Storms, Sharks, Seals, Housing Were Top Topics For 2018

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Chatham

Storm waters break through sand bags at Little Beach in March. Several winter storms struck at the start of the year, causing significant flooding, property damage and rearranging the town's eastern shoreline. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – The year began with a roar and maintained a sustained level of activity and news over the course of the next 12 months. There was joy and tragedy, music and fun, no balloons at band concerts and a new configuration of the town's shoreline. This year saw substantive discussions about the demographic makeup and future of the community, as well as concern that high profile shark attacks and growing seal population could harm the town's economy.

Storms, Flooding and Dredging

The early part of the year was dominated by a series of winter storms that sent flood waters into the Little Beach area, eroded beaches and cut power to hundreds of residences.

Nature wasted no time in celebrating the new year with a blast of wind and weather. The first storm hit in Jan. 4. The creation of the Fool's Cut the previous year and the slow degradation of South Beach created the highest flood water levels in the Little Beach neighborhood since 1991. Ocean water flooded Outermost Harbor Marine and several homes in the Little Beach neighborhood; power was cut due to the flooding, and standing water on Morris Island Road effectively isolated Morris and Stage islands. A pregnant woman whose car became stranded in the water had to be rescued by Harbormaster Stuart Smith.

More flooding happened in February, and a powerful March storm put the cap on extensive changes to the town's shoreline over the winter. Pushed by winds of up to 90 miles per hour and high astronomical tides, the March 2-3 nor'easter again flooded Little Beach and overwashed South Beach and sections of North Beach Island. Sandbags proved no deterrent to the ocean waves that forced many Little Beach, Morris and Stage Island residents to evacuate. Less than two weeks later, another storm knocked out power for thousands in the region.

After installing some temporary measures to mitigate the worst of the street flooding, town officials commissioned a $250,000 study of the impact of the shoreline changes from Pleasant Bay to Stage Harbor. Little Beach property owners are working on their own solution to protect private property in the area, and the owners of Outermost Harbor Marine installed plastic “Muscle Wall” structures around their office building to prevent flooding from future storms. The structures were in places for the first storm this fall and appeared to have kept the waters at bay. The fire department acquired a high-water vehicle to use to reach flooded areas during emergencies.

Meanwhile, the town struggled to get a dredge to an area near the North Cut in North Beach – which had become the predominant navigation channel from Chatham Harbor to the Atlantic after the winter storms clogged up the old 1987 inlet – to make the area safer for fishing and recreation vessels to use. At first residents near Minister's Point opposed the town's efforts to obtain emergency permits for the dredging, claiming that it would expose their properties – some of which were damaged in storms the previous winter – to more damaging waves. A threatened lawsuit never materialized, however. In September, 44-year-old Louis Guarracina, a Newburyport resident with a home in Chatham, drown when his boat overturned near the North Cut. As the season headed into the fall, however, winds and other conditions prevented the Barnstable County dredge from safely clearing the shoals near the cut and the project was abandoned. The dredge moved to Pleasant Bay where long-planned dredging around Fox Hill was finally completed.

Sharks and Seals

This fall, state shark expert Dr. Greg Skomal concluded his five-year great white shark population study, with financial support from the nonprofit Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. Early in the year the Conservancy had seen an influx of donations after President Donald Trump expressed a fear of sharks, and in August a video of a shark jumping out of the water toward the pulpit of the shark research vessel, where Skomal was poised to tag the creature, went viral.

However, the study was overshadowed by the first shark bite fatality since the apex predators became more prevalent in Cape waters a decade ago. In September, 26-year-old Arthur Medici of Revere died after being bitten while boogie boarding off Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet. It was the second shark attack on a human this past summer.

In response, officials renewed efforts to find ways to protect swimming beaches along the Cape's eastern shore, and several “Stop the Bleed” training workshops were held to train surfers, beachgoers and residents in techniques to treat traumatic injuries.

Concern over continued promotion of shark tourism combined with alarm over the growing number of gray seals in the region – the chief prey of white sharks – and incidents in Ryder's Cove this summer involving aggressive seals biting youngsters resulted in calls to reduce the seal population through culling or other measures. Selectmen held a session to air the issue, and agreed to investigate placing a net around the swimming beach at Oyster Pond to protect bathers from seals, and possibly sharks.

Historic Home Demolitions

Preservationists continued to sound the alarm about the loss of the town's historical heritage. In January, the historical commission officially dropped efforts to declare Stage Harbor Road a National Historic Register District after opposition from property owners. During the year, several more homes along the roadway were placed under demolition delays by the commission, and one house on which a demolition delay had expired was razed. After an outcry over the planned demolition of an iconic home along Shore Road, the property owner agreed to save the historic main section of the house and the commission is expected to lift its demolition delay order.

Meanwhile, South Chatham residents endorsed a National Historic Register District for their neighborhood, agreeing to hold a meeting early next year to move the process along.

Housing and the Economy

With median home prices shooting way past the half-million dollar mark, a coalition of residents came together early in the year to work on a strategy to address both affordable and “attainable” housing in order to help working families stay in town. By December, the citizens initiative for housing had purchased a starter home and was holding on to it until the town's affordable housing trust fund could appropriate the money to buy it and sell it to an income-qualified family. After it was blasted by critics in January, a revised accessory dwelling unit zoning bylaw amendment was the subject of forums sponsored by the planning board, which expects to take the measure to town meeting in May. The bylaw would allow the creation of apartments in single-family homes to increase the stock of market-rate rental housing, the lack of which – both in Chatham and Cape-wide – was documented in a study released by the Housing Assistance Corporation in October.

In September the selectmen established a task force to investigate ways to sustain a diverse year-round population, including young families, later dubbed “Chatham 365.” In November the group recommended the town consider subsidizing childcare for year-round residents, a proposal first raised by the town's economic development committee two years earlier. Selectmen agreed to investigate the idea. The concept was given wider attention earlier this month when a summer resident questioned whether taxpayer funds should pay for residents' childcare in a letter to The Chronicle, prompting a significant backlash which continues in this issue's letter's page.

Other Highlights of 2018

Late last December, Selectman Amanda Love resigned from the board, saying she was unable to devote the time needed to do the job properly. The remaining selectmen decided not to call a special election, and until the May annual election, the town was led by four, rather than five, selectmen. In the election, Planning Board Chairman Peter Cocolis won Love's unexpired one-year term, while incumbents Dean Nicastro and Cory Metters were re-elected to new three-year terms.

At the May annual town meeting, voters banned the sale of plastic balloons, putting an end to a decades-long tradition of balloons flying at Chatham Band concerts. A ban on retail marijuana sales was also approved, as were a $450,000 beach nourishment project along Nantucket Sound and $483,000 for site improvements at the Eldredge Public Library.

The town's efforts to change the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge stalled during 2018. On a split vote, a Congressional subcommittee reported favorably on legislation sponsored by Congressman William Keating that would roll back the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's claim to jurisdiction over thousands of acres of submerged lands and open water in Nantucket Sound west of the refuge, which Chatham and state officials say rightly belongs to the town and state. But the legislation, which is opposed by state and national environment groups, languished in the Republican-led Congress. In May selectmen slammed Keating for failing to move the measure forward; Keating blamed the Congressional leadership. In August Selectmen Jeffrey Dykens and Shareen Davis, along with Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson, met with Senator Edward Markey's staff in Washington, D.C., to enlist his help. As of the end of the year, the legislation remains in limbo.

A Monomoy Regional School District school committee proposal to change the regional school agreement to allow alteration of grade alignment at Chatham and Harwich elementary schools was dropped after opposition from selectmen and residents, who wanted the town to maintain its own elementary school. Selectmen choose a town-owned site off Middle Road for the location of a new senior center, after town meeting voters approved funds for an owner's project manager and design and engineering funds for the new facility.

Problems plagued the new Mitchell River drawbridge, resulting in several closures. The state Seaport Economic Council awarded a $150,000 grant to complete engineering and permitting to replace the town-owned Eldredge trap dock. The observation deck at the fish pier, which has become the town's most popular tourist attraction, was closed briefly for safety reasons late in the season. A contract was awarded for its replacement a few weeks ago with the new deck expected to be ready for the summer tourist season.

A new summer event, Mondays on Main, brought bands to downtown courtesy of the Chatham Merchants Association. The event is expected to continue next year. The merchants also sponsored the last Sharks in the Park exhibit, and are searching for a location for its followup Art in the Park.

There were several major changes in the business community. Mac's Seafood of Wellfleet purchased Chatham Fish and Lobster. The Bank of America closed its Chatham branch. Gary Thulander became the new general manager at Chatham Bars Inn, the town's largest private-sector employer. Lisa Franz resigned at head of the chamber of commerce, and her replacement, Mary Cavanaugh, began work in October.

Public parking at the town-owned Eldredge Garage property, run by a private valet service, was deemed a success, and selectmen agreed to continue the use next summer.

Also during 2018, the town hired a new conservation agent, Cally Harper, and Senior Boatswains Mate Carlos Hessler became the new CO at Coast Guard Station Chatham. Irene Gillies retired after more than three decades leading the Eldredge Public library.

The community said farewell to a number of prominent citizens, including former Selectman Thomas R. Pennypacker, longtime board of health member Jean Young and young Jesse Nash, who succumbed after a four-year battle with neuroblastoma.