State AG ruling lowers the cost of watershed trusteeship
A consent agreement from the Maine Attorney General’s office that would make the Town of Bethel the trustee of 2,300 acres of Bethel Water District land will no longer require the town to maintain the BWD’s infrastructure near Chapman Brook, selectmen learned Monday.
The town would, however, have to protect the brook’s water quality in the event it is needed as an emergency water supply.
The brook formerly served as Bethel’s primary water supply, until a devastating flood in 2007 prompted the drilling of wells elsewhere.
But the change created a dilemma. In the early 20th century the 2,300-acre watershed, located in Newry, had been given to the BWD by William Bingham.
His 1925 deed stated that if the watershed ceased to be used as a water source, it would be transferred to the state of Maine.
The Bethel Water District last year asked to modify the deed to allow it to retain the land and use it as an emergency water source, as well as harvest wood and establish recreation trails.
But in September the AG’s office instead proposed as part of a consent agreement that the town serve as the trustee, and oversee the use of the land and the emergency water supply.
The AG also initially proposed Bethel maintain the infrastructure necessary to put the brook back into service. The infrastructure is located on land that will continue to be owned by the BWD.
Town Manager Jim Doar told selectmen Monday that the AG has dropped the requirement. Instead, he said, the BWD will maintain the infrastructure as part of a “gentlemen’s agreement.”
Under the legal procedural requirement, the AG will file a complaint in Superior Court in Oxford County as a prelude to the agreement. Doar said that will happen before the end of the year. For Bethel’s part, a Town Meeting vote would be required to approve the agreement.
Doar said selectmen could call a special Town Meeting or sign the agreement subject to future Town Meeting approval.
Selectmen chose the latter option.
BCC SUPPORTS TOWN ROLE
In a memo to the board, Doar also said the Bethel Conservation Commission “discussed the Bingham land at their most recent meeting and agrees that there is a huge benefit to the town. They feel that in addition to being designated an emergency water supply it has the potential of becoming a well-managed town forest, which would allow land for outdoor recreation, opportunities for education about native and invasive plants, and possibilities for economic benefits through eco-tourism.”