After Blustery Session, ConCom Approves Emergency Dredging

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Erosion

A beach shuttle boat (in the distance) slowly traverses the bottleneck near the North Cut Tuesday. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM The conservation commission voted unanimously last week to issue emergency certification for dredging near the North Inlet to Chatham Harbor.

The vote came after a hearing that was contentious at times. Minister’s Point property owner Gerald Milden told the commission that dredging in the harbor is responsible for erosion of his land and other properties. After Milden made a series of heated comments, Conservation Commission Chairman Michael Tompsett declared him out of order. When Milden declined to step down, Tompsett recessed the meeting for several minutes.

As of Tuesday, the town had obtained a letter of permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, capping their accelerated review of the project. The town is still awaiting a combined water quality and waterways permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection.  On Wednesday, selectmen unanimously voted to approve the dredging, pending receipt of permits.

With the harbor inlet opposite the lighthouse becoming too shallow for large boats to use, most mariners have begun using the North Cut to access the Atlantic from Pleasant Bay and Chatham Harbor. Fishermen and other mariners have complained that the passage leading to the inlet is dangerously narrow, and the harbormaster and Coast Guard agreed that the situation is critical.

In issuing its emergency certification, the conservation commission acknowledged the public safety risk. Commissioners and Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon visited the area by boat during a special meeting on July 30.

“We actually saw two small boat groundings just as they were trying to figure out where they were going to go,” Keon said. The harbormaster has marked the area with buoys and a day marker, but it remains hazardous. Some recreational boaters are also anchoring their boats in the area to access North Beach Island, adding to the dangerous congestion.

Commissioner Janet Williams said she’s observed heavy boat traffic in the area, with fast-moving recreational boats.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” she said.

“There obviously is a very serious issue there,” commission Chairman Michael Tompsett said. While he acknowledged concerns about erosion raised by some Minister’s Point property owners, “that’s not the subject of the discussion today,” he said. Natural Resources Director Dr. Robert Duncanson said the commission is charged narrowly with determining whether there is a public safety risk at the site.

“It doesn’t make sense that there’s opposition to where we’re trying to dredge,” commercial fisherman Douglas Feeney told the hearing. Even once the targeted area is dredged, there will be a large area of sandy bars between the channel and Minister’s Point, he said.

“It’s not like it’s an open path to their houses,” he said. It is dangerous for commercial fishermen and other mariners to pass through the narrow channel, and if they lose access to the ocean, they lose the ability to fish, Feeney said.

“This is our only way in and out,” he said. “It’s getting pretty close for our livelihoods.”

Robert Long, whose family owns property in the area, told commissioners that the dredging project won’t fix safety problems caused by boaters who speed through the area or who anchor too close to the channel.

“If people are going too fast through the area, let’s address the fact that they’re going too fast through the area,” he said.

Attorney Paul Revere, III, representing Milden, argued that the town had ample time to seek dredge permits under the ordinary process rather than using the accelerated emergency permit process. Revere argued that it was the erosion caused by previous dredging by the town in Aunt Lydia's Cove that caused his client’s seawall to fail during last winter’s coastal storms, but Tompsett cut off those comments, saying discussion should be limited to the dredging project currently under consideration.

“If we don’t have a full hearing, there’s many things we could do to stop the dredging,” Revere countered.

Revere has pointedly threatened to sue the town on Milden’s behalf in order to halt the project. Milden said the commission’s concerns about safety are misplaced, since it was his revetment that collapsed during the storm.

“It is I who almost drowned in the middle of the night,” he said.

Milden claimed that the town had a plan to dredge the entire area from Minister’s Point to Strong Island, a claim town officials strongly deny. Keon showed the commission a 2016 map with a large area within which the town could perform spot dredging in particular locations when conditions warranted. The town has no intention of dredging the entire area, since most of the area is already deep enough for navigation, Keon said. Milden disagreed.

“This baloney about them not planning to dredge all the way up to Strong Island is just that,” he said. “You’re obviously pro-fishermen,” Milden told the commission. “There’s $45 million worth of property about to go in the drink.”

“You are being extremely rude to town employees. You are totally off the point,” Tompsett said, cutting Milden off from making further comments.

“You don’t hear the truth,” Milden continued. “You hear what they want you to hear,” he said, referring to town staff. Milden apologized but declined to leave the podium.

“So you’re putting the whole fishing fleet in jeopardy?” a voice from the audience shouted. The man asked whether Milden would seriously prefer holding up the dredging project for two years, “and we go out of business? Thank you. Great job,” the man shouted.

“Your guys don’t want to talk,” Milden countered.

With some commissioners threatening to walk out of the room and one asking whether the police should be called, Tompsett recessed the hearing for about seven minutes to let tempers cool. Shortly after the hearing resumed, the commission voted unanimously to issue the emergency certification, based on concerns about public safety.

Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said that if the dredging goes forward, it may only provide a short-term fix. The dynamic movement of sand in the area could choke off the passageway again, but Duncanson said that issue was not relevant to the commission’s decision about issuing an emergency permit.

The county dredge Codfish is being staged in Chatham Harbor in anticipation of the project receiving final approvals shortly.