For those who have religiously followed the Charles River Dam Advisory Committee meetings since last year, or binge watched the dozen-plus episodes after the fact like I did 2008’s Breaking Bad, there may have been a letdown when the group largely concluded its work earlier this month by sending its crystal clear recommendation to the Natick Select Board.
You may have found yourself asking: What to watch now?
Better call Saul…
Resident Saul Beaumont (et al) submitted a Citizen Petition supporting dam repair for consideration by Fall Town Meeting, and you can catch a recording of the Natick Finance Committee’s Sept. 13 meeting mainly focused on this.
Article 29 reads: “To see if the Town will vote to appropriate funding to repair and maintain the Natick Charles River Dam substantially in its current location and configuration for a period of a minimum of twenty-five years.” The point of the article is that Town Meeting in 2018 and 2019 had overwhelmingly approved appropriations to fix the iconic but deteriorating town-owned South Natick Dam—so let’s get on with it already before we’ve got “Breaching Bad” on our hands.
(The more specific motion language presented to the Finance Committee can be seen in the documents embedded below, but the key piece is a request that the town spend about $925K already appropriated for rehabilitating the dam.)
Natick’s Finance Committee, which vets and shares its take on articles in advance of Town Meeting, spent nearly two hours on Article 29 (starting at about 43 minutes into the Natick Pegasus recording). Part of this time involved a public speak section with people commenting for or against the article, with some sharing very personal stories.
Change of opinion
As Finance Committee members pointed out, a lot has changed since the earlier dam repair appropriations were approved. Numerous town officials now back a plan to remove the spillway (aka, waterfall) for financial, legal, environmental, and cultural reasons. They point to information that has surfaced over the past couple of years about what repair would really entail, including removal of a bunch of trees. They say they hadn’t realized spillway removal was an option back then, and it wasn’t a choice put before Town Meeting. Whether new revelations about the river and dam will emerge in coming years and change opinions drastically again, maybe we’ll see.
The Select Board will have the final say on this matter, though Natick Spring Town Meeting could also be called to weigh in again when it comes to funding. Town counsel shared its opinion on the article and emphasized that appropriations are not mandates for the town to spend the money, that the Select Board will make its own decision.
This Finance Committee meeting was no consultant-led Dam Advisory affair, with ice breakers about favorite desserts or vacation spots. Even before Beaumont stated his case for bringing the article forward, Finance Committee member David Coffey proposed a motion to postpone the group’s hearing on the matter. “[W]hile I understand people feel aggrieved by this and want to speak their mind, we’re going to spend a couple of hours debating something which is ineffectual, and I just don’t see the value of that other than making people feel good,” he said.
The motion was not allowed, and Beaumont took the floor. After running through the numbers on the amount the town was appropriated to borrow to pay for repairs, he expressed surprise that the Select Board wouldn’t have authorized spending on the dam repair after it had indicated support of the previous articles. After citing the 1,700-plus signatures on the Save Natick Dam petition, Beaumont argued for giving the public, via Fall Town Meeting, a chance to share its current opinion on the dam repair vs. removal debate (Beaumont, by the way, is no Citizen Petition newbie—he introduced an article at the 2019 Spring Town Meeting to amend the definition of “dog kennel” in the town zoning bylaws. No action was taken on Article 26.)
“If you were at 2018 or 2019 Spring Annual Town Meeting you probably voted in favor of repairing the dam. Nothing has really changed since then except there is more to rehabilitate because of the passage of time. But no matter what it takes to repair the dam, it remains the obligation of the town to maintain as it has done since it was done in 1934. There’s no reason to force residents to sacrifice a beautiful feature of the town because the town would like to save a few dollars…” he said, citing an overall repair cost of about $2.7M per the Natick Department of Public Works. Beaumont said he understood that the Select Board would have ultimate authority over how to proceed on the dam, but said passage of this article could smooth funding repairs if the Board goes in that direction.
Town Administrator Jamie Errickson was called on by the committee chair to help clarify what happened between the time of the last Town Meeting vote for a dam repair appropriation and the decision to hold off on the repair direction late that year. He said the town did go forward with a full design for dam replacement, and during that process it was brought to the public’s attention the trees atop the earthen dam would need to be removed, sparking a closer review of the project, including formation of the Advisory Committee.
Finance Committee members questioned Beaumont on issues such as environmental considerations of going the repair route, the historical value of the dam, and the basic math of how the previous appropriations would possibly cover a project that the town says will cost a lot more than initially thought. Beaumont matter-of-factly answered questions, often referring back to the earlier appropriations approved by Town Meeting and supported by town bodies.
Residents shared their thoughts during public speak, some for, and some against dam removal.
One speaker who lives along the river questioned assurances that river quality will improve if the dam is removed, especially once more research is done on sediment, and documented the vibrant wildlife that lives above the dam. “[T]hey will be destroying a vibrant ecosystem if they take down that dam,” Anne Geissler said.
Retired geologist Sara Hanna, who relayed that she spent her career in the hazardous waste site cleanup business, warned that environmental regulations are only going to get tougher, and that will mean ongoing expenses related to dam repair. “It’s not just repair it and it is done…” Hanna said. “I strongly want to reiterate how if you look over the decades how much more we’ve learned about the environment and therefore a greater amount of work needs to be done to keep things in order.”
(Disclaimer: We are river neighbors but did not speak.)
FinCom makes its call
The Finance Committee made two motions regarding Article 29, one to indefinitely postpone it and a second refer it back to the sponsor, Select Board, and Town Administrator. The first passed 11-0, the second failed, 4-7.
Before the vote, FinCom Chair Linda Wollschlager said she appreciated everyone who spoke at the meeting, and was touched by stories about the river.
“But I think one thing that’s been a little lost is that we can’t keep things as they are. We’ve been told that repairing the dam as is, is not an option. All of the trees have to come down…,” she said.
Natick’s dam drama isn’t over yet. Next up: The Select Board is slated to discuss the Advisory Committee report at its meeting this Wednesday, Sept. 21.
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