CHATHAM — The conservation commission has officially been served with a suit by a Minister’s Point property owner alleging that it wrongly permitted future dredging in an area that provides the only deep-water access to Chatham Harbor.
The area in question, just inside the North Inlet, was approved for emergency dredging last year, but the dredging was not carried out because of deteriorating weather. Filed on Jan. 11 by Salt Pond Road resident Gerald Milden, the suit contends that the commission was wrong to add that same area to its comprehensive dredge permit to allow future dredging there.
The plaintiff had 90 days to serve the complaint, and did so on April 5. Milden’s attorney, Paul Revere III, said the town had an opportunity to try to settle the matter during that 90 days.
The suit asks the court to remand the matter to the conservation commission for denial, to submit the project to the Cape Cod Commission for consideration as a development of regional impact, to require the town to pay Milden’s costs and attorney’s fees, and to provide him with other relief as it sees fit.
Chatham Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson had no comment on the suit, which was filed in Barnstable Superior Court.
In addition to the suit, Milden is appealing the conservation commission’s order of conditions to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which has the option to either uphold the town's order, deny it, or add additional conditions. That process is still pending, Duncanson said. If Milden disagrees with the DEP's decision, he can request an adjudicatory hearing. The appeals process can take months, and until the matter is settled, the permits the town needs to dredge the area remain on hold.
For vessels over a certain draft, getting in and out of Chatham Harbor is now impossible except during the most favorable tides. While smaller boats can still pass freely, commercial fishing vessels and even Coast Guard rescue boats are increasingly unable to leave the harbor.
Except for shallow-draft boats, access to Chatham Harbor through the South Inlet by the lighthouse is now impossible. The North Cut by Minister's Point provides good tidal flow with Pleasant Bay, but the shoal just inside the inlet is now severely limiting access to the harbor. Fishing boats can only traverse the area at high tide, meaning that the whole fleet must leave the harbor together and time its return to coincide with high water.
The town has commissioned a study by Applied Coastal Research and Engineering and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, and early findings don’t bode well for navigation to and from Chatham Harbor. The study uses computer modeling to show that changes in the shoals inside the North Cut have caused swift currents to form around Minister’s Point, as water from Pleasant Bay races by with each tide. Town officials say the study makes it clear that natural processes related to the inlet have caused those swift currents.
In March 2018, erosion during a series of intense coastal storms caused a partial collapse of the seawall protecting Milden’s waterfront property. Milden blamed the town’s previous dredging of Chatham Harbor for causing the erosion.
Earlier this month, engineer John Ramsey of Applied Coastal sent a memo to town officials specifically addressing the likely effects of dredging the bar in question. Ramsey estimated that opening the harbor’s entrance channel would require removing around 12,000 cubic yards of sand.
“To put this volume in context relative to the rapidly shifting barrier beach and shoal system, an analysis of volume changes between 2007 and 2018 was performed,” he said. The analysis showed an influx of more than 1.6 million cubic yards of sediment in the area just inside the North Cut during the last decade. Based on that number, “it is unlikely that a 12,000 cubic yard dredging project would have a measurable effect on either the volume of water flowing through the inlet or overall accretion/erosion trends in the vicinity of North Inlet,” Ramsey wrote.
A number of fishermen, mariners and members of the board of selectmen have argued that the legal challenges to the dredging project threaten the livelihoods of many fishermen and those who work in related shore-side businesses, and could hinder the Coast Guard’s ability to respond to emergencies. Asked whether his client intends to exhaust every legal and administrative avenue to keep dredging from happening in the area, Revere had no comment.