Peterborough select board orders completion of dam work

  • Attorney Justin Richardson speaks to the Select Board during a public hearing on Tuesday on behalf of his clients, Margit and Harris Porter. (Ashley Saari / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Ashley Saari—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Henry Taves of Peterborough reads a letter is support of hydroelectric power written by another Peterborough resident, Steve Walker, during Tuesday’s meeting. (Ashley Saari / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Ashley Saari—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • —Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Thursday, November 09, 2017 9:44AM

The select board has ordered that interrupted construction work on the Bell Mill dam be completed.

The Bell Mill dam has been the source of contention between its co-owners, Brenda Berry and Margit and Harris Porter, who live on opposite sides of the dam and disagree about its future as a hydroelectric power project. 

Margit Porter characterized the project as “trying to force [her] into an enterprise with someone against [her] will.”

Berry had reached an agreement with Contoocook Hydro to repair the dam in order to operate a new kind of hydroelectric power generator invented by the company’s president, Lori Barg. As part of the agreement, Barg agreed to repair the current damage to the dam, which includes a washed-off wooden crest and several stone blocks that have broken off the dam and moved downstream. Construction had begun on the dam when the Porters, objecting to the work being done on the dam, issued a trespassing and cease-and-desist order against the company.

Now, that work will resume, after the select board issued a decision Tuesday that the dam must be repaired between now and October of next year.

The select board visited the dam prior to the meeting on Tuesday. Member Ed Juengst said that the need for the dam to be repaired was plain. 

“Obviously it does, in looking at it,” said Juengst.

The board also decided that the onus for paying for the repairs will fall solely on Berry, though they made clear that how she arranges to pay for the work is up to her. Usually, because the dam is co-owned, the cost of repairs would have been shared.

“She was clearly the one that wanted it repaired, and Mrs. Porter did not. We felt it was fair,” said select board member Barbara Miller in an interview Wednesday. “But we as a board cannot tell her how to repair it.”

When contacted Wednesday, attorney Justin Richardson, representing the Porters, said the Porters were not satisfied with the decision.

“The Porters respectfully disagree with the Board of Selectmen’s decision. The Board’s decision means that Contoocook Hydro will operate a commercial generating station on the Porters’ land without their permission. This is a clear violation of the law and the Porters’ property rights that are protected by the law and by the Constitution.”   

Silas Little, the attorney representing Berry, said in an interview Wednesday that Berry, as well as abutters downstream from the dam, were “all very happy with the decision.” 

Several of those residents spoke during Tuesday’s hearing or otherwise gave evidence during the process, voicing concerns that if the dam failed or was deconstructed, it might have adverse effects not only on the aesthetics of their property, but cause practical problems with their foundations due to runoff. 

“I think it was expressed by each of them that the impoundment made by that dam is the reason they were attracted to and purchased their properties,” said Little. “They were all happy with the decision because it means that the dam will be repaired.”

Those repairs are set to start “immediately” said Barg, in order to finish the work while the water level is low and before winter sets in. 

“It’s the right decision,” said Barg of the select board’s order in an interview Wednesday.

And once the dam is repaired, Barg confirmed that she’s set to move ahead with the rest of the hydroelectric project.

“The project has all the proper permits and leased to operate,” said Barg. “We were hoping to do the project this fall, but now that will be the construction. But we expect to be operational by June.”

Richardson alleged that in their filings for permits with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, misrepresented the Porter’s feelings on the project, claiming in filings that the Porters had expressed approval for the project when they had not. 

“This is a nightmare scenario for any property owner,” said Richardson. “An out-of -town business you have never met misrepresents to the federal and state officials that you support a project on your land. The federal government issue a permit and an order to work on your land without notice or your knowledge or consent. The state provides funding to do this without your knowledge or consent. The company damages your property. Your neighbors speak out against you. They bring legal actions against you in the Town Hall. They bring a lawsuit against you in Superior Court. Your local government then steps aside and approves the work to be done.”    

Richardson told the board that operating the hydroelectric project on the dam was a violation of the water rights shared by the Porters and Berry, but the board said it was not in their purview to discuss issues such as ownership or the dam or water rights. Select board chair Tyler Ward asserted that their charge was solely to order whether or not the dam was to be repaired, and the apportionment of the cost of those repairs.