CHATHAM — Once logistical details are worked out, crews will begin widening and deepening a critical channel providing access to Chatham Harbor, despite threats of a lawsuit from a shorefront property owner.
In a special meeting last Wednesday, the board of selectmen authorized the county dredge to conduct the work, and a necessary permit was received from state officials later in the week. Together with the required permission from the Army Corps of Engineers and emergency permission granted by the conservation commission, the pieces are in place for the work to begin.
The actual dredging is expected to begin in the near future, weather permitting. The dredge crew needs to install extensive piping and a booster pump to deposit the dredged sand on town-owned Scatteree Landing.
The dredging will take place in a “relatively modest” fan-shaped area, Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon told selectmen last week. While only about 9,500 cubic yards of sand are expected to be removed, the cost of the project “is not inconsequential,” he said.
Despite plans to raise its rates for the new fiscal year, the county will be charging the town current rate of $13 per cubic yard, or $123,500 for the dredging itself. The town will pay additional fees to spread the recovered sand on the beach. “This could be a $145,000 project,” Keon said.
The Aug. 15 selectmen’s meeting included a closed-door session nearly an hour in length, called to discuss strategy “with respect to threatened and imminent litigation.” Minister’s Point property owner Gerald Milden has threatened to sue to block any additional dredging in the harbor, claiming that previous harbor dredging was responsible for erosion that caused his revetment to partially fail during a coastal storm last winter.
When the board convened in open session, Chairman Dean Nicastro said that while some dredge projects are approved by staff, “when there is a difference of opinion among members of the public, it’s certainly prudent to come to the board and get an authorization.”
Commercial fisherman Nick Muto of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance said the dredging is a necessity.
“We really need it. It’s a dangerous spot, especially in the fog, with the amount of summer traffic that we have there,” he said. When transiting the channel – now the only viable way in and out of Chatham Harbor – mariners have a tiny margin of error, Muto said. Commercial fishing boats sometimes have to navigate the sharp turn during strong currents and can’t turn around if there is an emergency.
Aunt Lydia’s Cove Committee Chairman Douglas Feeney, also a commercial fisherman, handed selectmen a petition with two full pages of signatures from mariners who support the dredging.
“This is the way we make our living,” he said.
Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said the channel is extremely narrow and the tidal flow is unpredictable.
“This is very much a public safety issue,” he said.
“The tipping issue on public safety, for me, stems on the reading of the letter from the Coast Guard and the harbormaster,” Nicastro said. Both have said that the waterway is dangerous, and the Coast Guard expressed concerns that its own vessels would be unable to respond to emergencies without improvements to the channel.
“We know that there are some economic interests here as well,” Nicastro said, and the town acknowledges the “understandable concerns” of shorefront property owners.
“It’s our job to balance all these competing interests and come up with the right decision,” he said. The board voted 4-0, with Selectman Peter Cocolis absent, to authorize the dredging.
Once the emergency harbor dredging is complete, the county dredge is expected to go to work on the channel near Fox Hill, which provides access to Ryder’s Cove. That waterway was scheduled for dredging last year, but wintry weather kept the county dredge in port.
Keon said that, after these two projects, the town’s dredging account will be seriously diminished. While there are no definitive projects on the horizon that will need funding, there is a possibility that more comprehensive dredging of Chatham Harbor will be needed next year. Should it become necessary, a special town meeting might be called to appropriate more funds, Keon said.
What remains to be seen is how long the new access channel will last. Strong currents in the area, coupled with erosion from fall and winter coastal storms, could fill the waterway with sand in short order. But officials maintain that the channel’s longevity is less important than responding to the current safety hazard.
Email Alan Pollock at alan @capecodchronicle.com