Resident, ConCom Chair Clash Over Skiff Storage

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Conservation

Skiffs along the shore of Oyster Pond apparently sparked a confrontation at a recent conservation commission meeting. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – A resident is calling for the chairman of the conservation commission to apologize and step down following a confrontation over a skiff stored on the shore of Oyster Pond.

Resident Elaine Gibbs said Conservation Commission Chairman James “Buck” Upson showed up at her home on Oct. 26 and questioned her about a skiff on her private property on Oyster Pond along Stage Harbor Road. She said Upson identified himself as a “neighbor” and not as a member of the commission, which has been discussing the storage of skiffs, docks and floats along the shoreline in recent months. She said he asked her if the skiff would be kept on the beach all winter.

Gibbs said she did not understand Upson what was talking about until the next day, when she saw the issue on the agenda for the commission's next meeting.

“It all sort of fell into place,” she said.

Gibbs attended the commission's Nov. 16 meeting and said she found Upson's behavior “an aggressive attempt to intimidate me, coming very close to harassment, and I view it as a serious overreach of the commission's authority.”

Upson reacted angrily, “categorically, emphatically and with some resentment” denying her accusations. He said he was not acting on behalf of the commission but as a neighbor; Upson lives about a half-mile away on Stage Harbor Road.

After a brief discussion, from which Upson recused himself, he apologized to the commission for getting “excited,” adding that Gibbs' boat was a “14-foot skiff” and not a dinghy. By that time, Gibbs had left the meeting room at the annex. After the meeting adjourned, Upson leaned over to vice chairman Judith Peterson and said, “You don't know how much she lied.” The tape was still running and the comment was captured on video, which is posted on the town's website.

After seeing the tape, Gibbs sent emails to members of the board of selectmen seeking an apology from Upson. Board member Cory Metters responded that he would look into the matter, while Seth Taylor said it was up to Gibbs to request that the matter be placed on the selectmen's agenda. He also wrote that an apology was up to Upson. Chairman of Selectmen Jeffrey Dykens did not respond to an email seeking comment.

On Monday Gibbs emailed the board again stating that Upson that morning was on private property taking photos of her skiff.

“I consider today's latest action by Mr. Upson to be nothing short of harassment,” she wrote, saying she believed he should step down as chairman or be removed from the commission.

In an email, Upson wrote that it would not be appropriate to comment at this time.

During the commission meeting, members said they were more concerned about property owners storing seasonal piers and floats within the resource area – generally 100 feet from the edge of a wetland – rather than skiffs and dinghies being kept on the beach. They've been discussing the issue informally for about two years, but the matter of boats kept on the shore won't go away, said member Kay Bryce. She noted that a suit filed over the commission's denial of a shorefront revetment for a Sears Road property owner states the coastal bank was damaged by dinghies being stored on the beach.

“I think it's going to keep coming up in the future,” Bryce said.

But the commission's jurisdiction over skiffs stored on the beach is questionable. Not only storing small craft on the beach a long-time tradition, but the activity comes under the purview of the harbormaster. And the town has regulations governing storage of skiffs on public property, but not on private property.

Harbormaster Stuart Smith said dinghies on public property, such as town landings, must include an identification sticker. They must also be removed if they are derelict or not in use after Nov. 30. Actively used skiffs can remain year-round, he said.

Each winter Smith's department removes from town landings skiffs and dinghies that are unidentified or obviously not in use. About 25 removed last year are still in storage. Over the past several years the town has worked to clean up haphazard boat storage at town landings, installing tie-up rails, racks and instituting annual sweeps to remove derelict boats.

“It's kind of an education process” to ensure that owners place ID stickers on skiffs and dinghies and remove them by the end of November, he said. Some private property owners have agreements with the town allowing storage of registered dinghies, he added.

While it makes sense that the commission can regulate the storage of seasonal docks and piers on the shore or in salt marshes since those structures must be approved by the commission, skiffs and dinghies aren't structures and therefore are probably not under the commission's purview, Smith suggested.

Skiff storage on beaches is “common all over the Cape and certainly all over Chatham's 66 miles of coastline, most of which is private,” Smith said.

Others had also expressed concern over the commission's interest in skiff storage. After Upson requested in October that Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne ask her staff to make note of “improper storage” of docks, floats, catwalks, derelict dinghies “and stuff” in the off season, shellfish advisory committee chairman Jamie Bassett warned Upson that the commission “will get significant push back and you will generate ill will if it appears that your committee may be dictating where fishermen may or may not put their dinghies.”

“How does your committee plan on determining if a dinghy is derelict?” Bassett wrote in an October email to Upson. “What may seem derelict could actually be a tool that is used by a fisherman on a daily basis, year round, to earn a living.”

Bassett said the discussion item on the commission's agenda which read “Improper storage of seasonal water items on beach or marsh,” was too vague and should specifically include the word dinghy.

“There are hundreds of fishermen in Chatham that use dinghies on a daily basis and any decisions by the ConsCom, just might, possibly, affect them all,” Bassett told The Chronicle.

Gibbs said she was upset that Upson had not identified himself as a conservation commission member when, she said, he was inquiring about an issue that the commission had clearly been discussing. She also questioned how he obtained her name and address from the registration number on her boat.

“I think that is way out of order,” she said.

While commission members can enter private property to inspect a project that is before them or to contact an owner to investigate a suspected wetlands violation, that is not the case with this situation, Gibbs said.

After Upson recused himself at the Nov. 16 meeting, Peterson said she believed he had acted on his own and that commissioners generally do not go to people's homes.

“We are not the police, that is not our role,” she said.

Earlier in the session Upson reminded commission members that they should wear photo ID badges issued to them when they visit properties. He said Town Manager Jill Goldsmith made that request.