LURC Agrees to Public Meeting on Proposed Poland Spring Project in North New Portland

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 5/14/04

Numerous property owners, Friends of Bigelow and other interested parties had requested that the commission hold a formal public hearing on the Poland Spring project.

In a vote favoring its residential constituency, the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) has agreed to hold a public meeting on the $1.4 million proposed Poland Spring water project in western Maine. The decision followed a barrage of requests to be fully heard from property owners.

It was the first contested issue before the four new LURC appointees, and it provided an opportunity for the reconstituted commission to send a message. The people of the unorganized territory – the 10.5-million acre jurisdiction that LURC regulates – are the agency’s most important "customers", and the commission wanted to show they would stretch to accommodate the public.

The public meeting will be held next week in rural North New Portland. The LURC staff – not the commission -- will then determine whether to approve or reject the Poland Spring application for a commercial spring water pumping facility. A permit could be "conditioned" in order to address the concerns of residents to the impacts of the project. LURC counsel Jeff Pidot forewarned of an appeal to the policymaking commission, regardless of whether the project application is approved or denied.

Numerous property owners, Friends of Bigelow and other interested parties had requested that the commission hold a formal public hearing on the project. However the LURC staff recommended against it. An information meeting had already been hosted by Poland Spring Water on April 26 in North New Portland (at the request of LURC) and was attended by about 100 people. Plus, there had been much discussion between the staff and the public over the details of the proposal. "The staff believes that any information presented at a public hearing would not be of further assistance to the commission in reaching its decision," senior planner Marcia Spencer-Famous advised the commission. She assured the board that the relevant state agencies had reviewed the proposal and saw no problem with it.

But at the commission’s May 12 meeting, Victoria Burbank of Lexington Plantation said the information session last month was "a rushed together thing". There were only three days to prepare, and people "of the unorganized territory . . . didn’t have time to get ourselves together," she said. No representative from DOT was present to answer questions about the increase in traffic that the proposal would bring to the sparsely populated area, as well as other impacts. Rick Mason, a local property owner, characterized the April 26 session as "a dog and pony show."

Another resident raised the possibility of transportation alternatives, such as a water pipeline that could neutralize traffic issues and potential adverse impacts to the Bigelow Preserve. Options could be further discussed at a public meeting, he said. Spencer-Famous responded that alternatives have already been taken into consideration by Poland Spring Water and rejected as too expensive.

LURC Director Catherine Carroll suggested a public meeting and invited public agencies involved to receive citizen comment.
Photo: Phyllis Austin

Mindful of the cost and time needed for a public hearing, the commission decided to go with LURC director Catherine Carroll’s suggestion of a public meeting and invite public agencies involved to receive citizen comment. "It benefits citizens to speak to LURC, to the state," she stated. Consequently, the commission voted 5-1 to uphold the staff recommendation against a public hearing and then agreed on a quick, less costly public meeting. New commissioner Steve Kahl said that his negative vote was solely to reflect his interest in being accessible to LURC’s constituents through the public hearing process.

The site of Poland Spring’s proposed water pumping station is on 455 acres in Pierce Pond Township east of Flagstaff Lake. Sixty-foot deep production wells are already in place. The spring water would be transported to bottling plants in Poland Spring or Hollis. The pumping station would be accessed by truck from the south through the town of North New Portland, Lexington Township and Highland Plantation. Nestle Waters North American, Inc. – the parent of Poland Spring Water Co. – has asked for permission to run up to 40 tanker trucks a day on the Long Falls Dam Road to collect the water.

Opposition to the project is focused not on the withdrawal of groundwater but on the truck traffic increase on Long Falls Dam Road. The 15 miles of road from North New Portland to the pumping station is a twisty artery with a three-mile incline. It is the access route to the east side of the 35,000-acre Bigelow Preserve, the state’s largest ecological reserve that contains part of the Appalachian Trail and is a popular summer recreational area. The current commercial use of the road is mostly by logging trucks. There are an estimated 220 people who live along the road.

Poland Spring attorney Chip Ahrens assured the commission that the company had assurances from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) that the Long Falls Dam Road could handle the proposed increase in truck traffic without posing dangers to the public. "You’re talking about adding less than one truck per half hour," he said, explaining that Poland Spring needed to spread out the delivery of water to the bottling facilities.

The company is willing to do a traffic study to better understand potential impacts and to establish a traffic committee of local people and others to deal with speed limits and appropriate signage, Ahrens said. Poland Spring representative Tom Brennan stressed that the company takes the safety of its tanker fleet seriously and has outfitted the vehicles with GPS system to monitor truckers, their location and vehicle speed.

A number of residents attended the commission meeting, along with the Poland Spring representatives, and were given a chance to comment. Residents raised issues of traffic, human and wildlife collisions, and noise and air pollution from truck emissions –- concerns already presented in letters and emails to LURC to support the need for a public hearing. The commissioners tried to ascertain what new information might come out of that process, indicating they didn’t want to go through an expensive hearing just to rehash matters.

Rebecca Kurtz, also a new commissioner, felt there had been "a bit of a rush" to the April 26 informational meeting. "In my mind, there seem to be unanswered questions," she said. Kurtz indicated that the information from a traffic study would be helpful to consider prior to a decision on the development proposal.

A public hearing would delay a decision on the project for possibly up to two months, and Tom Brennan said it would "in effect, kill [the project] for a season." As a compromise, director Carroll suggested a public meeting.

In a May 5 letter to LURC, first assessor Jo Dunphy of Highland Plantation focused on traffic issues. Her board worried about the "personal safety" of local people, she said. The area’s experience with logging traffic is that "many of these truck drivers have little or no respect for anyone whom they encounter on this road," according to Dunphy. "There are areas where there is not enough room for a car/pickup and one of these big trucks to meet comfortably, to say nothing of two trucks meeting. As has been said, ‘Common sense does not come with a Commercial Drivers License’," she said.

Parts of the road aren’t built to modern standards, and much of the road between North New Portland and the Poland Spring site is not up to snuff, Dunphy said. "The state’s maintenance on the Long Falls Dam Road is and has been substandard for some time, and we do not see that improving with this increase in heavy truck traffic."

Several families live on a section of the road that has about a 2,000 foot drop along three or four miles, Dunphy continued, and there are numerous school bus stops within the area as well. Plus, there is a substantial increase in the summer tourist traffic in the area. "On any given weekend there may be as many as 50-plus campers, motor homes, pickups with trailers and ATVs traveling up the Long Falls Dam Road to places beyond Highland town line," she said. "We feel that the increased heavy truck traffic poses a significant safety question . . . there is already too much traffic for this road."

Most people are not opposed to the project per se but to the proposed tanker traffic 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In other letters, Lexington Plantation resident LuiseVaughan and state Sen. Pamela Hatch (D-Skowhegan) said that the uses of Long Falls Dam Road are changing from logging to tourism. "More deliberation about his application is needed so that all concerned can co-exist in a neighborly fashion, for many years," said Hatch. Commissioner Kurtz commented at the May 12 session that information on that shift "might be helpful" and also suggested obtaining data on wildlife and vehicle accidents.

Rick Mason, whose land is on Long Falls Dam Road, suggested that people are not opposed to the project per se but to the proposed tanker traffic 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People want peace and quiet especially at night and on the weekends, he said. Greg Drummond, who operates Claybrook Mountain Lodge in Highland Plantation, said the project would "change the character of this area, and it will be permanent. Peace and quiet is "the most valuable thing" that his business has to offer, he said.

The public meeting will be on May 19 at 6 p.m. at the Central Elementary School in North New Portland.

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