ORLEANS — Far from the busy construction site at the town disposal area where the new DPW/Natural Resources is nearing completion, the temporary office of the harbormaster and shellfish department sits on a gentle rise at the end of leafy Portaminicut Road. It's a fine observation point for watching boats arrive at the town landing and unload.
With the new building on track to open next month, Manager of Natural Resources Nate Sears has his new office waiting for him alongside his department's workspace. There's an ongoing movement, however, to keep at least a satellite operation at the Portaminicut outpost.
At the selectmen's Oct. 3 meeting, Town Administrator John Kelly reviewed the history of the town-owned property at 141 Portaminicut Rd., which was purchased by town meeting for conservation and recreation. “We determined the deed to the town (by the prior owners) was for the sole purpose of recreation, not limited to passive recreation,” he said. That means the property, which includes the building and surrounding land, is under the jurisdiction of the board of selectmen, not the conservation commission.
The harbormaster's office was given approval to operate out of Portaminicut after its quarters in the temporary police station were demolished when the new station opened. In the spring, Kelly said, selectmen received a request from the shellfish and waterways advisory committee that Portaminiuct be the permanent location for the harbormaster's office.
Kelly told the board he supports moving the operation to the new DPW building, a centrally located area with access to the department's boats. “The primary use (of Portaminicut) as the harbormaster office is not consistent with the reasons the town purchased the property,” he said. “We can get an opinion from (town counsel) Mike Ford, (but) if the primary purpose is other than recreation, we have to be careful.”
Selectman Mefford Runyon, who was chairman of the open space committee at the time of the purchase, said the committee thought the property was more appropriate for general municipal purposes rather than open space, but that notion was not supported by the selectmen at that time.
“The reasons (the committee) thought it should be bought were primarily to ease the problems with that town landing's parking and space, and to assure access to the mooring field,” he said. “I think there are 50 or so moorings off the beach there.” In the long run, because of the way the land was acquired, “the building can't stay there,” he said. “I would to like to support the traditional use of the town landing and mooring field first.”
“If there's a desire to continue to use it for municipal purposes, the harbormaster's office, is it possible to go back to town meeting to raise and appropriate funds to pay back what was used to purchase it?” asked Selectman Mark Mathison, the board's liaison to the shellfish and waterways advisory committee.
Mathison noted that the building's square footage “is a relatively small part of that two-acre parcel. You've got 80 to 90 percent that could be recreational and the building would still be there.” He said the location provided a valuable advantage for overseeing recreational shellfishing and boating in Pleasant Bay and that “there's a dependence on that landing for many of the aquaculturists in the bay.”
Noting that the landing itself is separate from the property in question, Kelly said there are conflicting needs. “That landing suffers lack of parking,” he said. “Having that building seriously impacts putting more parking there.”
“There's a relatively small area for parking, and the house occupies most of it,” Runyon said. “The people who live at that end of the road weren't really happy about the purchase. They didn't want to have anything happening that would draw more use down there. That's why the goal of relieving that town landing of congestion was a central part of buying (the land).”
The issue was raised again during public comment at the selectmen's Oct. 17 meetings. Suzanne Phillips, chair of the shellfish and waterways advisory committee, said her membership's reaction to shutting down operations at Portaminicut was “pretty swift and pretty strong. People were really dismayed.” She asked that the committee be given a chance to respond at a future selectmen's meeting before any decisions are made.
As requested by the board Oct. 3, attorney Ford will report on the legal issues surrounding use of the property, perhaps in time for the board's Nov. 7 meeting.