VASSALBORO — The first step in clearing the passage for alewives through Outlet Stream to China Lake is tearing down the historic but dilapidated sawmill at Masse Dam — the latest move to spark outcry from area residents.

Some residents who attended the Alewife Restoration Initiative informational meeting Monday night at the Grange balked at the fact the mill will be torn down, possibly as soon as Wednesday.

Janice Clowes, president of the Vassalboro Historical Society, was dismayed at the decision to remove the more-than-200-year-old sawmill, which is privately owned.

“It’s horrible; it’s horrible,” Clowes told ARI representatives at the meeting. “I feel like the group, your group, came in and kind of did all the behind-the-scenes about how to tear it down.”

The ARI, a group of several organizations, is working on a years-long effort to bring alewives back to China Lake, including clearing the passageway through Outlet Stream. Along with sawmill’s removal, water pipes will have to be relocated before the dam is removed. In all, ARI will remove four dams along Outlet Stream and install two fish passageways at other dams.

The return of alewives is expected to improve the water quality at China Lake, which has experienced significant algae blooms from high phosphorous levels in recent years, and to provide an economic boon to the town once a sustainable run is established and they can be harvested.

Some residents, however, are unhappy with ARI’s plan. Some say lower water levels in Outlet Stream already have turned their backyards, which previously overlooked Mill Pond, into mud pits. Some say they don’t want to lose the history the sawmill represents. Some are skeptical of the way in which the ARI is going about this project.

The sawmill demolition might begin Wednesday. If the contractor isn’t available, then it will be torn down next week, beginning Tuesday, ARI officials said.

Landis Hudson, executive director for Maine Rivers, one of the organizations involved in ARI, said that the group has been in contact with the Vassalboro Historical Society for months and conducted a walk-through of the building a few weeks ago.

Clowes, however, said they hadn’t had enough notice about the Wednesday deadline to remove equipment or historic pieces.

“It’s absolutely under the gun,” she said. “Now, all of a sudden — ‘Oh, how’s tomorrow?'”

The dam’s gristmill, which was built around 1805, will be preserved. One resident, Ray Breton, said that building has tools, water-powered equipment and other interesting historical pieces — more than the sawmill has.

“I own a mill and I won’t take that piece,” he said.

The sawmill has deteriorated over the years and is a safety hazard, officials said. Beneath the sawmill and the dam are water pipes and a water main, owned by the East Vassalboro Water Co.

They said the sawmill is close to collapsing, and if it did, it could break the water pipes and main, causing more than 200 people in the village to be without clean water. The cost of stabilizing the sawmill is too high for anyone to undertake it, and the cost of demolishing the sawmill is too high for the water company.

“The building itself has been deemed basically too far gone to restore,” Hudson said.

The ARI has reached an agreement with Donald Robbins, a descendant of the Masse family, who owns the property as well as the water company. Clowes said Robbins gave a presentation years ago about the possibility of losing the sawmill, but the historical society didn’t “hear the urgency of his concerns.”

However, Robbins said in a phone call Tuesday that it was a “pleasant surprise” when the ARI approached the water company in 2013 about removing the sawmill, as it was a liability for the company.

Because the sawmill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the ARI was required to go through an extensive process of documenting the site, Hudson said. ARI officials went into the sawmill at the time and retrieved equipment and other items for the historical society.

One suggestion was to create a Friends of the Sawmill website or link to the information from the town’s website.

Once the sawmill is removed, the water line can be relocated. The relocation will affect East Vassalboro Water Co. customers along Stanley Hill Road. About four homes will get individual water service for their homes when the water pipes are removed and placed farther underground and out of the water. They are now too close to the surface as water levels have been lowered, so they could freeze when cold weather comes.

The work is scheduled for Sept. 12 through Sept. 30, according to Matt Streeter, ARI’s project manager.

One resident asked how much this part of the project will cost, but Streeter said the organization is not discussing contract pricing publicly.

A number of residents were also concerned about their backyards, which used to overlook Mill Pond and now overlook mud patches, as the water level has been lowered at the dam in anticipation of its removal.

Josh Platt, education and outreach coordinator and a technician for the Kennebec County Soil and Water Conservation District, said revegetation already is starting to happen. Platt said that they aren’t sure yet what water levels are going to look like, but the channel should find its way in time.

In the meantime, ARI will work with residents to provide seeding and consulting services on what they can do to improve the areas in their backyards, although residents would have to pay for anything beyond seeding. Some expressed frustration at the extra costs.

“Anything I do, I have to pay for,” said Janet Babb, who lives on Main Street. “You can come in here and make all this mess, and I have to pay to clean it up?”

Platt, as well as Streeter, repeated that they would provide seeding and consulting services; but any other solutions, such as shrubs or stairs, would be at the homeowner’s expense.

For now, the Masse Dam removal is still on hold as the ARI supplies more information to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which rejected an initial application for a permit-by-rule to remove the dam. ARI officials said they would “cross that bridge when we get to it” when asked what would happen if they couldn’t get a permit from the DEP.

Once the dam is removed and the alewives start to run through to the lake, the town has the possibility of gaining revenue from alewife harvests, Hudson said.

Frank Richards, president of the Webber Pond Association, attended the meeting and said alewife harvesters give towns a third of their revenue, which amounted to about $20,000 for Webber Pond last year.

China Lake is three times that size, he said, so it potentially could get $60,000 each year once the population grows.

Charlie Hartman, a resident who lives next to the sawmill on Route 32, said the town would be giving that money to the China Region Lakes Alliance.

“It’s not going to lower our taxes,” she said.

Hartman also asked if this would improve the quality of China Lake.

“Effectively China Lake is dead,” said Nate Gray, who works for the Department of Marine Resources. “The alewives are a useful tool, though I hate using that term … but they will help water quality in the long-term.”

One of the three ways to get phosphorous out of water, he said, is to let it “swim out” — alewives are the only native migratory species in China Lake, besides eels, the population of which is depleted because of the large number of dams in Maine.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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