Plans to remove the Mill Pond dam along the Oyster River in Durham were thrown into question Tuesday after a citizens group filed a petition to block the town council from tearing down the aging stone structure.
“Pro or con dam removal, a lot of people really just wanted the voters to decide,” said Jeffrey Hiller, who led the petition drive.
Hiller delivered a petition with 1,001 signatures to town clerk Lorrie Pitt. The town code says if 750 of those signatures are certified as Durham registered voters, the question of keeping or removing the dam would be put to a referendum in a special election.
“I cannot say I am thrilled about it, but that is their right,” town council President Katherine “Kitty” Marple said this week.
On Sept. 13, the town council voted 7-2 to follow the recommendations of a group of scientists and consultants who said the 140-foot long stone dam, built in 1913 to replace a Colonial-era timber dam, creates a barrier that blocks migratory fish passage.
At that meeting, Marple said, “I can only hope that allowing the Oyster River to be more wild will allow for fish and animals who feed on them to flourish.”
One of the scientists who recommended removing the dam, Melissa Paly of the Conservation Law Foundation, said the dam hurts water quality.
“The weight of evidence makes clear that removal of the Mill Pond Dam will result in a significantly better environmental outcome for the estuary and Oyster River system than repairing it,” she said.
The letter recommending the action was signed by Paly and two conservation scientists from The Nature Conservancy and Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership.
Kevin Lucey, a habitat expert with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, said water quality data show the pond has low levels of dissolved oxygen and pH, which he said is insufficient to support healthy aquatic life.
“Additionally, the water body shows impairments for chlorophyll-a and bacteria, meaning that the pond is potentially unsafe for swimming and wading activities,” he said Wednesday.
Residents have been skeptical of scientists’ claims, saying any deterioration in the health of the Mill Pond is a result of runoff from nearby fields.
“For many, we would say the dam is not the problem,” said petition organizer Hiller. “We need to be focusing on correcting the reason for the impaired water. The dam is acting as a retention pond for the town and UNH, and it’s the messenger telling us we have a problem.”
Several residents, some who live near the pond, said removing the dam would effectively shrink the width of the pond, greatly limiting recreational activities such as kayaking or ice skating. They also claim it will destroy the historic and cultural history of the Mill Pond area, located just south of downtown on Newmarket Road (Route 108).
The preservation argument received a boost in September from the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources. Nadine Miller, deputy state historic preservation officer, wrote a technical review of the stone Mill Pond dam that supported preserving the structure.
“The removal of the Oyster River dam will destroy this historic property and forever change the historic district setting,” Miller said. “Avoidance is the best option under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, and we urge the town to choose this alternative during coming deliberations.”
“It’s a very complicated issue,” said councilor Carden Welsh, who ultimately voted with the majority of the council. Welsh summarized the issues as “aesthetics, recreation, history, environment, cost and town culture.” On balance, he thinks the dam should go.
Councilor Wayne Burton, who sits on the Durham Historic District Commission, said he had acquired an emotional attachment to the dam after years of commuting home to Durham and seeing the water flowing over the edge.
“I cannot vote against an old friend,” Burton said, “and that’s what that dam has been to me and my family for years.”
The first dam was built on the Oyster River in 1649 to support water-powered mills that sprang up in the colonial settlements.