Rob Mitchell recently build a four-story office building on the shore of the Presumpscot River in Westbrook, downstream from Saccarappa Falls.
In a few years, Mitchell might be able to paddle his kayak past his tenants.
As part of a negotiated settlement announced last week, Sappi North America has agreed to remove a dam and install a fish passage where the river runs through downtown Westbrook. While a neighboring conservation group believes the proposal doesn’t go far enough, the response from local officials and residents has been favorable.
In particular, the long-awaited agreement has fueled the hope that what was once a heavily industrialized river could become a recreation center for boating and birdwatching.
“I’m imagining that the finished product – a midlevel experienced canoeist or kayaker could probably continue downstream navigation and continue downtown, pull over, go to Frog and Turtle or go to Fajita Grill for lunch,” Mitchell said.
The settlement calls for Sappi to remove two dam spillways, or headways, on either side of an island at Upper Saccarappa Falls and install the ladder-like fish passage system at Lower Saccarappa Falls. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission still needs to sign off on the agreement, as well as the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The Westbrook City Council voted unanimously in favor of its terms Monday.
“It’s a good outcome,” City Administrator Jerre Bryant said.
Ramps with floating docks for fishermen opened in Westbrook in the spring of 2013. The city has also recently opened a pedestrian bridge with a view of the falls.
Bryant said the settlement agreement could allow for other improvements, like the use of land currently owned by Sappi to extend the city’s Riverwalk from the southern to the northern bank of the Presumpscot. The proposal would also allow Westbrook to install a standing wave at the base of the falls, which Bryant said could draw kayakers and other paddlers. Bryant said he is still working to find a funding source for that project, which could cost between $500,000 and $900,000.
“All those things are enhancing the public’s access, both visual and sometimes physical,” Bryant said. “The river is going to be an attraction in the downtown, which will bring people, which will support business growth and development.”
Michael Shaughnessy, president of Friends of the Presumpscot River, expects the fish passage system to increase the local population of fish and birds. The Friends of the Presumpscot River was one of the parties to the settlement agreement.
“It’s almost an unheard-of opportunity to have in the most densely urban part of the state … a natural riverway,” Shaughnessy said.
“Westbrook is the real big winner in this,” he added.
Not everyone, however, is certain the changes to the river are the key to downtown revitalization.
At Fajita Grill, manager Brianda Sanchez predicted more activity and outdoor tables would benefit the restaurant. But she said improvements are also needed for downtown parking, which can be a source of frustration for visitors.
“I get so many complaints from customers,” Sanchez said.
James Tranchemontagne, who owns the nearby Frog and Turtle restaurant, said he is glad Sappi will clean up the river. But he said a lower tax rate – not kayakers – is the key to attracting more businesses.
“We’re not going to become The Forks,” he said, referring to the community along the Kennebec River in Somerset County that is a popular whitewater rafting destination.
Approving and implementing the terms of the settlement agreement could take years; under the proposal, the two spillways could be gone as early as 2020. But Mitchell, who also owns an HVAC contracting business in Westbrook, is already dreaming about the possibilities, including transforming the island near the upper falls into a park.
“The potential is there,” he said. “It just needs a little bit of work.”