CHATHAM – The town will drop a controversial plan to dredge a section of Chatham Harbor near the North Inlet that prompted a lawsuit and appeal to the state department of environmental protection.
But that doesn't mean that officials have given up on dredging that section of the harbor.
Last fall town officials had hoped to do emergency dredging of the area in question, just inside and to the south of the North Inlet, but weather conditions prevented the Barnstable County dredge from working. Deep-draft fishing boats had trouble traversing shoals in the area and had to time trips to coincide with high tides; recreational boaters and the Coast Guard also had problems with navigating the shoals.
The area was folded into an amendment to the town's comprehensive dredging permit that included three other areas in the harbor and Pleasant Bay. The conservation commission approved the changes, but the section near the North Inlet was appealed by Minister's Point property owner Gerald Milden, who claimed dredging there would increase erosion on his property.
Shoals within that area have shifted, however, according to Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson. He said about one-third of the shoals are now outside of the area the town sought to permit, so that even if the permit was granted, dredging would not meet the town's goal of providing a suitable navigation channel. Rather than continue to devote time and resources to litigate a permit that would no longer accommodate the dredging needs of boaters, fishermen, and emergency responders, selectmen, on the advice of staff and town counsel, decided in an executive session last Tuesday to withdraw that section of the comprehensive dredging permit.
In an Aug. 30 letter to the conservation commission, Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon requests that the section of the permit related to the North Inlet dredging be withdrawn; the commission will address the request at its Sept. 4 meeting.
The town will instead begin work on developing a more comprehensive dredging application to cover a larger area of Chatham Harbor in anticipation of expanded dredging needs in the future. That permit will likely include the area that was the subject of the appeal, Duncanson said.
“We're basically going to be trying to permit a larger area of Chatham Harbor,” he said. “That way in the future we will have the flexibility to dredge where it is most appropriate.” The exact scope has yet to be determined; the town is currently working with consultants and engineers to survey eelgrass and sample sediment throughout the harbor, he said, “which will help us define how big the box will be.”
That should have been the approach all along, said fisherman Doug Feeney, chairman of the Aunt Lydia's Cove committee.
“The whole area needs to be permitted,” he said. The withdrawn area remains a “choking point,” he said, although the area is so dynamic that it changes overnight. There is now an outer bar east of the North Inlet causing difficulty, and many fishermen have gone back to using the 1987 inlet to the south at high tide, even though it is no longer marked as a navigation channel, Feeney said.
“What we really need is a barge with an excavator” to remove “hot spots.” In May town meeting approved funds to study the practicality of the town buying and operating its own dredge.
Officials had begun working on enlarging the town's comprehensive dredging permit last winter, but now will be “starting from scratch,” Duncanson said. The East-Facing Shoreline Coastal Resiliency and Management Assessment study completed in July by Applied Coastal Research and Engineering and the Center for Coastal Studies “reinforced things we already suspected” about the anticipated changes to the harbor and will be a factor in determining the areas covered by the new comprehensive dredging permit.
Selectmen authorized staff to pursue a more comprehensive dredging plan for a larger area in anticipation of continued shoaling, according to a press release issued last Friday.
“The board considers it imperative to closely monitor changing conditions, plan for and devote the town's resources to those endeavors which will best serve the interests of the maritime community, and secure public safety,” according to the statement. “Accordingly, the board accepted the recommendation of staff that a reassessment of the scope of the dredging plan for Chatham Harbor is warranted at this time.”
Feeney questioned that strategy, pointing out that DEP had rejected Milden's initial appeal. Milden filed with the DEP office of dispute resolution, as well filing a lawsuit filed in Barnstable Superior Court under the town's local wetlands bylaw. Fishermen are upset over the decision to withdraw the proposed dredging area, he said, adding that town officials should have consulted with his committee and the waterways advisory committee before making that decision.
“Fishermen and the committee were cut out of the loop,” he said.
Duncanson said town officials hope to reach out to Milden and his representatives to discuss ways to satisfy their concerns to forestall an appeal of the enlarged comprehensive permit area.
“It will be new permitting so it will be open to appeal,” Duncanson said. Feeney said he expects the appeal process will start all over again when the new comprehensive permit is issued.
Milden wrote in an email that he would respond to the town's action in a future issue of his “dredgereport.org.” His attorney, Paul Revere, did not respond to questions about when and if the DEP appeal and lawsuit would be dropped.