Would Regulatory Regime Let Nestle Back Into Wells?

By Steve Bodnar, Seacoast Online, June 25, 2009

WELLS – Assurance that residents would have protection in case of large-scale water extraction was a major discussion point during a June 24 Ordinance Review Committee meeting.

Members of the committee, Board of Selectmen and Planning Board during the meeting all shared concern about maintaining that security through a newly drafted, regulatory-based ordinance that would establish guidelines on how water withdrawal can be governed and to what degree.

“If I’m without water, I don’t want to wait three months for a recharge so the water can come back,” said selectman Karl Ekstedt of a hypothetical water-loss scenario caused by large-scale extraction.

The ordinance in question is in part prompted by a continuous debate over water rights and regulation in the area. Last year, controversy sparked after the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District considered an agreement with Nestle Waters North America/Poland Spring to allow water withdrawal in the Branch Brook Aquifer. The deal was tabled indefinitely and has since been voted entirely out of the question by the district’s trustees.

During the Wednesday night ORC meeting, Ekstedt said he felt that, upon reviewing the regulatory-based ordinance, there should be continued consideration on how the town would deal with protecting the rights of residents. Selectman Chris Chase was also vocal about resident protections.

One such protective measure, said Town Planner Mike Huston, would have the town set standards of monitoring that would be “sufficiently higher” than needed, to insure extraction could be hampered before it became detrimental to a resident. Implementing fines in the range of tens of thousands of dollars could be a possible deterrent for violating the ordinance, said Chase.

The ordinance, as presented, was understood to be a draft that the Board of Selectmen and Planning Board will review and bring forward for public input. Selectman Richard Clark said workshops and public hearings on the ordinance should be scheduled immediately, especially since water rights and water extraction issues continue to elicit concern from members of the public.

This spring, when the Ordinance Review Committee moved forward with drafting a regulatory-based ordinance, an alternative plan called a rights-based ordinance that would eliminate the rights of corporations to extract water was presented to the town. The rights-based ordinance was brought forth by a citizen’s petition, which was voted down by the Board of Selectmen in April. A second citizen’s petition brought the rights-based ordinance back before voters in a May 16 special Town Meeting. With about 650 in attendance, the ordinance was rejected by voters.

Crafting the regulatory-based ordinance, said ORC Chairman Bill Gosbee, was a “very long struggle” that ran into many difficulties, but was also a collaborative effort. Selectmen did offer praise for the efforts put forth by the committee. Five people addressed concerns about the ordinance at the beginning of the meeting. Comments pertained to both the regulatory-ordinance and the rights-based ordinance, as well as large-scale extraction issues in general. “People are very emotional about the issue,” Gosbee said. “You are going to get a lot of input on it. The public is very concerned about their ground water. I think we all are.”

While the base content of the ordinance was drafted from an ordinance written in the town of Denmark, Town Attorney Leah Rachin and the ORC developed much of the language, said committee member Bob Lavoie. Some opponents of the regulatory-ordinance have said they believed Poland Spring helped develop the ordinance in Denmark. Mark Dubois, a natural resource manager for Poland Spring, said the accusations are not true. He said Poland Spring representatives did, however, “comment on the draft of the ordinance.”