At The Fish Pier, A Crisis Of Confidence

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing , Tourism , Waterways

Fishermen, sightseers, construction workers and fish haulers jostle for space Monday in the lower lot of the Chatham Fish Pier. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM While the general contractor has promised to complete the installation of a new observation deck at the fish pier by July 19, as of Tuesday, no construction was visible except for a few laborers methodically working on a small concrete ramp.

What was visible was a chaotic scene exacerbated by the construction zone. While an 18-wheeler backed in to unload fish and several refrigerated trucks jockeyed for spots near the south jog, parents with strollers and camera-wielding tourists weaved through the traffic and a fisherman shouted at a police officer over a parking space.

The frayed nerves aren’t limited to those trying to find parking spaces. On Monday, selectmen told town staff that they had the authority to have the contractor suspend work on the observation deck until fall, should continued work threaten public safety or commercial fishing operations.

“I’m woefully disappointed in this contractor,” Selectman Cory Metters said.

Updating the board Monday, Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said he spoke with the president of the company, Sciaba Construction Corp. of Walpole, shortly before the meeting.

“He remains absolutely committed to the July 19 date,” Duncanson said. “I asked him to provide a more detailed, comprehensive schedule of exactly how he intends to do that,” but he declined to do so, Duncanson said. And legally, the town cannot force the contractor to provide that information. “Municipalities are not able to tell a contractor how to do a job. It’s up to him to determine means and methods,” he said.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in his word at this point. And that’s saying it nicely,” Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said. “It’s been a lackadaisical operation.”

The conflict between construction workers and fishermen is growing worse, Aunt Lydia’s Cove Committee Chairman Doug Feeney told the board. As workers were cutting plastic trim, “they were blowing dust into the guys’ product they were unloading,” he said. The fishermen had to ask the workers to stop so the plastic fragments wouldn’t contaminate the fish. In addition to worries about food safety, there’s a continued risk of injury to fishermen unloading their catch.

“There’s rebar hanging out in spots,” Feeney said. He urged selectmen to act now to suspend work on the observation deck, allowing the contractor to focus on a few last items needed to support the fish packing operation. While that would mean having no observation deck this summer, having safe fish and fishermen “should be our priority,” he said.

Fisherman Luther Bates agreed, saying the town has hired police details to direct traffic in the lower lot, and has also used harbormaster’s staff for that purpose. Meanwhile, the float docks have not yet been installed at the north jog to give fishermen a place to tie up their dinghies. “We’re diverting town staff from necessary fishing operations into tourism operations,” he said. Skate fishing is underway now, and boats will begin landing thousands of pounds of dogfish next week, he said.

There were two construction workers on site Monday, Bates said, “and they locked up work at 5:15, on a beautiful sunny day.” The town has granted permission for the contractor to work until 9 p.m., including on the weekends, but the company has not taken advantage of those extended hours.

Some progress has been made at the job site. The upper parking lot has been paved, and the contractor has moved equipment to a corner of the lower parking lot, which has also been paved. The fuel pumps and related equipment are on track for completion by the end of next week. But work has not visibly begun on the observation deck, with just over two weeks to go before the deadline, which was extended several times by the town.

Bates urged selectmen to immediately suspend the project until fall, though it means going without the observation deck.

“I’m not giving that lightly,” he said, noting that, as chairman of the town’s economic development committee, he knows the value of tourism to Chatham.

“Number one, it’s a fish pier. Number two, it’s a tourism pier,” Bates said.

More work has been done on the project in the last week-and-a-half than in the previous month-and-a-half, said Andy Baler of Chatham Pier Fish Market. But for the job to meet its deadline, “he should have 20 guys down there.”

Duncanson agreed. “If they had 20 guys and they could be doing five things simultaneously we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said. “They haven’t properly staffed the project since day one.”

Harbormaster Stuart Smith noted that the deck is far more complex than a residential deck. It is designed to be waterproof, with stainless steel hardware, and includes an elevator for visitors with disabilities. Only specialized contractors should work on such a project, he noted.

“This is not an uncomplicated deck,” he said. “We don’t want a rush job, is what I’m getting at.”

As for Sciaba’s ability to complete the work by July 19, Smith is unequivocal.

“They haven’t made a date yet,” he said. “In a million years, it’s not going to happen by July 19.”

Duncanson said he and town staff would decide after this week’s meeting with the contractor whether to have work suspended for the remainder of the summer. Such a suspension would need to be negotiated with the contractor, and the town would need to ensure that it was not charged mobilization costs in the fall, he said. The reason for the suspension is the contractor's “inability to properly staff the job,” Duncanson noted.

The town has the ability to impose per-day financial penalties on the contractor after July 19. Selectman Jeffrey Dykens urged staff not to suspend the work before that date, otherwise “we lose any leverage that we have.”