Proponents say this beach at Camp Ellis in Saco and several more from York to Scarborough could benefit from a dredge, and have asked York County Commissioners for up to $1.8 million to buy one from federal American Rescue Plan funds. Operation and governance would come under the helm of a regional commission. County commissioners signaled support, but decided to give the group more time to flesh out the plan and gather additional regional buy-in before taking a final vote. Tammy Wells Photo

ALFRED — York County Commissioners have signaled support for a regional coastal dredge initiative and have asked proponents to provide a more in-depth plan that shows that other coastal communities are on board.

Proponents envision the dredge would see use from the far reaches of southern York County to Scarborough, in nearby Cumberland County, and have estimated 10 projects annually. Dredging is typically carried out from Nov. 15 to April 15.

Saco Mayor William Doyle and Kevin Roche of SOS Saco Bay asked the commission to consider up to $1.8 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to purchase a dredge to help combat erosion. The dredge would scoop up the sand that makes its way into the ocean and use it to replenish the beach, and keep channels open for navigation.

The $1.8 million request would buy the dredge and pay for a support boat.

“The city (Saco) would absorb any operational costs,” initially, said Doyle in a presentation to commissioners. He said other communities will be asked to contribute and a commission would be formed to oversee governance and operations.

“I see a plan coming together,” said Commissioner Allen Sicard, who moved that the board expend up to $1.8 million in ARP funds for purchase of a dredge.

“I don’t have a problem with a dredge, but I’d like to see more involvement and coordination from other coastal towns,” said Commissioner Donna Ring, adding she would probably support it, but was hesitant at present.

“I’d like to see more buy-in from the other towns,” said Commissioner Robert Andrews.

“For me to support it, it needs more of a governmental structure,” said Commissioner Richard Clark. “I’m not opposed to it.”

“I think it is needed,” said York County Commission Chair Richard Dutremble. “I’m for it, but I have to see a plan. The cities and towns have to work together. Let’s not rush into it, (but) do it the right way. … make a plan and get everyone on board. I am confident it will be voted in.”

Sicard withdrew his motion and the board voted to give proponents until their April 6 meeting to produce a more structured plan that includes support from other communities.

Alan Casavant, in a letter to commissioners, expressed his support in his role as mayor of Biddeford.

“Climate changes have radically altered the dynamics and demands of dredging,” said Casavant. “Shoreline damage mitigation and harbor dredging are becoming local issues on a more regular basis. During the last dredge, Hills Beach was not allocated any sand from the federal project, despite increasing oceanic pressures on the beaches, in front of homes and roads. I suspect impacts on our shorelines will intensify in the upcoming years, and the results will be extremely costly and tragic.”

Scarborough has also expressed interest. “…we would consider a pay-for-use arrangements as part of a regularly scheduled dredge program,” said Town Manager Thomas Hall in a letter.

Summer tourist revenue from York County beach communities contributes about $500 million annually to the economy, according to a submission to county commissioners by proponents, citing figures from the Maine Economist website. In 2016, the figure was $485 million, $506 million in 2017, $528 million in 2018, $506 million in 2019, and $283 million in 2020, the first year of COVID, when travel restrictions were in place for part of the year.

A regional dredge has been discussed previously and was the subject of a 2018 study by Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission, which concluded there was sufficient need for dredging in communities along the state’s southern coast to continue evaluating such a proposal.

The 2018 SMPDC report noted that at that time, there were 64 existing federal navigation projects statewide in varying degrees of permitting and readiness, and several of them were awaiting federal funds to support dredging activities by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Saco’s federal navigation channel was dredged in 2015. Prior to that, the last U.S Army Corps of Engineers dredge was in 1992, according to the submission by those proposing the county purchase. Some other communities fared better, but four out of the seven federal navigation channels listed had at least 11 years between dredges and some, significantly more.

SOS Saco Bay has pointed out that the $1.8 million request is less than 5 percent of the $40 million in ARP funds allocated to York County government and qualifies under green infrastructure projects, as aid to impacted industries like tourism, travel, and others, and addresses climate change.

Roche said he was pleased that York County Commissioners gave proponents time to plan and had signaled their support, and for the support of the two mayors.

“Big thanks to Mayor Doyle, Mayor Casavant and Al Sicard for getting us this huge opportunity to properly organize these communities for a regional dredge and real action on climate change — not talking or studying, but doing something,” said Roche.

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