A tight-knit village works to save its beloved Curtis Pond – seven days | Gmx Pharm

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  • Jeb Wallace Brodeur
  • Don and Bev Heise at Curtis Pond Dam

Curtis Pond swarmed with swimmers on an unseasonably hot day last week. Teenagers sunbathe on a public dock in front of a sandy beach, and children splash about. A group of kayakers circled the pond and stopped to admire the resident loon and its chick near a wooded stretch of beach. Aboard his pontoon boat, the Whammy barge, Don Heise waved to a neighbor who was lazily lying on a hose. Residents relaxed in front of houses and summer camps on the coast.

This is the quintessential Vermont scene that prompted Heise and his wife Bev to move to Maple Corner, a village of 200 people in the city of Calais, in 1993. The couple bought a home next to the dam that created the 76-acre Curtis Pond. In summer the Heises fish and swim in the pond. In winter, Don prepares a makeshift ice rink for pond hockey games behind her house. The neighborhood kids skate and play until dark. Don hosted an on-ice festival in March where curling players used cat litter containers as makeshift curling stones.

In good times and bad, Curtis Pond is one of the places that fuels the tiny village’s strong sense of community. When the pandemic struck, Maple Corner residents organized “Dockstock,” a traveling pontoon concert for residents unable to leave their homes by the pond. The organizers were surprised when more than 40 kayakers also came to enjoy the music.

When Don’s younger son, Coby, was diagnosed with stage IV throat and mouth cancer in 2011, Maple Corner residents raised money to pay for his treatment.

But soon the pond could drain. The Curtis Pond Dam, built in 1900 on a tributary of the Pekin Brook, is rapidly deteriorating. Faced with the possibility of the dam collapsing — and with no prospect of government money to fix it — residents of Maple Corner have banded together to raise the dollars to save the popular water feature.

For more than 18 years, government engineers have classified the dam as a “significant hazard.” Don said he’s noticed it has a pronounced tilt — as well as leaks.

In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene dropped so much rain that the pond overflowed the dam. Another major storm could easily result in a catastrophic dam failure and potentially significant property damage, according to state-contracted consulting firm Schnabel Engineering.

And when that day came, the state would likely not grant permission to rebuild the structure. There is little state or federal money to repair dams — and plenty to remove them. If even a large storm like Irene was forecast, the Department of Environmental Conservation would likely drain the pond in advance as a precaution.

Either way, Curtis Pond would be reduced to two small ponds surrounded by tidal flats and wetlands — not exactly what the Heises and the other residents of Maple Corner have long enjoyed.

Of greater concern, however, is the danger posed by the dam. Coby Heise lives downstream with his children. He fears that if the dam breaks, they won’t be able to escape in time.

“The potential for catastrophe stays in the back of our minds,” Coby admitted. “I don’t want to surf on my house down the street.”

Despite the danger, nothing has been done to repair the dam in the 18 years since it was identified as a hazard. No one was eager to claim ownership of the structure, which the state says is in private rather than public hands. And in Vermont, private dam owners are responsible for their maintenance.

In 2003, former Maple Corner residents Jeff Fothergill and his wife, Candace Beardsley, were surprised to learn that they had inherited the dam from Beardsley’s grandfather more than 15 years earlier. Shortly thereafter, the couple filed a legal waiver of property. However, a consulting solicitor hired by the City of Calais argued that the waiver was not filed within the required nine-month window from the date of the inheritance.

“It’s tricky. It’s controversial,” said Jamie Moorby, a sixth-generation resident of Maple Corner. “There are strong feelings. There are hard feelings. And in the end it doesn’t matter.”

That’s because residents have decided that the hefty dam repair bill should be a shared responsibility — not one of a family. They established the Curtis Pond Association’s Dam Exploratory Committee, which is raising an estimated $600,000 in funds. Fothergill and Beardsley support the group’s efforts.

“Finally,” said Moorby, the association’s vice-president, “we got everyone to realize that it doesn’t matter who owns it;

Founded in 2017, the Curtis Pond Association consists of an eight-member board and a makeshift army of neighbors. In 2019, the association established the committee dedicated to repairing the dam.

“Having just three people trying to do something versus a group trying to salvage a resource is very different,” said Marge Sweeney, interim treasurer of the association. As extreme weather events draw national media attention, the committee feels increasing pressure to get the dam repaired — and fast.

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Curtis Pond in Calais - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR

  • Jeb Wallace Brodeur
  • Curtis pond in Calais

The first task was to persuade the Calais Selectboard to take possession of the dam once it was repaired and up to state standards. Moorby said it wasn’t hard to demonstrate that the city would likely lose more money if it didn’t take action. The value of coastal properties would fall by at least 25 percent if the dam bursts, costing the city $86,000 a year in lost property tax revenue, according to Calais zoning administrator John McCullough.

The Dam Exploratory Committee has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Calais Selectboard. Essentially, it outlines a shared commitment to see the project through to completion and ensure that ownership passes to the city once repairs are complete.

The association aims to submit an application for approval to repair the dam in the next few weeks. If granted, members will focus all their energies on fundraising.

Members believe Calais taxpayers would approve a bail to cover remaining costs if they could come up with some of the money needed for the repairs. Moorby said the committee aims to raise between $200,000 and $300,000 in donations and grants.

Maple Corner residents have historically gotten creative when it comes to raising funds for local projects. In 2002, a dozen male residents posed nude with strategically placed chainsaws and juice buckets to raise money for their cherished but run-down community center. The images were the selling point of the Men of Maple Corner calendar, which made headlines nationally and grossed around $500,000. These men decided to earmark some of the excess funds from the calendar for other community projects, including $30,000 toward future dam repairs.

To complement this, the Curtis Pond Association fundraising plan includes a summer concert series; The last concert brought in $3,700 in ticket sales – and an audience of 150 to hear Bob Hannan & the Inflatable Aliens. Don Heise has begun offering donation-based pontoon boat rides, with guests bringing wine and cheese to enhance the experience. Pond supporters have raised $85,000 to date, nearing their first phase goal of $100,000 by the end of the summer.

The stakes are high, but for now, the residents of Maple Corner are trying to combine their dam-saving campaign with fun. In addition to the concert series, the Maple Corner Community Store, which houses a post office, restaurant and the Whammy Bar, hosts weekly Curtis Pond Fan Club Social Hours to raise funds.

Moorby, who grew up playing games in and around Curtis Pond, fears losing the summer hangout would mean losing his way of life.

“People know Maple Corner from all over the state,” Moorby said. “They’re coming to the Whammy Bar. They’re coming to swim in Curtis Pond.”

Losing the pond, she said, would be “just unfathomable.”

Rachel Hellman is a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Learn more at reportforamerica.org.

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