SACO — The City Council has unanimously signed a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would kickstart the process of halting erosion at Camp Ellis in Saco. However, proponents say it doesn’t bind the city to assume responsibility for ongoing maintenance and other costs associated with a remedy.

The letter is the next step toward a Project Partnership Agreement with the USACE to get the work done.

The letter signed by the council on April 12 includes language that shows the city understands its role as a non-federal sponsor, including obligations to pay any project costs over and above the $26.9 federal project limit; assuming responsibility for future operation, maintenance, repair, rehabilitation and replacement of the project; and “holding and saving the U.S. Federal Government harmless from all damages arising from the design, operation, and maintenance of the Project, except for damages caused by the negligence or fault of the Government or its agents,” according to a copy of the letter.

The council agreed to sign the letter the same day City Councilor Michael Burman, State Rep. Lynn Copeland and SOS Saco Bay Inc. Vice President David Plavin testified in favor of a bill submitted by Copeland, L.D. 946, that  resolves to make the state the non-federal sponsor — and therefore ultimately responsible for ongoing maintenance obligations and cost over runs — rather than the city.

A legislative work session was scheduled for Wednesday, April 21, after the Courier’s print deadline.

At the public hearing before the state’s Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, Burman testified that the problem is regional. He said the jetty in Camp Ellis, built in the 1800s by the USACE, reroutes Saco River sediment throughout Saco Bay, leading to changes in sand deposits in Old Orchard Beach, Biddeford, and Scarborough.

Given the uncertainty of future costs, becoming the non-federal sponsor is a daunting role for a municipality to take on, said Burman.

“Fighting the ocean on behalf of the Saco Bay communities is simply more than the City of Saco can take on alone,” he said. “The State of Maine is in a much better position to do so.”

Testifying against the legislative resolve was state geologist and director of the Bureau of Resource Information and Land Use Planning, Robert Marvinney. He said his testimony against the resolve doesn’t represent opposition to the city of Saco or the USACE project. He noted the agency he represents has worked with Saco for years and with the USACE on designing a study that identified construction of a proposed 750-foot spur jetty, combined with beach nourishment, to reduce the ongoing erosion.

“We believe the pathway to a lasting solution at Camp Ellis is one that keeps all parties engaged — the City of Saco, the State agencies, and the Corps of Engineers,” said Marvinney. “The Corps has stated many times over the decades that a Project Partnership Agreement will commit the local partner to the long-term maintenance of the project including multiple cycles of beach nourishment. This commitment could reach many tens of millions of dollars over the next 50 years. The Corps has also made clear that once the current federally authorized funds are expended, they will have no further responsibility for mitigating future erosion in Saco caused by the federal jetties or their modification. This is unacceptable. There is no national precedent for a state or municipality to take over full responsibility for a federal coastal engineering project.”

At the City Council meeting, Mayor William Doyle said the council’s approval of the PPA letter means the USACE will “unshelve” the agreement. “They will start talking about cost analysis, and that’s when we’ll get estimates, he said. “This is a letter of support to the plan but not tying any money up in doing so.”

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