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Updated: Durham will vote on Mill Pond Dam removal after successful petition

Supporters of a petition to reverse Durham's vote to remove the Mill Pond dam hold up signatures near the dam
Andrea Bodo
Supporters of a petition to reverse Durham's vote to remove the Mill Pond dam hold up signatures near the dam

Durham will take a vote on the future of the Mill Pond dam, after a petition to reverse the town council’s decision to remove the dam was certified Monday afternoon.

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A group supporting the preservation of the historic dam delivered the petition to the town council last week.

The council voted to remove the dam last month, after more than a decade of debate. The dam is damaged and must either be repaired or removed.

Indigenous leaders and some environmental advocacy groups celebrated the decision to remove the dam, saying that removal could restore the health of the waterway it’s impacting.

Now, the petition to reverse the vote has 1,001 signatures, 805 of which were certified by the town clerk to be registered Durham voters. The petition needed 750 certified signatures to move forward.

Andrea Bodo, a former member of the Durham Historic District Commission involved in the petition effort, says it’s important to bring the issue to a vote because many community members didn’t agree with the town council’s decision.

“There’s a lot of passion. This is a historically very significant dam, the Mill Pond is a great source of recreation,” Bodo said. “People feel that this movement of taking all the dams down should not apply to Durham.”

The dam is one of the few Ambursen-style dams in New Hampshire.

Bodo also said some community members did not agree with the assessment that the removal of the dam will help resolve the impaired water quality in the Mill Pond and in the Great Bay estuary.

Scot Calitri, a community member who supports the removal of the dam, says he’s concerned the petition is a way to put the decision on people who are less informed than the town council, which has spent years going through research on the dam.

Calitri is part of the Oyster River Conservation Alliance and says that supporters of removal are hoping to support the town’s sustainability efforts.

“We’re looking out for protecting the town from climate change, and we’re trying to look out for the environment and the safety of our pets and our families,” he said.

Todd Selig, Durham’s town manager, said that he’s focused on the decision-making process. He says the town council went through a careful procedure, reviewing detailed scientific and engineering studies prior to voting for dam removal and river restoration, he said. Now, the citizens who feel strongly about the issue are making their voices heard.

“I think both the council and the citizens are doing their jobs,” Selig said.

The council is required to schedule a special referendum election within 30 to 90 days. Town votes are generally held at the Oyster River High School, but logistics are challenging for the coming months given COVID-19 and the holidays, said Selig.

The town is working with their attorney to explore options to hold the vote in March instead, making it less expensive and more accessible to community members, he said. The petition’s leader supports the vote being held in March, according to Selig.

The petition is the first successful referendum petition in Durham since the town charter was adopted in 1987.

Corrected: October 19, 2021 at 12:38 PM EDT
Editor's Note: This story has been edited to correctly identify Andrea Bodo as a former member of the historic district commission. An earlier version identified her as a current member of the commission.
Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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