2018-08-23 / Front Page

Biddeford scolded for letter about The Waters

By Abigail Worthing
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – As the proposed Saco Island project, The Waters, enters the planning board approval process and presents plans for the third time at the Saco River Corridor Commission meeting, a voice of caution and critique has come from the Biddeford Conservation Commission across the river.

In a letter addressed to the Saco River Corridor Commission dated June 21, the commission details its concerns, adding that it is commenting because Biddeford is an abutter within 500 feet of the project. While the Biddeford Conservation Commission voted unanimously during a June 21 meeting to weigh in on the issue, there has been ambiguity as to whether the commission has jurisdiction to raise an opinion without first bringing concerns to the city council.

The Biddeford Conservation Commission letter states that members feel the project is too much development for the undeveloped lot and stresses a need for more vegetated space along the shoreline than is included in current plans. The group also cites concern over storm water drainage and that there is too much room for human error in the plan. The commission suggests a buffer with “full sized trees” to better protect the river from harmful drainage. There is also concern as to the effect the project will have on the view of the Saco River, as none of the buildings will have tree line coverage and will be completely visible from the river.

In the letter were concerns that the project will have a negative affect on wildlife and environments on the shores of the river, specifically the possibility that toxic chemicals from the previous industrial buildings may lie in the soil and will be unearthed during construction. Biddeford Conservation Commission urged the Saco River Corridor Commission to consult with the University of New England as the school has recently done research into the Saco River Watershed.

Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant contends that the commission should have brought concerns to the council first.

According to Tom Craven, chairman of the Biddeford Conservation Commission, the charter states that the job of the commission is to advise the planning board and city council. He feels, however, that the commission was within the scope of the board’s purpose to voice concern because the letter was signed from the Biddeford Conservation Commission, and not on behalf of the city of Biddeford.

Following the submittal of comments, Craven and fellow board member Ken Buechs received emails from Casavant, urging them to keep the council “in the loop” regarding such matters. According to the chain of emails, Buechs had attempted to reach Casavant prior to the sending of the letter, but was unable to make contact. In his email to Buechs, Casavant says that the commission is strictly an advisory board and that there was a process issue in the releasing of comments without the letter first being voted upon by the board and/or council.

“I must be very clear. The commission does not speak for the city of Biddeford in this matter. While it is your right, as a commission, to consider the implications of this development, concerns should be brought to the elected officials, so that they can consider and grasp any and all implications,” Casavant writes in an Aug. 14 email. “At this juncture, though there has been no formal consideration or vote I suspect that the council would endorse The Waters project, which conflicts with your stance.”

He closes the email requesting that all comments and concerns be submitted to the council.

In the email to Craven, Casavant requests more information regarding the letter, specifically whether it was voted on prior to being sent to the Saco River Corridor Commission. Craven said during an Aug. 20 interview that he had since met with Casavant and told him that he was unsure of the chain of events that lead to the sending of the letter and that he would discuss the issue at a conservation commission meeting prior to providing a full response to Casavant. As of deadline, Craven had yet to provide a response to the mayor but planned to do so “very soon.”

“We all had very serious concerns about the project that we had not seen addressed, and we thought the Saco River Corridor Commission was our best way to express those concerns,” Craven said.

During an Aug. 16 meeting, members of the conservation commission remained resolute in the decision to voice concerns. According to June meeting minutes, the seven member commission voted to weigh in on the project. However, whether or not the letter and exact concerns were discussed or voted on is not apparent. At the July meeting, which followed a June 27 Saco River Corridor Commission meeting, members of the commission discussed concerns from the meeting and their intention to attend the July 24 site walk and subsequent July 25 meeting with the Saco River Corridor Commission.

“We were all on board with expressing our concern,” said board member Richard Rhames during the Aug. 16 meeting. “The only reason everyone is worried now about us expressing concerns is because there’s money on the table. If it was about anything else, they wouldn’t care one way or another.”

When approached about the project, Saco Conservation Commission chair Alex MacPhail declined to comment on behalf of the committee, but said that on a personal level, he would like to see public access to the Saco River. MacPhail is an advertising representative for the Courier.

Project spokesman Mark Robinson said while it is appropriate for commission members to submit comments, as Biddeford is an abutter of the project, he is concerned with the accuracy of their statements.

“They said Atlantic salmon is an endangered species, but the federal agency in charge does not list Atlantic salmon as an endangered species. They refer to ‘associated fuel use and marine repairs.’ The project’s boat slips will not host marine repairs, nor will fuel be available on the island. And they refer to ‘our highly valued resource for drinking water,’ as if that’s an issue. Everybody knows that the intake pipe for our drinking water is several miles up river,” Robinson said. “All in all, I think it’s an inaccurate and emotional document, and appears to lobby for a particular outcome. It goes significantly beyond advising city leaders.”

The Waters will appear for the third time before the Saco River Corridor Commission on Wednesday, Aug. 22, and is scheduled to host a site walk with the Saco Planning Board Tuesday, Aug. 21. According to Craven, the commission will continue to follow the project and ensure that the best decision is made for the environment.

“I understand the reservations that this is not a ‘Biddeford problem,’ and that the economic benefits would be good for the downtown,” Craven said. “We just want to make sure that they’re balancing the economic with environmental. It’s a very fragile environment, and a we’d like to see it continue to be a resource for the community.”

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

Return to top