Planning Board Casts Its Nets For Fishing Gear Storage Compromise

By: Ed Maroney

Lobster pots stored in a residential neighborhood in Chatham.   FILE PHOTO

ORLEANS In addressing a few complaints about storage of fishing gear in residential districts, the planning board hopes to sniff out a solution that respects both neighbors' rights and town traditions.

“Commercial fishing is a longstanding occupation in town,” director of planning and community development George Meservey told the board Feb. 12. “Preservation of traditional occupations is called out in our comprehensive plan as important to the town and community character. Fishermen often store equipment on their property, and there appears to be an understanding that this is an acceptable and established practice.”

Yet, the town “periodically receives complaints from residents about areas that are unkempt or causing some nuisance in the neighborhood,” Meservey said. “Believe it or not, under existing zoning, storage of fishing equipment requires a special permit from the zoning board. To my knowledge, the building commissioner has never sent someone to the zoning board for a special permit, and would not like to do that.”

To prevent such overkill, the board held a public hearing on Feb. 12 on a proposed zoning bylaw amendment that would require that fishing gear in residential districts be kept at least 10 feet back from property lines, be screened from the street and neighbors by a solid fence, and kept free of bait and “remnants that cause excessive odor.”

“It's a simple bylaw to try to address an issue that is brought up on an irregular basis, a couple a year to the health department, every other year to the building department,” Meservey said. The building commissioner “follows up with the property owners. He does not want to send people in this occupation to the board of appeals unnecessarily.”

“No one wants stinky bait next to their house,” commercial fisherman Mike Naughton told the planning board Feb. 12. “It seems like something the board of health could address. Maybe there's a few people getting sloppy.” He asked that the town understand “the plight the fishermen are in,” including governmental regulations that require some of the equipment they keep at their homes. “We have a harbor shoaling in. We have a lot of problems. We certainly don't want another one.”

Retired 45-year lobsterman Mike Kartasiewich remembered a mostly live-and-let-live attitude in Orleans, with some exceptions. Back in the '60s, he recalled, he took five lobster traps off his truck at his house and soon thereafter heard a knock on his door. A new neighbor, who'd moved in from out of state, said, “Oh, Mike, could you please take those traps away? My garden club is coming over and this is awful offensive. I said, don't worry, I'll move 'em.”

Kartasiewich said he found commercial property where he could stow his gear, but always kept his boat in his yard at home. Eventually, he had to move his gear back to his residence, where “no one bothered me for 15 to 20 years,” he said. “I enjoyed having the kids come over, having their pictures taken. I'd give them a buoy. It's been a tradition as long as I can remember, and I hope it keeps up that way.”

Lifelong resident Ryan Wade, the son of a commercial fisherman, thanked the board for “not jumping to a special permit and putting that in effect.” He said the “one or two issues you guys hear about every year seems to be like feuding neighbors, probably ongoing for a long time. It seems this could be addressed case by case with the neighbor instead of blanketing an entire neighborhood in town.”

Wade pointed out that most fishermen “lobster in lobster season and shellfish in the off season. It's not just a lobster boat and traps. There's a quahog boat and skiff and grant gear. Maybe it will smell when it first comes out of the water... (but) there isn't a lobsterman who wants that smell around his house either.”

Naughton and Wade both objected to the thousands of dollars fencing would require. Naughton said he'd put in $6,000 worth of stockade fencing “out of respect for my neighbors to conceal what they might think is unsightly, (but) would have to run another 105 feet” to comply with the proposed bylaw.”

David Slack, vice chair of the shellfish and waterways advisory committee but speaking as a private citizen, said his board planned to discuss the situation that night. The few complaints received, he said, were best dealt with individually by the building commissioner and health department, and he added in a statement co-authored with Suzanne Phillips that the local industry “would like to re-form a fishermen's association which could result in self-policing of these occasions.”

If necessary, Slack said, the right-to-farm bylaw that covers aquaculture could be joined by a “right-to-fish” bylaw. The former, passed by town meeting in 2013, allows “maintenance, repair, or storage of seasonal equipment, or apparatus owned or leased by the farm owner or manager used expressly for the purpose of propagation, processing, management, or sale of the agricultural product..”

The “right to farm declaration” says “agricultural activities may occur on holidays, weekdays, and weekends by night or day and shall include the attendant incidental noise, odors, dust, and fumes associated with normally accepted agricultural practices.” The agricultural advisory committee planned to discuss the need for a fishing corollary at its Feb. 22 meeting.

“I do feel that there should be consideration given to your neighbors, but the existing proposed amendments are too vague and some requests by neighbors could be unreasonable, especially when it comes to solid fencing,” farmer Judy Scanlon wrote to agricultural committee chair David Light Feb. 19. “Also fishing gear will smell for a certain period of time regardless of how much you try to remove attached marine life, as you can never get all the seaweed and barnacles and other flora and fauna off the gear. When the town pulls floats out of Rock Harbor, they smell also. So it is reasonable to ask that old stinky bait not be left out, but unreasonable to expect that there can never be any odors associated with fishing or farming.”

Meservey said he “heard loud and clear the issues with what's being proposed here, (but) we're left with a cumbersome piece of bylaw on customary home occupation. If we don't want to have this on the books anymore, if we're not looking for a special permit for everyone who stores (equipment), perhaps the board should hold a hearing to remove that, deferring only health issues to the health department.”

“If we did this and there was a complaint,” board chairman Andrea Shaw Reed asked, “our obligation is to balance the rights of everybody in a semi-rural community. What now can a building inspector do? If we remove that clause, what options are available? These issues are not necessarily those of the health department but are concerned with what they're calling blight next door. We don't want to be taste police.”

The town doesn't generally regulate the visibility of things in people's yards, Meservey said. The only time that's happened in Orleans, he recalled, was when the board of health pursued a hoarding issue that didn't involve a home occupation.

After Reed invited listeners to share “creative solutions that empower self-policing and dealing neighbor-to-neighbor,” the board continued its hearing to the evening of Feb. 26, after The Chronicle's deadline.