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FirstLight rejects study request for Montague footbridge

  • Aerial view of Strathmore Sunday afternoon. 07/05/27 Bird's Eye Views/Franz

    Aerial view of Strathmore Sunday afternoon. 07/05/27 Bird's Eye Views/Franz

  • Aerial view of Strathmore Sunday afternoon. 07/05/27 Bird's Eye Views/Franz

TURNERS FALLS — As Montague town officials have looked to redevelop industrial property along the power canal, one stumbling block has been getting access to a pedestrian bridge and other property controlled by FirstLight Power Resources.

The electrical generation company’s application for a federal license for its nearby hydroelectric projects had been seen as an opportunity to require it to cooperate on a key economic development study for reuse of a neglected stretch of the village once known as “Powertown,” but FirstLight has rejected the town’s formal request as part of the relicensing process.

The proposed “Turners Falls Historic-Industrial District Historic Properties Management Plan” was not among the studies proposed as part of a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process this spring.

The town’s proposal had called for evaluating operation and maintenance of the Turners Falls hydroelectric projects in the town’s “historic-industrial district,” along with evaluating whether the pedestrian bridge can be re-opened or rebuilt.

Montague Town Planner Walter Ramsey wrote the request, as well as another that was also rejected.

“That’s a key access for that mill,” said Montague Town Administrator Frank Abbondanzio, referring to the town-owned vacant former Strathmore paper mill that sits on an island between the Connecticut River and the canal that once powered mills in that area. The foot bridge at issue crosses the canal.

“That bridge has been closed for a number of years, and we’d asked the utility to upgrade it. There was a long-term, 100-year agreement where they were required to maintain that bridge, but they allowed it to lapse and said, ‘We’d just as soon take the bridge out.’ Every time you take somebody through that mill, almost the first question they ask is ‘What about that bridge?’”

In addition to the footbridge, which also carries a sewer line, FirstLight controls the right of way along the canal from Fifth Street northward, as well as the International Paper bridge at the northern end of the island.

“The easements and other issues make it difficult for us to get full control of the area to make improved access to the mill,” said Abbondanzio. “Parking and access were big obstacles to redevelopment of the Strathmore mill in particular.”

There is also other industrial land north of Strathmore, where the Indeck power plant once stood.

FirstLight spokesman Chuck Burnham said Friday that discussion of the footbridge is not off the table, but added that as part of the relicensing process “we just submitted a revised study plan to FERC, and within that is a study that looks at historical properties ... the footbridge is one of those.”

He also said that “outside of the relicensing” FirstLight would be “happy to talk to Montague, to come to a mutually beneficial resolution of (the) issue.”

Montague’s formal request had noted there were five mill sites and their bridges over the 1867 canal, which was expanded a century ago, and they are included in the Turners Falls Historic District.

“The mills are in various states of blight or under-utilization,” the request says. “The mill sites are zoned for adaptive reuse and it is a community goal to revitalize this area in a manner that protects the historic structures. Numerous reports cite physical access as the critical barrier to the redevelopment of this area and protection of the historic resources.

“FirstLight plays a crucial role in controlling access to the mill sites as the owner of the property on both the river and canal side of the mills and being the owner of a portion of the private canal access road and two historic access bridges to the sites.”

According to the town’s request, the estimated cost in 2011 to rehabilitate the footbridge following “decades of deferred maintenance” was $745,000 ... or $848,000 to construct a new bridge.

With more than $700,000 in public money invested in revitalizing the area, the lack of legal and physical access over the canal “has repeatedly thwarted the possibility for redevelopment” of what has been designated by the state as a priority development site.

“They’re just really a critical player in the redevelopment of that area and have a controlling interest out there,” Ramsey said. “So a lot of what FirstLight policies are will affect redevelopment of those areas.”

The irony is that the power canal, built to provide power for the mills and now controlled by a utility that had been a key driver for the town’s economic development, is primarily powering its hydroelectric plants, said Ramsey.

“The properties of the historic-industrial mill district are federally designated historic properties that once thrived because of their relation with the river and canal,” added Ramsey.

“Today the canal and its outdated bridges, underground drainage infrastructure, and murky water rights pose significant barriers to reuse and redevelopment of the area — which happens to be (a) priority of this community. The destiny of the historic mill district area is intimately tied to the operation of the canal system.”

Beyond the obvious economic development value to the region, he added, “If you can’t have access (to) these areas and can’t redevelop them, they’re just destined to decay. That’s a loss of a historic resource. We’d just like to see if FirstLight can work with us to restore those areas if possible.”

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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