CHATHAM – The fight over the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge's western boundary is headed to Congress.
Rep. William Keating told town officials last week that he would file a bill to limit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's authority to Monomoy's low water line. If approved, the legislation would end a two-year-long dispute over jurisdiction over some 3,000 acres of Nantucket Sound open water and sea bottom west of the island.
Selectman Seth Taylor said Keating gave the assurance to himself and Town Manager Jill Goldsmith when they meet with the Ninth Massachusetts District Congressman in his Washington, D.C. office last Wednesday. Taylor said the legislation will be filed within the next few weeks, before Congress recesses for the summer.
“We all agree this is the best way to proceed,” Taylor said. Both selectmen and state officials see legislation as the most efficacious way to end the dispute over the western boundary of the refuge.
In the comprehensive conservation plan for Monomoy approved earlier this year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency claims jurisdiction over a large area of Nantucket Sound west of the island. While the plan states that existing fisheries activities can continue as before, it states that should an activity be determined to have a negative impact on the refuge, it could be prohibited.
Town and state officials say their centuries-long stewardship over those waters, which in the past have included vast shellfish flats, show that they are in the best position to oversee the resources, and that the plan extends federal jurisdiction beyond what was authorized in the original Declaration of Taking of Monomoy Island by the federal government in 1944.
Lauren Amendolara McDermott, Keating's communications director, said in a statement, “Congressman Keating has been continuously working with the town of Chatham and federal officials on the jurisdictional issues at Monomoy. While there has been much success finding common ground, one issue still remains. As such, there are two concurrent courses of action – litigation and legislation. It is Congressman Keating's hope that legislation will allow for both sides to continue to collaborate on the resolution for the boundary.”
Selectmen have rejected litigation as too expensive and time-consuming for all parties, although they remain open to the possibility should legislation not pan out.
Jeffrey Pike of Pike Associates, a Washington consultant hired by the town, said the bill Keating will file is likely to be close to one he drafted last year; currently it is being reviewed by the state Attorney General's Office. Goldsmith said other minimal refinements for clarification are likely to be made by Keating's staff.
Asked about the bill's chance of passing, Pike, who worked as a Chatham fishermen in the past, said it's not a slam-dunk, although Congress continues to pass non-controversial minor bills, “even though things are more politicized than ever.”
“Rep. Keating will really need to work this, lobby his colleagues and push the bill through the House,” Pike wrote in an email. “Without his personal engagement the bill won't go anywhere.”
The post-election lame-duck session may be a better opportunity to get the bill passed, he added.
The two-page draft of the legislation is brief, stating that the purpose of the bill is to clarify and codify the boundaries of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, “to preserve historic uses of the lands and waters adjacent to the refuge and to foster enhanced resource protection through increased cooperation between the town of Chatham and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” It defines the western boundary as “the area above the mean low water line within the exterior limits of the area of taking as described in the 1944 Declaration of Taking and Judgment dated June 1, 1944.” It also defines the eastern boundary as the administrative boundary agree to and defined in the memorandum of understanding between the Service and the town on June 9, 2015.
A number of officials have backed the town efforts from the Attorney General to Gov. Charlie Baker. Officials in local communities have written letters to the Cape's federal legislators in support of fixing the western boundary, most recently the Association to Preserve Cape Cod. That group highlights the need for a balanced approach to managing the refuge which “should respect our historic legacy and ever-changing coastline.”
Goldsmith said Keating's comfort in getting behind the legislation and avoid litigation was the result of the “town wide and universal local support” as well as bipartisan and nonpartisan outreach efforts.
“I also believe the governor will support our efforts based on my informal communications with the administration,” she wrote in an email. “I also heard from the AG's office last night and they will send a letter of support for the legislation as well.”
Local shellfishermen have also been asked to send letters in support of the legislation to Keating. Many of the town's commercial shellfishermen have or currently work the flats west of Monomoy; more than a decade ago, the so-called “Common Flat” in that area supported a multi-million-dollar steamer fishery.