2016 Was A Year Of Contasts In Chatham

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Chatham

The long-awaited dedication of the new Mitchell River Drawbridge was a highlight of 2016. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM – It was a year of contrasts in Chatham.

A number of long-standing projects came to fruition in 2016, including completion of a new fire station, the opening of the new Mitchell River drawbridge, and the construction of a new bridge over Muddy Creek.

But it was also a year when progress on several key issues was frustratingly slow. The dispute over the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge has yet to be resolved, and the status of skydiving at Chatham Airport remains mired in legal proceedings.

Below is a summary of the most important news stories of the past 12 months.

Monomoy's Western Boundary

In March 18, Wendi Weber, Northeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, signed the final Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan. That set up a conflict between the agency and the town and state over more than 4,000 acres of open water in Nantucket Sound between the island and an administrative border. Through the plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service asserted federal jurisdiction over the waters and submerged lands, which town and state officials say they have managed with no help from the feds for decades, even centuries.

While the plan states that most current activities can continue in the waters, it asserts the agency's right to step in and regulate fishing, shellfishing or other activities if it determines they conflict with the refuge's mission of protecting migratory shorebirds. Local officials worried that uncertainty could potentially threaten the future of the town's fishing and shellfishing industries and sought a way to officially set Monomoy's western boundary at mean low tide, which they say was the original intent of the 1944 legislation that established the refuge. Fish and Wildlife officials disagreed, saying the official boundary is the line west of the island in Nantucket Sound.

Two options were mulled by local and state officials: federal legislation or litigation. The latter was determined to be too costly and time consuming, and Rep. William Keating was enlisted to file federal legislation, which he did in September. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources subcommittee on federal lands; the ranking Democrat on the committee it Niki Tsongas, who has a summer home in Chatham.

A few weeks after the bill was filed, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey informed the Fish and Wildlife Service that the state intended to file suit over the situation in U.S. District Court in Boston. The letter triggered a 180-day period during which the two sides will try to negotiate a settlement to try to forestall the litigation.

Sharks Again In The News

The region's great white shark population was once again the focus of extensive news coverage this year. State Department of Marine Fisheries scientist Dr. Greg Skomal's five-year shark population study, funded by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, headed into its third year, and resulted in the tagging of 22 sharks – including the 100th tagged since research on the creatures began here in 2009 – and identified dozens more, bringing the total number of great white sharks identified off the Cape to more than 200. Researchers also witnessed numerous seal predations and once again attracted international attention to their work. More information should be forthcoming as the data gathered this summer is analyzed and receiver buoys are taken out of the water; a dozen or so from around Chatham were taken out last week.

The merger of two shark-related nonprofits – the Conservancy and the Chatham Shark Center – meant an increase in educational activities related to the predator. Displays at the North Chatham Center were upgraded and attendance skyrocketed over the summer.

In July the Conservancy released its Sharktivity smartphone app, which allowed users to track shark sightings and taggings off the Cape, as well as receive alerts when sharks were spotted near beaches. By the end of the season, more than 100,000 downloads of the app had been tallied.

The Chatham Merchants Association once again sponsored the popular Sharks in the Park art exhibit, and the Conservancy held the second annual Finomenal Festival in Chase Park.

All the publicity about sharks prompted some to worry that the attention could hurt Chatham by negatively impacting tourism and property values. Thus far all evidence points to sharks boosting the town and its economy, chamber of commerce officials said, but selectmen urged them to consider what would happen in the case of a shark attack on a human.

Finally, great white shark license plates became available from the Massachusetts Division of Motor Vehicles.

Orcas Make An Appearance

An orca was spotted by a charter fisherman about a dozen miles off Chatham in July. The rare sighting of the killer whale, the only predator of great white sharks, prompted some to wonder if the high number of sharks off the Cape was enticing orcas to wander farther south than their usual territory. The whale was identified from research databases as Old Tom, and wasn't seen again in Cape waters.

But a month or so later, a pod of orcas was sighted by some tuna fishermen, again about a dozen miles east of Chatham.

Concern that orcas would become a regular presence here didn't materialize, however. No further sightings were reported.

A Year Without Skydiving

Once again, no skydiving occurred in Chatham in 2016.

A number of hearings were held on a lawsuit against the town filed in late 2015 by a citizens group, Citizens for a Safe Chatham Airport, who are seeking to prevent skydiving from returning to Chatham Airport. A Barnstable Superior Court judge rejected the town's request to halt the group's attempt to obtain an injuction against the issuance of a new contract to a skydiving vendor, and the state appeals court upheld that decision. The Federal Aviation Administration ordered the town to issue the contract, and two vendors responded to a request for proposals, including the previous operator, Skydive Cape Cod.

In December the FAA held a workshop for the airport commission and members of the board of selectmen regarding grant assurances that the town is required to uphold when it receives federal airport funds. Airport critic David Bixby questioned why the session was held behind closed doors, but officials said the meeting was held in accordance with the state's Open Meeting Law, and that no deliberations took place.

The Eldredge Garage

Selectmen at first rejected an overture by the Eldredge family offering to sell the Eldredge Garage property at 365 Main St., despite pressure from the business community, who saw the land as the last best hope to expand parking downtown. Selectmen, however, saw the property as problematic due to potential contamination from its years of use as a gas station and garage. A group of residents and business owners later worked out a purchase and sales agreement with the Eldredge family, whereby they would help assess the environmental condition of the land and remove the buildings on the property, which were determined to be in poor condition, in order to present voters with a “clean” parcel for purchase.

Selectmen agreed to call a special town meeting for Jan. 23 when voters will be asked to spend $2.5 million for the land, most likely to use for parking. Meanwhile, a structural assessment determined that the massive, 112-year-old garage building at the rear of the property, although historically significant, was in such poor condition that it could not be saved. In December, the historic business district commission voted to allow demolition of the stable and compressor building, but convinced the family to save the former gas station building at the front of the property.

Public Officials Behaving Badly

On March 31, a fight broke out at a meeting of the Aunt Lydia's Cove committee and waterways advisory committee. A discussion about docking fees devolved into profanity and fisticuffs, with waterways committee member David Davis taking a swing at Cove committee chair Doug Feeney. Davis issued an apology; selectmen ousted him from the committee, only to reappoint him later.

In June Airport Commission Chairman Peter Donovan summoned police to a meeting at the annex after the audience became disruptive. He ordered that taping of the meeting be halted after a resident took the podium after Donovan asked her to sit down; the meeting later resumed and no arrests were made.

Those two incidents, as well as several others cited by town government watchdogs, prompted concern over decorum at public meetings. While chairman have the authority under the state Public Meeting Law to control a meeting, including determining who speaks, some said in the interest of transparency town officials should be as expansive as possible in accepting public input at meetings. The concern led resident Norman Pacun to propose a policy statement for the board of selectmen that encourages chairman to allow public input, even at workshops. The board last week adopted the policy on a split vote.

In Other News

In February, Juliet Bernstein, 102 years young, was awarded the Boston Post Cane as the town's oldest resident. Town officials, friends and family gathered to honor Bernstein, known for her advocacy of women's and peace issues and her letters to the editor, which continue to this day (see this week's letters page).

“The Finest Hours” premiered in January, telling the world the tale of four Chatham Coast Guardsmen who rescued 32 crewmembers from a sinking tanker during a blizzard in 1952. Although the $80 million Disney film received a mixed reception from critics and didn't do well at the box office, it was an instant hit at the Chatham Orpheum Theater, which had the highest sales of any theater showing the film in the country.

The board of selectmen rescinded a two-hour downtown parking limit, and tasked a group of merchants to come up with a plan to help alleviate the summer parking crunch. The resulting plan included additional signs directing visitors to park in outlying areas such as the elementary school, as well as a drive to encourage downtown employees not to park on Main Street.

A study commissioned by the council on aging warned of a coming “silver tsunami,” with the needs of the growing elderly population skyrocketing in the coming years. The report prompted officials to begin assessing the need for a new senior center.

In May town meeting approved the purchase of the Eldredge Trap Dock on Stage Harbor to expand public access to the waterfront. A number of important zoning measures were also OK'd, including the conversion of small business districts along Route 28 to residential and the concentration of commercial zoning in village centers. Selectman Tim Roper retired and voters elected new board member Amanda Love and returned incumbent Jeffrey Dykens to office for another three years.

Chatham's new $11 million state-of-the-art fire station opened in late May. “Good things happen to those who wait,” Chairman of Selectmen Jeffrey Dykens said at the dedication ceremony, referring to the years-long process of designing and building the Depot Road station.

In June a helicopter crashed into Crow's Pond, severely injuring the pilot and a passenger, a photographer who was taking real estate photos at the time. The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to issue an official cause for the crash.

The historic Surfside Inn on Holway Street was sold. Shellfishermen successfully fought back an attempt to amend state regulations to allow the sale of undersized quahogs. The chamber of commerce joined forces with the Chatham VFW to help save the George Ryder Road post. The demolition of the historic Sibley house in West Chatham without review by the historic commission or historic business district commission resulted in new protocols to guide the building department when historic, or potentially historic, structures are slated for demolition or determined to be safety hazards. After more than two years, the new Mitchell River drawbridge

Chatham Bars Inn and the town clashed over use of the former bowling alley building on Chatham Bars Avenue. In May Building Commissioner Justin Post ordered the inn to stop using the building for storage, ruling that the use had been abandoned. CBI appealed but the zoning board of appeal upheld Post, resulting in CBI filing a lawsuit over the issue. In October Post issued another cease and desist order after CBI continued to use the building. He also ordered the inn to halt the use of a vacant parcel at Claflin Landing for weddings and other events, an order upheld by the zoning board two weeks ago.

Concerns about marine safety on the Chatham Bar were raised when two Orleans men were thrown into the water when their vessel was swamped trying to navigate the channel. As the town's Aunt Lydia's Cove committee mulled not renewing the Coast Guard's lease on two slips at the fish pier, the agency announced that it was seeking permission to station a shallow-draft vessel in Chatham in response to shoal water conditions in the harbor and Pleasant Bay.

Nantucket Sound was closed to shellfishing for several weeks in October due to a potentially toxic plankton bloom. In a letter to mooring permit holders and those on mooring waiting lists, town officials announced that they were dropping the problem-plagued online mooring permit renewal system.

In December a human skull found in the brush behind the Atwood House Museum caused a stir. The origin of the skull, which was more than 100 years old, remains a mystery; it is currently being analyzed by the state medical examiner's office.