August 25, 2017

The Highland Lake Association discusses moratorium with Windham Town Council By Lorraine Glowczak

The Windham council chamber room was standing room only; and an over flow room was opened with extra seating to accommodate the many Highland Lake (HL) watershed residents attending the Town Council meeting on Tuesday, August 22. They were present to discuss the need for a moratorium on high density development in the HL water shed due to water quality issues at the lake.  
Rosie Hartzler and Dennis Brown

The discussion began with Town Manager, Tony Plante, providing a synopsis to the Council regarding the history of HL. He explained that because of decreasing water quality in HL in the ‘80s and ‘90s, an EPA funded watershed survey was conducted in 1997, to identify sources of non-point source pollution unfiltered runoff, emitting phosphorus into the lake.    

HL was placed on the DEP list of “lakes most at risk for over development.”  Following extensive mitigation efforts to reduce phosphorus, the lake water quality improved. 

However, in 2014, water quality monitors noted a sudden drop in water clarity during July and August of that year. This pattern repeated during the 2015 and 2016 seasons and it was determined that the drop in water clarity was caused by picocyanobacteria (PCB) – a microscopic bacteria proliferating in the lake, most likely caused in part because of a high level of nutrients (namely phosphorus and nitrogen) in the lake.

Highland Lake Association (HLA) President, Rosie Hartzler spoke to the Windham Town Council. “We are here tonight to request a one year moratorium on high-density development,” Hartzler said. “This will give the town the opportunity to revisit ordinances and zoning regulations in order to consider how those ordinances may need to be adjusted, in order to protect resources like Highland Lake.” 

“PCB is a new and unknown microscopic bacterium that baffles even the scientist,” Hartzler added. “We need time to figure this out.”

Hartzler explained that according to Professor Karen Wilson, Environmental Science Professor from the University of Southern Maine, the PCB outbreak may be indicative of things to come. At this point, the picocyanobacteria bloom is considered non-toxic but is a short step away from becoming toxic and a health threat to the lake. “We are at a tipping point,” stated Hartzler.

Dennis Brown, Treasurer of the HLA and Committee Chair, expressed concerns related to the two high density development projects that are being considered in the HL water shed:  Highland Views Manufactured Housing Park & Mixed Use Development and Babbidge Farms Subdivision.

 “Both projects contain and are near major wetlands,” Brown began. “One project has the potential to distribute 30 percent of the unmitigated phosphorus from the development into Macintosh Brook, the main feeder brook into Highland Lake.”

Brown also expressed apprehension about the potential impact of any additional development in the watershed; as this would create a situation that would be very difficult to mitigate for the potential addition of excess phosphorus and nutrients into HL.

He suggested that, if a moratorium is in place, it might give the time needed to protect and discover what has been missed. He also stated that, what may be learned in this process might possibly be a model to other lakes, particularly in the Windham area, noting that HL is not the only lake in Windham exhibiting signs of stress.

Robyn Saunders, Program Director of the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation, was present and spoke about the need for towns to consider the potential impact of development on natural resources.   

“Development and land use ordinances have not caught up with science yet,” said Saunders.   “Consultants are only required to look at present regulations and permits and do not consider the present environmental impact.”

Town Legal Counsel, Kristin Collins added that a moratorium can be established, but a clear analysis of why it is needed is necessary in order for it to be put in place. She suggested putting a proposal on the table with extensive research and thought as to why a moratorium is needed, with clear objectives set in place.

After discussions, concerns and questions were expressed by the Council; a poll of the Council members was taken and all agreed to investigate a moratorium. 

No community member in the audience spoke out against the moratorium or presented an alternative viewpoint.

As Plante stated, “This will not be the last conversation on this issue, there will be many more to come.”

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