YARMOUTH – The prospect of removing two dams along the Royal River evoked a broad range of responses Thursday night during a hearing before the Town Council.
Some speakers said that removing the dams, which are an integral feature of Royal River Park and Yarmouth’s riverfront walking trail, would harm the town’s character.
Others said it would be worth applying for grants to fund further study to determine whether removing the dams would benefit the town and migratory fish.
Councilors considered three options, including not doing anything to the dams on Bridge and East Elm streets, before deciding late Thursday night to table the issue until next month.
The walking trail attracts joggers and pedestrians, many of whom take their dogs to the park. The trail winds along the river, bringing visitors close to the riverbank, its rocky outcroppings and its dams. The water above the Bridge Street dam forms a small pond where people fish and swim.
The pond would drain if the dams were removed, and the Royal River would flow more naturally through that part of Yarmouth.
“It’s hard to put a value on cultural, historical and scenic impact, but it would be huge” if the dams were removed, said Mark Hough, who strongly opposes the removal. “It’s something that other towns don’t have. It’s priceless. If we lose it, we’ve lost a lot. For an issue this large, it should go to a town vote.”
Last month, during a work session, five of Yarmouth’s seven town councilors indicated that the dams should be removed. Councilors Erv Bickford and Carl Winslow were unable to attend that meeting.
The council was required to hold a public hearing before making any final decision, Chairman Steve Woods said Thursday.
Several studies by the town conclude that Yarmouth should pursue permits and funding to remove the dams and restore the river’s natural flow.
“No one is proposing removal of the dams at this point,” Woods told the audience of about 60 people who turned out. “We’re only suggesting that we should be moving in that direction.”
A petition signed by more than 100 Yarmouth High School students indicated that those students would support removing the dams and restoring the river to its natural state.
“There is no time pressure here,” Woods said before the meeting. “It’s really more of a policy decision than anything else.”
Town employees and a consultant hired by the town said there are federal funds available now, and they could be used to fund removal of the dams.
They also said the town could apply for the funds and withdraw its application if it decides against the removal.
Town Manager Nat Tupper said the town has spent very little on maintaining the dams. The danger would be if the dams collapsed and the town were to be forced by the state to remove the debris from the river. The East Elm Street dam was built in the 1800s.
“The historic answer (regarding maintenance costs) has been zero,” Tupper said. “We have been sitting here and ignoring them.”
If the town does nothing and the dams collapse, the cost of removing them could be substantial, Tupper said.
Gordon Clark of Park Street said it would not be in the town’s best interest to remove the dams, which create scenic views for visitors to the park. He said those views and the historic value of the dams should take precedent over improving fish habitat.
Supporters of the dams’ removal say it would open up the river to migratory fish including alewives.
Sue Farrell, who owns and operates the Downeast Village motel complex, said her guests enjoy river views and walking along the river. “Both those dams are the historical heart of Yarmouth. I would hate to see them go,” she said.
But Tom Settlemire of Grant Street said the council needs to forge ahead and gather more information about removing the dams to make an informed decision.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: