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3 Towns And A Property Owner Coordinate Lake Fairlee Dam Replacement

Amy Kolb Noyes
This new dam on Lake Fairlee is a cooperative project of the towns of Fairlee, Thetford and West Fairlee. The owner of the camp in the background deeded the old failing dam over to the three towns to rebuild and maintain.

Contractors are in the midst of a dam replacement project on Lake Fairlee. The project should be finished in a matter of weeks, but it’s taken a long time to get to this point. Until recently, the dam at the west end of Lake Fairlee was privately-owned. The dam itself was capped with a walkway, providing private access to a family camp perched at the far end. Local bobbin mill owner Walter Malmquist built the camp sometime in the 1940s for his family, alongside the dam he made with the help of his millworkers, according to his grandson, Bryan Gregory.

"He made this dam because he needed the support of the water for the water wheel that ran the mill at that time," Gregory explains.

The dam also created a swimming cove. And Gregory says his grandfather built the camp so his children could swim there.

"My grandfather built that place because the kids had polio," Gregory says. "And when they lived in Barre they built this dam and this camp over there because back in those days, swimming was a good thing for people with polio."

But that was more than 70 years ago, according to Gregory’s recollection. Since then, camps have gone up around the lake, and in recent years the old stone and concrete dam began to fail.

"The dam needed to be fixed," says Gregory. "It was poured by the crew at the mill, at the time. It was poured on top of a stone wall, and it developed a crack over the years. And everybody around the lake was panicking."

Credit Delsie Hoyt
This April 2015 photo shows leaks in the old Lake Fairlee dam.

Homeowners around the lake were concerned the water level would drop, leaving behind mud flats where there are now beaches, docks and floats. Officials in the towns of Fairlee, West Fairlee and Thetford, where the lake is located, worried about what that would do to the tax base.

Gregory, who inherited the camp, worried about the price tag for fixing the dam. So he deeded it over to a tri-town commission created by the three towns to take on the project.  

"It was a privately-owned dam that I had signed over to the three towns to upgrade it, because it was like an $800,000 project," he says.

A little over a year ago, voters in all three towns voted overwhelmingly in favor of taking on the dam replacement project. Brian Hanson is Fairlee’s Town Administrator and the project manager for the dam reconstruction.

Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Fairlee Town Administrator Brian Hanson is overseeing the dam replacement project for the tri-town commission.

He explains, "All three towns had to go through a bond vote, which they did, and work together to get this project to where it is now and to see it done."

That was in May of last year. But, as Hanson explains, work didn’t get underway until more than a year later.

"The vote passed all three towns, which is amazing in itself." - Project Manager Brian Hanson

"The vote passed all three towns, which is amazing in itself," Hanson says. "And work was supposed to start May or June of last year and because of some hiccups with the contractor, it didn’t. And the tri-town commission felt better in putting it off and putting it out to bid again."

Hanson says construction started up this spring and is now about 80 percent complete. A temporary dam was put in place to keep the water level up for the season on the rest of the lake. Then work got underway on the failing dam.

Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
A temporary dam under this bridge holds lake water back from the construction area.

"So the camp was raised, supports were put under it so it could be moved. It was moved to the south so work could be done on the north end of the dam," Hanson explains. "The dam had to be demolished, the old dam. The steel had to be put in, the supporting steel, then the process of pouring the footings and pouring the dam itself was done."

But camp owner Bryan Gregory is not entirely pleased with the project. He says he’s perplexed by state regulations that require his camp to be raised on steel I-beams and relocated several feet above the water, rather than resting on the dam. Safety regulations also prevent direct access from the camp to his special swimming cove.

Credit Skip Brown
This is what the Malmquist family camp looked like prior to the dam reconstruction. Owner Bryan Gregory says the boathouse shown here will now be several feet above the waterline.

Gregory says that while he doesn’t own the dam any longer, he didn’t expect letting the three towns rebuild and maintain the dam would force so many changes to his camp and property.

"So they wanted to maintain it and I was willing to do that but I just wanted my camp put back the way it was," says Gregory. "And now it’s five feet up in the air, off the water. And having no access to my swimming, it’s like barbaric. Barbaric."

Gregory says he’ll just have to wait a few more weeks to see if the engineers and workers on the project address his concerns.

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