State Backs Chatham Harbor Dredging

By: Tim Wood

This May 7 photo of the North Inlet shows shoals just inside the northern tip of North Beach Island which are impeding navigation. The state department of environmental protection last week upheld the town's plans to dredge the area after a Minister' Point homeowner objected. SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO

CHATHAM – With the state ruling in the town's favor in a dispute over dredging in Chatham Harbor, officials are investigating expanding the footprint where dredging is allowed to include most of the northern section of the harbor in the expectation that the main navigation channel will be shifting over time.

“Things are changing so quickly,” said Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson. “North Beach Island is shifting, the inlet's shifting, so the dredge footprint we had a number of years ago when we thought we were ahead of the game, we're no longer ahead of the game.”

At one time he jokingly suggested that the town get a dredging permit for the entire harbor; it's no longer a joke.

“Quite honestly, that's where we're at,” Duncanson told selectmen Monday night. A meeting is being set up with state agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss enlarging the current dredging zone in the harbor, he said.

The North Inlet is now the main navigation channel between Chatham Harbor, Pleasant Bay and the open Atlantic. Shoals just inside and to the south of the inlet make navigation difficult, especially at low tide, and the town planned emergency dredging last fall. After weather and other issues prevented the Barnstable County dredge from clearing the shoals, the town sought to formalize the emergency permit by amending its existing dredging permit to include the troublesome area, which was just outside the permitted footprint.

Minister's Point property owner Gerald Milden objected, however, asserting that dredging would cause erosion to his waterfront property. After the conservation commission approved the town's amended permit, Milden filed an appeal with the state department of environmental protection.

Last week the agency issued a superseding order denying Milden's appeal. James Mahala, chief of DEP's wetlands and waterways program, wrote that the dredging, with restrictions regarding the time of year when the work can be done, meets the standards of the state Wetlands Protection Act.

Duncanson cautioned that the 10-day appeal period doesn't run out until today (June 13). If Milden requests an adjudicatory hearing, the process could last a year, “potentially longer,” he said, and hold up dredging in that area. Milden also appealed the conservation commission decision to Superior Court, and that case is still pending.

Contacted Monday, Paul Revere III, Milden's attorney, declined to comment when asked if his client planned to appeal the DEP decision. Milden also declined to comment.

The DEP order, however, allows the agency to move ahead with the project's Chapter 91 permit and water quality certifications, Duncanson said. Those also involve a 30-day comment period.

“Permitting is still far from being totally resolved,” he said.

In anticipation that dredging will be done in or near the North Inlet in the near future, the town is considering hiring a private contractor, given the “disarray” in the county dredge program, Duncanson. Officials met recently with two firms, Robert B. Our of Harwich and Jay Cashman, Inc., of Quincy to get cost estimates. Duncanson estimated the work will involve removal of just under 10,000 cubic yards of sand. Both firms had similar prices for the dredging, although Cashman's mobilization costs were significantly higher because the equipment would be brought up from the New York-New Jersey area, while Our is located in Harwich. Both would use a long-reach excavator mounted on a barge to remove shoals.

The total cost would be between $300,000 and $500,000, Duncanson said. The town will continue to coordinate with the country dredge program in the hope that the equipment—which broke down last fall and winter leaving dredging jobs in Chatham and other towns incomplete—can be back online to perform some of the dredge work, he said.

A number of other dredge-related matters are in the works. Because of the county dredge breakdown, funding for work in Chatham and other towns awarded last year through a new state pilot dredging program was extended for another year. Duncanson said Chatham and other Cape officials met last week with Senator Julian Cyr, D-Truro, to discuss changes to the pilot program, including extending work timelines and using the funds for permitting.

Talks are planned with the Army Corps of Engineers and will include not only expanding the permitted dredge zone in Chatham Harbor but potentially shifting the federal channel in Aunt Lydia's Cove to the North Inlet, Duncanson said. Currently the federal channel is “aimed for the southern inlet, which us all but impossible,” he said, cautioning that making the change is likely to be at least a two-year process.

In recent years the Corps has been getting out of small harbor dredging, and asking for the shift runs the risk of the Corps reviewing the costs and benefits of maintaining the channel and determining it no longer meets federal criteria, said Duncanson. “We're approaching this cautiously to make sure we don't shoot ourselves in the foot,” he said.

Mass Audubon has been contracted to conduct a horseshoe crab survey in the northern harbor area in anticipation of asking the state to lift a restriction on dredging during the creature's spawning season in the late spring and early summer. There also could be problems with future disposal of dredge material in the Linnell Lane area, Duncanson said. The sandy beach created by previously pumping dredged sand there has attracted piping plovers, and there is currently a nest with eggs on the beach.

The town has also applied for a state Coastal Zone Management coastal resiliency grant to look into putting dredged sand on the northern end of Tern Island, which is owned by Mass Audubon. Doing so would create protection for shorefront homeowners as North Beach Island retreats south, Duncanson said. “It has a whole host of regulatory issues,” he cautioned, including a possible conflict with shellfish habitat.

And, after town meeting approved funding to study the feasibility of a town-owned dredge, officials will be meeting with their counterparts in Harwich, Orleans and Eastham to investigate if a shared program is possible, Duncanson said.

Selectman Jeffrey Dykens, a former commercial fishermen, said investing in dredging is “short money” given the need to keep the waterways open for both commercial fishermen and recreational boaters.

“It's absolutely worth the effort,” he said. “It just changes so rapidly.”