The fifth night of Natick Spring Annual Town Meeting started on an optimistic note, with Moderator Frank Foss pledging his faith in Town Meeting members to finish up with the handful of remaining articles that evening. Indeed, just under four hours later, the meeting was dissolved with a “Thank you very much… Good work to get it done in five nights” from the moderator.
About half of this meeting was devoted to the South Natick Dam, with Articles 33, 34 and 35 related to it, plus a sprinkling of dam-related comments (Why doesn’t the liability-focused town stick some safety buoys above the spillway? Why spend tens of thousands on dam park design so far in advance of spillway removal?) shared during questions and debate on spending articles earlier in the night. So let’s get right to the dam-related articles.
Dam, Dam & Dam articles
The Natick Select Board voted in November against repairing the South Natick Dam and spillway (aka, waterfall) and in favor of removing the town’s most iconic site. It proved difficult for the Select Board to swim upstream against a strong environmental current to remove the dam in an effort to return it to some semblance of its more natural state. Plus, the Board was convinced that this approach could save Natick money. Those in favor of repairing the site argued for its historical and aesthetic importance, and point to appropriations voted on at recent Town Meetings to fund a fix.
Article 33, a citizen petition, involved Natick’s legislative body discussing the final committee report of the now-dissolved Charles River Dam Advisory Committee, which recommended spillway removal after its review of the issue over 18 months. The report was presented by the committee to the Select Board prior to its decision on the dam (no current or scheduled Select Board agendas have the topic of the dam on them).
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Moderator Foss initially tried to get Town Meeting to focus on whether or not to discuss the final report, as requested in the main motion, and this proved a bit difficult. Those in favor of discussion (including Save Natick Dam supporters) feel passionately about the topic, while others indicated they’ve heard enough discussion on this topic at Finance Committee, Select Board, Dam Advisory Committee, and at previous Town Meetings.
Saul Beaumont, a proponent of the article, said “Since the release of the DAMCOM report, there has been no opportunity for questions to be asked in a public forum, or at least to ask more than one question.” Town Meeting member Jeffrey Alderson asked questions up front to get a sense of whether anyone in town government had expressed an interest in Town Meeting discussion of the matter, and concluded after learning this had not been the case, that “the information will fall on deaf ears.”
Another member spoke out against hearing about the report at Town Meeting, indicating there are numerous other ways for those with new information on the subject to bring that to the Select Board for further consideration (Town Meeting’s role on decisions about the dam would be limited to approval of appropriations, per legal counsel). Town Meeting and Finance Committee member Todd Gillenwater reemphasized the Select Board’s authority on the dam’s future and Town Meeting’s limited role: “I respectfully ask that we just stop beating this horse.”
The majority of Town Meeting members agreed with him, with the motion to hear discussion of the report failing 38-71-2.
On to Article 34, which sought to have the town, based on approved dam repair appropriations from 2018 and 2019 Spring Annual Town Meetings, to initiate those repairs. In introducing the main motion on this article, Town Meeting member Beaumont argued that the South Natick Dam Advisory Committee’s conclusion about dam repair costing more than removal was incorrect based on further review of work cited in that report from consulting firms Stantec and GZA. “The DAMCOM report said it would cost a million dollars more to repair than remove. Using the numbers in those reports, it’s at least a million dollars more to remove than repair—the exact opposite,” he said, adding that there could be further costs associated with removal of contaminated sediments.
Town Meeting members swapped concerns— or not—about the dangers of disruption of sediments found in the river to those upstream and downstream of the dam (disclosure: we’re downstream neighbors).
Select Board member Paul Joseph, chair of that board when the dam decision came down, defended the board’s decision and process, in part through a somewhat awkward Q&A exchange with his past self in the form of current Select Board Chair Bruce Evans. During this part of Town Meeting, Evans stated that at the time of the decision the board said “if compelling evidence came forward, we would take that under advisement and possibly revisit that. Nothing of that nature has come through. In fact, what has happened is we’ve requested quarterly reports and updates on this very topic. The latest report that we received in February underscored the cost differential was still… greatly in favor of removal.”
Joseph sought to understand how new information could come to light on the topic from resources that were already part of the public domain from the original Dam Advisory Committee report, and Beaumont responded that certain elements of the reports cited by the committee weren’t publicly discussed. Joseph said plenty of opportunity was given to the public to ask questions about the report (and staff spent hundreds of hours answering hundreds of emails, many with technical questions). He implied some discussion of information highlighted by the article proponents was heard in Select Board executive session (behind closed doors discussion) as part of the decision making process.
By a vote of 81-24-2, Town Meeting approved indefinite postponement of the motion.
The final article of the Town Meeting, #35, was introduced by Michael Trinidad to establish a Natick Dam Preservation Committee consisting of experts in the fields of engineering, environmental science, historic preservation, finance, and public policy. The Committee would investigate the feasibility of repairing and restoring the dam and spillway. “Article 35 is not an attempt to interrupt the removal process but to briefly travel down two paths before we get so far down the removal path we’ll be forced to stay on that path no matter what the cost,” Trinidad said.
During his presentation, he questioned some of the costs associated with repair in reports considered by the Dam Advisory Committee and recommended a peer review of those reports by an independent engineering firm would be in order.
Worn out by earlier dam discussion, there was no debate on the matter, and Town Meeting voted down the motion (27-70-2).
Save Natick Dam proponents have vowed to carry on their fight. Natick has pulled a 180 on dam repair once before, so their hope is that it could again if significant new information is brought to light.
The last night of Spring Annual Town Meeting began with Article 15, focused on millions in capital equipment and improvement spending and presented by Jon Marshall, deputy town administrator of operations.
Purchases through capital spending have been challenging in recent years due to supply chain issues that can add years to purchasing cycles for fire engines and other equipment. On the town’s current shopping list are police cars, an ambulance (ambulances are taking a beating now that Leonard Morse’s emergency room has closed, forcing first responders to rack up mileage going to other ERs), and stormwater system equipment. The town is also making fixes to its building exteriors to extend the buildings’ lives. Marshall said the town’s approach to capital for FY24 includes using free cash where possible to help avoid too much borrowing.
A handful of motions under this article all passed easily.
Taking care of other business
Town meeting made quick work of many of the remaining articles, including Article 20, which related to creation of a Community Preservation Committee as a follow-up to the town voting last fall in favor of Natick joining the state’s Community Preservation Act program. This program will result in a property tax surcharge to support investment in historic preservation, open space, recreation, and affordable housing (some who qualify as low or moderate income will be exempted from paying the surcharge). The 9-member committee will consist of members from certain town bodies, plus four members appointed by the Select Board. Questions were raised about whether there might be a possibility of having the town vote for some members, but town administration elected not to go in that direction after reviewing how other communities handle this.
Article 19, in the spirit of updated alcohol sales and serving changes being made in town, paves the way for the town’s four social or veterans’ clubs (i.e., Elks, VFW) not to have to adhere to a longtime accounting practice of directing proceeds from alcohol sales at their facilities for non-member events to charities. Accounting for such sales during the license renewal process has proven challenging over the years, and the rule has been deemed “archaic” at this point, especially considering that these clubs all support many charitable endeavors. The motion under this article passed overwhelmingly.
Under Article 21, Town Meeting was asked to hear an update on the Charter and By-law Review Committee and approve spending of up to $50K for a lawyer to support the committee’s review. The committee, launched at the start of the year, has thus far focused most of its work on town charter articles, and at this point has no recommendations. But it has identified dozens of matters to be considered. Town Meeting supported the motions.
Thank you: We appreciate all the fine Town Meeting recording work by Natick Pegasus.
Whew, we made it through the last of the recordings & documents to file this report. Please support our work if you find it useful
More: Town Meeting week #2 recap: Keeping order; Supt. Nolin honored; Zoning in & out; Sealing the deal; Toward net zero
Town Meeting week #1 recap: Omnibus budget; The great print vs. online debate; Job security; Stabilizing Keefe Tech
Jerry L Pierce says
Regarding the Dam issue. So a lot of information was discussed in the Select Boards
Executive Sessions. Are those minutes available to the Taxpayers? If information is kept from the Public, sounds like some sort of a coverup. I would like to feel better about those decisions. Thank you.
Bob Brown says
Hi Jerry, good question. The town has been making some executive session minutes available, such as with the recent police officer investigation, though am not sure if there’s any regular schedule of doing so. I thought I heard during Town Meeting that some minutes are withheld until whatever the issue is is no longer under examination. Bob
Regarding the South Natick spillway removal.
I don’t see removal of the spillway happening without heavy pollutants being released. I looked at the test well map and there were not many samples taken, and they didn’t go down very deep. Unforeseen pollutant removal will add to the cost. The chances of unanticipated downstream mishaps are high. Flooding etc..Those lawsuits will add to the cost. The dam was built 90 years ago. I’m sure those construction crews never stopped when they found Nipmuc remains etc.. They most likely re-buried them immediately. If any are dug up during the removal, construction comes to a halt. Period. As it should.
Removal of the South Natick Spillway is a disaster of an idea unless you plan to quadruple your budget. Just repair it. It costs less to do that anyway.
Lastly, has anyone thought about upstream swampland that might suddenly become riverfront property after removal? Maybe that’s at play here?
Richard Winchester says
The debate on the repair/removal of the dam is similar to the debate in Washington state over the retention/removal of the Snake River dam. In the Snake River controversy, the governor and the legistors are at loggerheads due to the fact that the dam provides vital water for irrigantion and the generatioin of clean energy, while the dam inhibits the migration of fish up the river thereby impinging on the rights of a native indian tribe to earn a livelihood.
The Natick dam also provides necessary water in the inevitable droughts due to global warming. It can also provide potentially clean energy through unilimited water flow. Needless to say, the potential of disruption of Indian burial sites is also in play.
There is no similarity to the Snake River dam removal.
The Natick dam doesn’t contain a significant reservoir with infrastructure to use stored water for meaningful irrigation. The Natick dam also isn’t a source of renewable energy.
Are you suggesting the dam be turned into a hydroelectric power station?