Select Board Approves Ecological Study Of Herring River

by William F. Galvin
The select board has approved the use of wetlands revolving funds for a study of wetland dependent structures on wetlands on the Herring River. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO The select board has approved the use of wetlands revolving funds for a study of wetland dependent structures on wetlands on the Herring River. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH – A study assessing the environmental impacts of water-dependent structures such as docks, seawalls and boardwalks on wetlands in the Herring River will likely be getting underway in the near future. The conservation commission has received the approval of the select board to use $72,640 in wetlands revolving funds for the ecological study.

The commission has been working for several years on developing amendments to the town’s water dependent structures bylaw and wetland protection bylaw to better protect tidal wetland and small wetland resources. In 2022, the commission sought to impose a moratorium on new structures in the Herring River, but the selectmen pulled the language from the town meeting warrant citing the absence of public participation in the proposal. The consensus was that a study should be conducted before the regulations are changed.

Conservation Administrator Amy Usowski said that commission member Brad Chase, the diadromous fisheries project leader with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, and representatives from the Cape Cod Commission and the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension developed a first-of-its-kind proposal for the study.

“Usually studies like this look at impacts to the salt marsh but don’t look at impacts to shellfish and other parameters we’re proposing to do,” Usowski told the select board Nov. 27.

The funds, according Usowski, are coming from the commission’s wetland revolving account sanctioned by the selectmen and approved by town meeting in 2016. The funds are generated through notice of intent application fees, which goes to both the state and town. Under state statutes, she said, the fees are to be used in upholding the state Wetlands Protection Act. The language in the law also allows for independent studies, she added.

However, provisions allow no more than $6,000 in expenditures annually, she said. The revolving fund contains $85,700; an exception in the spending criteria required approval from the select board and the finance committee. Usowski said she would be going to the finance committee within a couple of weeks seeking approval for $72,640 to conduct the study.

TRC Environmental Corporation of East Providence, R.I. was selected by the commission to conduct the study. Usowski said the study will provide the opportunity to understand the health of the marine portion of the Herring River. Literature will be examined and more than 38 study sites will be created working with homeowners along the river.

Select board member Jeffrey Handler noted that there were modest dock regulation changes approved in 2022. Deck board spacing was changed to allow for more light, and deck heights were adjusted to one-and-a-half times the width of the dock. These were small changes complying with what the state now requires, Usowski said.

The study will take a holistic approach, looking at docks, walkways and open areas of the marsh, she said.

Handler said there are 145 over-water structures on the river. He wanted to know how many new docks have been built since 2022. Usowski said there were two, and there is an application for a joint ownership dock now before the commission.

“Is it the board’s conclusion that over-water structures are actually harmful to the saltmarsh?” Handler asked.

“That’s what the study is trying to determine,” responded Usowski.

Chase said the study will look at impacts on a case-by-case basis. Impacts can be related to the availability of sun and how high a structure is above the marsh. The study will show where the impacts occur and don’t occur, he said.

Select board member Michael MacAskill said it was his understanding that there is space for only five more docks to be constructed along the river. That is a rough estimate, Usowski said. MacAskill wanted to know what rights deck owners will have relative to reconstruction of docks, or whether it will require taking them down.

“It certainly wouldn’t be taking them down,” replied Usowski. She said a licensed permanent dock would have to come as close as possible to meeting the requirements when rebuilt.

MacAskill’s motion allowing a one-time increase in the expenditure limit for use of the funds for the study was approved.