The Lake Fairlee dam

The Lake Fairlee dam

Municipal budget season is just around the corner. Every year, some expenses are fixed – line items that cannot be adjusted by the Selectboard or voters. Some of those costs, such as health insurance rates, are set by third parties, while some represent commitments made in years past. The Lake Fairlee dam is an example of the latter.

The construction of a dam on Lake Fairlee was first authorized by the Vermont legislature over two centuries ago in 1797 "in order to supply with water several mills standing on the stream which empties out of said lake....” According to the Lake Fairlee Association (LFA) website, Eldad Post built the first dam shortly thereafter.

The lake level was raised again in 1831 and again in 1904 or 1905. While the lake existed before the first dam was ever constructed, it was only about 80% of its present volume.

The lake itself is owned by the state, but the dam has always been privately owned. In 1939, when the dam needed repairs, LFA funded the work with the consent and under the direction of the then dam owner Walter A. Malmquist. Two years later in 1941, Malmquist asserted that he had the right to control lake levels and offered to sell said rights to LFA for $20,000. The offer was declined.

Malmquist then opened the gate in the dam for two months, and “large areas of mud banks were exposed, a mephitic odor was generated by the decaying aquatic vegetation, and the littoral owners were impeded in their access to the lake from their cottages and boat houses.” The State sued for an injunction, which the Vermont Supreme Court ultimately granted in 1944.

In 2010, the LFA described a policy of "benign neglect" by the dam owner and documented free-flowing water pouring through fractures in the dam. The Town of Thetford called for an inspection.

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In 2012, the Towns of Thetford, Fairlee, and West Fairlee formed the Tri-Town Committee to respond to the deteriorating condition of the dam. By 2014, preliminary engineering designs had been completed and plans for its reconstruction had been drawn. In 2014, an argument for public funding of the dam reconstruction was made at a Tri-Town Committee meeting:

If the dam fails, the value of lakeshore properties will drop, as will the property tax income of the towns from those properties. This decrease in tax revenue will have to be made up by increasing the tax rate of all the properties in the towns... it will be less expensive for the towns, and for their taxpayers, to fix the dam now before it fails than allowing it to fail and then suffering the [property value] shortfall.

It was proposed that the towns enter into an inter-local agreement by which they would agree to cooperate in the rebuilding and care of the dam. This agreement would include the creation of a Tri-Town Commission and an appointive municipal board. Articles to this effect were voted on at Town Meeting in each Town in 2015 and passed, supported by 76% of the voters in Fairlee, by 78% in Thetford, and by 85% in West Fairlee.

After a year's delay, the Commission found a contractor and work on the dam's reconstruction began in 2016.

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Thetford receives $500 from the Tri-Town Commission (Page 63 of your 2020 Thetford Town Report) for providing a facility manager for the reconstructed dam. In 2020, it was realized that no such manager had been appointed, and, in fact, the Interlocal Agreement that established the Commission in the first place had numerous unfilled blanks that raised legal concerns with various officials. All of this was coming to light following the identification of a sink hole near the side of the dam, which some thought could be an indication of a larger issue.

This picture is downstream of the dam:

Photo credit: Li Shen

And upstream. You can see that a fieldstone foundation acts as a retaining wall, and the cement pier above has been supplemented by a brick to level the building atop the dam after some subsidence of the pier.

The Tri-Town Commission, which did not meet in 2019 due to the lack of a quorum, asked the original engineering firm to evaluate the dam's condition in November of 2020. A report on the new dam's condition has yet to be generated. The selection of a facility manager and the resolution of the blanks in the Interlocal Agreement are still outstanding as well. The sinkhole was filled with gravel as a temporary fix, and informal monitoring of the dam continues.

On Page 73 of your Thetford Town Report, you will see two line items that support the Lake Fairlee Dam, one annual allocation for $2,222 which supports administrative oversight of the dam and the bond that paid for its construction, handled by the Town of Fairlee, and one for $26,400, which is Thetford's portion of the Commission's annual bond payment.

In recent meetings, the Commission has noted a lack of long-term capital planning on its part, and, in addition to the annual allocation and bond payment, may be asking voters in each Town for new spending in 2022 to establish such a capital fund.  It will be something to watch for at Town Meeting next March.