CHINA — When Christine and Steven Coombs bought the Branch Pond Dam more than a decade ago, they intended to restore the historic building and restart its water-powered grist mill to process local grain again.

They thought the building could become a museum and stand as one of the only examples of a mill of its type in the Northeast.

However, a long-running battle with camp owners and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection over lake water levels, combined with an economic downturn, have put those plans on hold.

Meantime, the large mill building and the dam under it have deteriorated and have become an imminent threat to public safety, local and state officials say.

Sluice gates are broken and malfunctioning, elevating the chance the dam could overtop and damage property and infrastructure downstream, including Route 3. The dam leaks, it has cracks, and it lacks an emergency spillway.

The large wooden building has collapsed partially. Town officials worry it could crash onto nearby Branch Mills Road.

The state wants the dam fixed. The town wants the mill fixed. The Coombses say they want to fix both and restore the historic building. But after nearly two years of requests from the Maine Emergency Management Agency, nothing has been done.

Now the couple is facing a possible state order that would require them to fix the problems, and town officials are contemplating securing the structure and possibly demolishing it.

COOMBSES BLAME DEP

The Coombses blame the dam’s deterioration on a water level order the Maine DEP put in place in 2014 at the request of seasonal property owners on Branch Pond.

The DEP order was illegal and unconstitutional, and it disregarded the dam’s structural ability to hold consistently high lake water levels and makes it impossible for them to make repairs, Christine Coombs said.

“The dam itself is fine,” Coombs said Friday. “We have repairs that we have to do. We have been trying to get them done for many years. We have been stopped by the camp owners from being able to do it.”

But the couple’s contention – that the DEP order prevents them from fixing the sluice gates – isn’t true, dam safety officials said.

“There are lots of different engineering ways of fixing this,” said Mark Hyland, operations and response director at the Maine Emergency Management Agency. “They don’t like the order, but that doesn’t have anything to do with fixing the dam.”

‘PUBLIC SAFETY HAZARD’

Christine Coombs said the couple will make repairs, but they have no timeline because they have a slim window of opportunity during the summer.

“We would love to see it restored,” Coombs said, “but frankly, the camp owners don’t want to see it there. They have been pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing to blockade every step.”

In an email to the Coombses in June 2014, state dam inspector Tony Fletcher said the dam was not operated regularly – the couple lives in New Hampshire and are not usually near the dam – its gates and spillways were inoperable, the mill building was in imminent danger of collapse and the dam was leaking extensively.

“It would be in the public’s interest that the dam gates, spillways and mill buildings be repaired without delay,” Fletcher said.

The Coombses also needed to update their inadequate emergency action plan, Fletcher said.

But over the course of a year and a half, apparently no headway was made. Instead, the Coombses repeated their argument that the DEP and camp owners on Branch Pond were responsible for the problems.

TAKING ACTION

In a Jan. 8 letter, Code Enforcement Officer Paul Mitnik informed the couple that the town was considering getting a court order to condemn the building and demolish it, or at least to shore it up to forestall a collapse, unless the Coombses provided the town with a repair plan.

The Coombses said they were proceeding with getting permits from the town and the DEP to install structures for immediate stabilization, but the overall repairs would require time. They then repeated their argument that the DEP order was impeding their ability to make necessary repairs to the dam.

 


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