Concerns Mount Over Fish Pier Safety After Observation Deck Closed

By: Tim Wood

The fish pier observation deck was closed briefly last September after a forklift hit a support column. Removing the supports from the packing area is one of the ways that a new deck will be safer, officials say. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – The popular observation deck at the fish pier was closed Monday after a support post was damaged by a fork lift. Repairs were made Tuesday and the building commissioner authorized its reopening, but the incident highlighted long-standing safety concerns at the popular attraction.

Wharfinger Michael Ryder secured the deck and shut down access by the public early Monday after being informed of the incident by Red's Best, one of the two tenants that lease the packing building.

The closure came at the very end of the summer season; on Monday morning, there were noticeably fewer people at the pier. Without access to the observation deck – a popular spot for watching fishermen offload their catch and seals that frolic around the pier – visitors gathered along the north jog, where fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels dock.

Officials earlier this year approved a $1 million plan to replace the deck, including the addition of a second set of stairs and a small elevator to comply with accessibility rules. After the community preservation committee rejected a request for $400,000 for the project, officials said the project would move ahead anyway and they would investigate other sources of funding, including an $11 million waterfront infrastructure bond approved in 2017.

Replacement of the deck is expected to go to bid at the end of the month, and construction could begin as early as November, with the new deck finished by next summer, Duncanson said.

Monday's incident with the deck – the capacity of which had been limited to 100 people due to previous structural issues – could further heighten concerns about safety at the fish pier expressed at a meeting last week by members of the Aunt Lydia's Cove committee. The pier is considered the town's top tourist destination, but is also a working commercial facility, where fishermen offload their catches in the packing building beneath the deck. Trucks and heavy machinery operating amid the crowds of tourists.

“Right now it's like Disneyland,” said Harbormaster Stuart Smith.

Ryder said this was the busiest summer he's seen at the pier; some days as many as 4,000 people visited. On most days it was difficult for staff to control the crowd and keep people within crosswalks that lead from the upper parking lot to the observation deck. At peak times there are usually two assistant wharfingers on duty. One day, Ryder said, three staff members had a hard time controlling the number of people on the deck. A staff member is on duty from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the summer, with two working during the busiest time from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Smith said.

The various activities at the pier make it difficult to control the flow of people. Cove committee Chairman Douglas Feeney noted that people walk to the south jog, across a busy parking lot where packing trucks and fishermen's pickups operate, in order to watch fish being offloaded or board a seal watch or charter boat vessel. He worries it's a tragedy waiting to happen.

“People put blinders on; on top of that, you've got over-tired fishermen in trucks,” Feeney said. “It's an issue.” He expressed the same concerns to the board of selectmen last September.

Several changes are in the works that will improve safety, said Duncanson, but they will take time to implement. A walkway to funnel pedestrians around the edges of the parking lot between the main stairs and the south jog is planned, and in fact the construction of additional spaces within an easement taken from Chatham Bars Inn two years ago was done to accommodate a walkway along the periphery. That could be marked off with cones if need be.

A more comprehensive reconstruction of the south jog area, however, is two years away, Smith said.

There's also a safety issue with people parking on Barcliff Avenue and walking to the pier in traffic, said committee member Joel Rottner. “That puts the fish pier to shame,” he said.

A major element drawing people to the pier, committee members said, is the Fish Pier Market, which offers takeout food and ice cream as well as fresh fish. The town passed up the opportunity to buy the private property hard by the pier the last time it sold, Smith said, and should consider buying it now or in the future to allow more flexibility in accommodating fish pier activities.

Committee members also discussed charging for parking in the fish pier's upper lot. Selectman Shareen Davis noted that a pilot program now being run with paid parking at the former Eldredge Garage property downtown could set a standard for charging for parking in other municipal lots.

“The fish pier is not the only place that has problems,” she noted.

Officials looked into using ticket kiosks to charge for parking about a decade ago, Duncanson said, but that never went anywhere. Smith said revenue from paid parking at the pier could help fund maintenance or even purchase of the market property.

“The public is used to kiosks,” he said. “Every other tourist town they go, they expect it.” Duncanson said he'd dust off that research and bring it back to the committee.

The idea of charging a per-person fee to access the pier was also broached.

Committee members suggested creating the walkway to the south jog to keep pedestrians away from traffic in time for next summer. In the meantime, said Rottner, “we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed.”

“Trust me, I keep mine crossed every day,” responded Duncanson.