seidman — the primary representative to the DV CUD — as the alternate.

The Londonderry Select Board will meet next at 6 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 2.

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About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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