2018-08-02 / Front Page

The Waters on Saco Island

Project stalls with river commission
By Abigail Worthing Staff Writer

Stephen Bushey, project leader for the $40 million The Waters project on Saco Island East and senior project manager of Santec in Scarborough, details plans for the buildings during a site walk with the Saco River Corridor Commission on July 25. (Courtesy photo) Stephen Bushey, project leader for the $40 million The Waters project on Saco Island East and senior project manager of Santec in Scarborough, details plans for the buildings during a site walk with the Saco River Corridor Commission on July 25. (Courtesy photo) SACO – The Saco River Corridor Commission has decided to table approval of The Waters, a $40 million development on the east side of Saco Island, until next month’s Aug. 22 meeting.

This was the project’s second appearance in front of the commission and it cannot move forward until it gains approval from the 20-member board that includes members from every municipality that borders the Saco River. Members are appointed by city officials and charged with protecting the shores of the river.

The Waters is proposed to include 92 condominiums, a retail space, hotel, restaurant and two marinas. According to a press release from project spokesman Mark Robinson, commission members at meeting held July 25 said there were a few reasons for the delayed approval, but only directly cited that the developer had not submitted structural plans for the hotel.

The Saco River Corridor Commission did not respond prior to the Courier deadline.

The meeting was held in Dayton following a 90-minute site walk of the 5.8-acre property the night before. In anticipation of the walk, The Waters team laid out the plans onto the grounds in attempt to demonstrate the project to commission members.

“Our team really did a great job preparing for the site walk. We staked out the buildings, floated out buoys to show where the docks would end, and even used balloons to show the height of each building,” said developer Bernie Saulnier of Saulnier Development during a July 30 interview. “We really wanted to give the best impression of the land.”

The site walk was attended by members of the public as well, but were not permitted to ask questions or participate in proceedings.

One such person was Rick LaRiviere, president of the Saco Salmon Restoration Alliance. On July 25, LaRiviere sent an email to Executive Director of the Commission, Dalyn Houser, requesting that his comments be entered into the record regarding the project. In his email, LaRiviere says the presence of salmon is misrepresented in the studies provided to the commission, and that the point of contact with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, Denis-Marc Nault, is the incorrect person to be answering questions regarding salmon, as he is a part of the Division of Shellfish Management.

“These studies say there were only two salmon present in the river, but it is the beginning of the season,” said LaRiviere in a separate interview. “Salmon will migrate here until November.”

LaRiviere also said trap data, where the fish are counted as they pass the damn, is skewed, as salmon are finding a way around the head-of-tide fish lift. For example, in 2014, zero salmon were reported in fish-traps at Cataract Dam, however three adult salmon were collected at Skelton Dam, which is located 10 miles above Cataract Dam.

“The data is incorrect. We’ve found several Atlantic Salmon spawning redds in Swan Pond Creek,” LaRiviere said. “This is already an endangered species, we need to continue protecting it. The documents sight a possibility of sturgeon presence, but UNE students have proved their existence and received a grant to study them. To say it’s only a possibility is misleading.”

In response to LaRiviere’s comments, Robinson provided a letter from John Perry, environmental review coordinator for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, in which he states, “Our department has not mapped any Essential Habitats or inland fishery habitats that would be directly affected by your project.”

“Saulnier Development has already invested about $300,000 in soft costs, presenting this plan to the community, and to local and state regulatory agencies,” wrote Robinson in his emailed response. “The analysis of the island and its history has been meticulous and scientific, and we’re relying on the expertise of state regulatory agencies to direct the project wisely and prudently. That’s what they’ve been doing and any citizen is always welcome to participate fully and contribute to the process by submitting information to the regulatory agencies.”

LaRiviere said he has no problem with the development, so long as it’s done responsibly.

“I’d like to avoid us going head to head,” LaRiviere said. “If they want answers and accurate information, just ask us.”

“This particular developer is a collaborator. If Mr. LaRiviere has more substantive data than what he’s released so far, he deserves the courtesy of a meeting and Bernie would be happy to welcome him,” wrote Robinson.

Prior to the meeting, one resident sent along his blessings and support of the project to the commission. Former Saco mayor and former member of the Saco River Corridor Commission Mark Johnston issued a press release detailing how he felt the project would affect the community and that he supports the development as an economical decision for the community. Johnston has served seven terms as mayor of Saco, including in 2007 when a similar project was proposed and approved by the commission.

“I have seen so many projects with different developers come through for this property. This project is essentially the same as the one approved in 2007,” said Johnston in a July 30 interview. “This is economically a good decision, we need a tax base for this parcel.”

Johnston also said that as a lifelong resident of Saco, he has a unique and intimate understanding of the property.

“I’ve been walking that property since I was 10-years-old. I probably know it better than the developers,” Johnston added.

As for the decision to table the vote, Johnston said he was disappointed.

“I’ve seen the commission approve a lot of other projects. When I was on the board, I don’t remember ever asking about the architectural side, we just looked at the affects on the river,” Johnston said. “Granted no one on the board probably even knows who I am now, but I was surprised no one responded to my press release.”

For Saulnier, he was unsurprised by the decision to table the project. However, it was the need for more information about the hotel that “caught them off guard.”

“This is a huge project. It’s a lot to consider,” Saulnier said.

Project officials have been in talks with Jim Brady of the Press Hotel in Portland as the potential developer for the hotel, and just last week signed notarized papers finalizing the partnership between the two developers, which will allow the hotel portion to move forward.

The Waters will come before the planning board Wednesday, Aug. 8, a step forward that Saulnier has long anticipated. Saulnier hopes to finalize plans in fall so that the project may break ground in spring 2019. He has his eye on mid-2020 for completion of the project.

“It feels like we’re finally getting to the 1-yard line, and that’s exciting,” Saulnier said.

Saulnier is also set to purchase Unit 91, which has postponed closing twice, but decided with City Administrator Kevin Sutherland on a firm closing date of Friday, Aug. 10.

“We’re going to meet with the Island Terrace Owners Association. It seems like they’ve had a couple tough years, so I want to get to know them, and know what they’re hoping for and expecting from this to move forward,” Saulnier said. “It’s important that we’re on the same page.”

Contact Staff Writer Abigail Worthing at news@inthecourier.com.

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