The Town of Vinalhaven finds itself in a predicament.
Last fall, the town, assisted by the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), built a culvert at Mill River to flush out the neighboring 17.5-acre pond and allow small marine life to come and go. Some thought this was necessary due to the odor created by rotting algae on the stagnant pond each summer.
Unfortunately, mistakes were made and the whole island is now paying for them.
The new culvert allows virtually unrestricted flow from the ocean into the pond. Consequently, the neighboring North Haven Road often floods at high tide, making the way impassable. According to Eric Davis, a local resident, Vinalhaven Road Foreman Candra Hopkins questioned NRCS engineers about this possibility when the culvert was being built. They said the road might flood four times in ten years. In actuality, the road floods at high tide each month at the new and full moons. Some months the road floods every day for two weeks.
During winter and early spring months when the alternative route, the `Round the Island Road, was too muddy to use, the north end of the island was often cut off from the town.
“For a while they put a fire engine on the other side, just in case,” said Davis. In addition to splitting the island in two, the flooding is causing saltwater intrusion, killing trees and threatening sewer systems and wells.
The project was initiated by a summer resident who lives by Mill River. She spent approximately 10 years researching ways to fund such an undertaking. NRCS agreed to help with a Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program (WHIP) grant. Once the funding was lined up, the town had to give its approval. In June 2004, islanders voted to raise $30,000 toward the project. Construction began in October 2004.
There appear to be two ways to solve the flooding problem. Damming up a portion of the culvert, for example, would still allow the pond to flush and small marine life to come and go, yet would restrict the water flow and consequently the height of the water within the pond.
Del Webster, one of the landowners affected by the flooding, is in favor of this option. Along with a friend, he designed a V-notch dam based on water flow testing they did at the culvert. However, according to Webster, NRCS did not approve of this solution, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to revoke the funding if the culvert was even partially dammed. The other option is to build up the road, and NRCS has offered to do the job. However, when NRCS asked eight surrounding property owners to sign release easements allowing it to take as much land as necessary, without compensation, to build up the road, Webster said. only one of the eight signed.
“We feel it’s the only leverage we have to protect our land and do the culvert slow-down,” he said.
Davis agrees with Webster that a build-up of the road is not the best solution. “It doesn’t help the individual land owners and it affects the building setbacks because the tide is higher,” he said. He feels this is an example of big government not listening to locals.
“We don’t disagree there has been a large impact on these people,” said Vinalhaven Town Manager Marjorie Stratton. “The Town is liable in one sense. In another sense, the Town and property owners stand together in wanting NRCS to make this right.”
To that end, the Town of Vinalhaven hired Woodlot Alternatives, Inc. to do an independent assessment of the situation and to give advice on how they should proceed. The town received an 18-page report on June 6th.
“I think Woodlot Alternatives did quite a nice job of doing the report,” said Webster. “They brought up a lot of issues with subtlety.” According to Webster, who has read the report, NRCS was supposed to have filed an environmental impact statement, which is part of a federal protocol for environmental projects of this size. Woodlot Alternatives did not see this report. In addition, Woodlot Alternatives points out that there was something wrong with the tidal data NRCS used in designing the culvert.
The report summarizes several possible scenarios and the consequences of each, but according to Stratton, Woodlot Alternatives recommends tearing out the new culvert and building a smaller one.
Once the Town Selectmen have had a chance to read the report they will try to reach a consensus on what they will propose to the townspeople.
Ironically, the Town of Vinalhaven received the 2004 Wetland Restoration Award for the culvert project, given by the Knox-Lincoln Soil and Water Conservation District. “The goal was a good goal,” said Stratton, “but it got out of hand.”