Proposal to drop river walk must go before state committee

BERLIN – While the city and Cate Street Capital have reached agreement on dropping the requirement for a river walk on the Berlin Station biomass plant site, final approval rests with the state Energy Facilities Site Evaluation Committee.
Last month, the council agreed to accept a minimum of $650,000, from Cate Street Capital to stipulate the developer has met conditions regarding landscaping, an environmental assessment study, and the river walk. Most of the funding, $500,000, will come from New Market Tax Credits allocated by the project to the city.
In an e-mail, Attorney Michael Iacopino, who serves as legal counsel for the committee, said the original agreement for the river walk was a condition of the certificate of site and facility issued for the 75-megawatt plant. He said Berlin Station must file an amendment with the SEC if it wishes to deviate from the conditions. Iacopino said usually public comment is allowed in such circumstances but said he could not say for sure without seeing the filing.
Alexandra Ritchie, director of government and community relations for Cate Street Capital, said her company intends to wait until near the end of construction to file a motion to amend portions of the certificate, including the river walk. She said that way the company “can capture all relevant issues in one filing and use the committee’s time most efficiently.”
The river walk was first proposed by Laidlaw President Michael Bartoszek, who included a walk spanning the length of the site in his initial sketch of the project.
When the local committee that developed the conditions discussed the issue back in November 2009, Laidlaw Vice President Lou Bravakis said they discovered the N.H. Shoreline Protection Act required a 50-foot vegetative buffer along the river. He said there were also some safety concerns about the walk being located near the plant. At that time, he said their consultant had come up with a conceptual plan for a walking trail with parking on the northwest end of the property, taking in the waterfall there. City Manager Patrick MacQueen expressed concern that the proposed trail did not connect to other trails. He said trails that are not linked tend to get little use.
Other committee members suggested the river walk could cross the river near the Northern Forest Heritage Park on an old footbridge that exists and create a loop going over the 12th St. Bridge and back to the mill site.
In the end, the final agreement included with the certificate required the applicant “to fund the design, development, and construction of a "River Walk" along the east bank of the Androscoggin River.” The city would oversee the design and work in good faith to address any suggestions from Laidlaw. Laidlaw was to bear all construction costs and provide an additional $325,000 to cover any costs incurred by the city. After covering the city’s costs, any money remaining from the $325,000 was to be placed in a maintenance fund for the river walk.
Last month, MacQueen reported city and Cate Street officials had determined there was not enough room for the river walk. City Planner Pamela Laflamme said there is a steep slope between some of the property and the river. There were also safety issues that prevent the walk from being located near the plant.
“There were some real constraints that didn’t lend themselves to a river walk,” she said.
Cate Street also signed a $2.75 million community benefits agreement to allocate New Markets Tax Credits associated with the project. That agreement calls for the city to receive $500,000 “in furtherance of community development activities” to be administered at the sole discretion of the city. MacQueen told the council Cate Street had allocated that money for the river walk.
In exchange for dropping the river walk, Cate Street has agreed to transfer to the city the $500,000 in New Markets Tax Credits money plus at least $150,000 it expects to save in landscaping and fencing costs on the project.