Board Balks At $4M Upweller Plan, Seeks Scaled-back Alternative

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Stage Harbor , Waterways

A rendition of the proposed upweller building, as viewed from the drawbridge. STANTEC GRAPHIC

CHATHAM Suffering a clear case of sticker shock, selectmen last week asked committees to scale back plans for a $4 million waterfront facility envisioned for 90 Bridge St.

Answering a mandate by voters who purchased the land for future commercial and recreational marine uses, the town’s three water-related advisory committees worked with a consultant to find options for the small parcel next to the Mitchell River drawbridge. The preferred alternative, presented by consultant Dave Anderson of Stantec, Inc., calls for a new upweller for the town’s shellfish propagation program to be housed in a building on a new pier. The building would be surrounded by a handicap-accessible observation deck, which would itself be surrounded by a system of piers and floats for small boats.

Click to download the proposal

The conceptual plan also calls for installation of a bulkhead to replace the existing revetment and the expansion of the existing T-dock to accommodate larger fishing vessels unloading their catch. It would also include a public rest room and several parking spaces.

The plan taps “a tremendous number of uses that can be targeted at the site,” Anderson said. Those uses, and the conceptual plan that resulted, were identified during three joint meetings of the waterways and shellfish advisory committees and the south coastal harbor management committee. The group considered several possible configurations for the upweller building, opting for one that positions the building parallel to Bridge Street to maximize the space for boats.

The site poses a number of challenges, including its very small size and the location for the driveway, which is limited by the guard rails for the drawbridge. The revetment is also a problem, Anderson said. The bottom, or “toe” of the riprap, is not buried, but rather sits on grade, making it vulnerable to any wave action. To stabilize the bank and to allow dredging around the docks, Anderson recommends the installation of a bulkhead at the toe of the revetment, then back-filling behind the bulkhead. The arrangement would also slightly expand the available land on the parcel, making room for more parking spaces.

Though the figures are very preliminary, Anderson estimated that the project would cost $4 million. Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the committees were seeking the board’s approval for the concept, and portions of the project might be phased in over five or 10 years. The project will ultimately be funded under an $11.3 million omnibus waterfront capital appropriation passed by town meeting earlier this year, which is also funding improvements at the former Eldredge trap dock, Ryder’s Cove and the fish pier.

Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said he fully favors investing in the upweller, which will provide “a real return in terms of seeding – literally seeding – our future in shellfish here in Chatham, which I wholeheartedly support. But I really am concerned about the ask for $4 million.” Dykens said he cannot endorse the request until he knows what the town will be spending on more pressing waterfront needs.

“It’s a grand design,” Selectman Shareen Davis said. “The scope of this present design that you have here is not in keeping with the aesthetics of the neighborhood. I really, honestly think a 60-foot dock to accommodate commercial fishing offloading is overkill,” she said. Davis also asked whether the abutting Stage Harbor Marine had given its opinion on the plans. “Will designing something like this by the town of Chatham shift their customers to a different place?” Davis asked.

Board member Dean Nicastro said he doesn’t know as much as his colleagues about commercial fishing, but said the town just spent $10 million for a fire station and is considering an $8 million senior center. “A few million here and a few million there, and it starts to affect the tax rate,” he said.

As part of his presentation, Anderson showed computer renditions of the finished facility. Viewed from the water or from the north side of the river, the building seems fairly modest in size. But viewed from the drawbridge, the building largely obscures the view of Stage Harbor.

Shellfish Advisory Committee Chairman Jamie Bassett said there seems to be unanimous support for a new upweller, but said it is important to consider the visual impact from the drawbridge “before we have any final plans.”

Resident Norm Pacun agreed, saying the placement of the upweller so close to the bridge is not optimal. He said he would prefer a design “that does not simply obscure or overwhelm the historic bridge,” from the perspective of those traveling west to east over the bridge.

Duncanson said that one of the factors driving the need to accommodate commercial fishing boats at the site is the possibility that erosion on the outer beach might someday make it impossible for large boats to use Aunt Lydia’s Cove.

“If we lose access on the east side and the entire fleet has to move over to Stage Harbor, even the Eldredge pier would not have enough capacity to service the entire fleet,” he said.

But waterways advisory committee member John Huether said there is no intent to make 90 Bridge St. into a substitute for the fish pier.

“We know the price is high,” but the town is pursuing a number of grant opportunities that could offset some of the project cost, Huether noted.

On a motion by Dykens, the board remanded the 90 Bridge St. project to the three committees to generate a scaled-down version focusing on the upweller and public access. While the design presented last week is visionary, “I can’t take that bite yet,” Dykens said.

Duncanson told the board that the 90 Bridge St. project would not keep other waterfront projects from moving ahead. “It’s not a question of one usurping the others,” he said. The omnibus article gives the town the flexibility to work on more than one project at a time, and the board will soon be seeing presentations on both the fish pier observation deck and the trap dock projects.