A Year Of Contrasts In Chatham

By: Tim Wood

The Ms. Eelgrass contest returned this year to the Chatham VFW, where it began 35 years ago.  Here, Judge John Forger and the newest Ms. Eelgrass, Maria Price. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Negativity and hope competed for attention in town during 2019.

Voters turned down a new senior center, but hope remained that a new location would be approved; an ugly fight developed over a new master plan for the airport, with accusations about conflicts and insensitivity flying faster than a falling skydiver; extreme weather struck but the response was immediate and competent; failure to complete a new deck on the fish pier led to frustration for visitors and town officials alike; and a number of iconic businesses changed hands, mostly seamlessly, much to everyone's relief.

Here are some of the highlights from 2019's Chatham news.

Senior Center Fails At Town Meeting

As the new year begins, Chatham voters will be going to a rare Saturday special town meeting on Jan. 4 to take the next step in the long-gestating plan to build a new senior center. A new facility to house the council on aging has been under discussion for nearly a decade; the more dire need for a new fire station put the senior center on the back burner, but work on a senior facility began in earnest with a COA needs assessment in 2015. The existing facility on Stony Hill Road was inadequate to meet the expected needs of the town's growing senior population, the study found, and it recommended a new, larger building.

After an extensive study of town-owned parcels, selectmen settled on land off Middle Road and took a proposal for a $6.6 million, 10,150-square-foot single-story senior center to town meeting in May. But residents were critical of the location, which many thought too isolated. The proposal failed to muster the necessary two-third majority and officials returned to the drawing board.

After further study of town-owned land and solicitation of proposals for private parcels, selectmen rejected the use of the existing senior center site and land on the Marconi-MCI campus in Chathamport. The board instead backed purchase of a 1.34 acre parcel at 1610 Main St. owned by Eastward Companies, which agreed to sell the land to the town for a senior center for $750,000. While COA supporters saw the choice as the best of those available, others were critical, especially regarding the topography of the land, which slopes significantly, and the preliminary design of a building with access around the back rather than along Main Street. Even the finance committee had reservations, voting against the purchase 5-2.

If special town meeting voters approve the purchase and a $130,000 feasibility study to complete conceptual designs, final funding for a new senior center will be subject to a vote at the May annual town meeting (see story on page 1 for more on the special town meeting and senior center).

Airport Master Plan Update Sparks Controversy

The long-running controversy over skydiving at Chatham Municipal Airport didn't go away this year, but it took a backseat to a firestorm of criticism over the draft update of the facility's master plan.

In August, Barnstable Superior Court Justice Beverly J. Cannone dismissed a lawsuit over skydiving filed by a group of citizens, ruling that federal law governing airports overrides nuisance claims the group made under the state's Tort Claims Act. Within two weeks, however, Citizens for a Safe Chatham Airport appealed the ruling, and it remains unresolved.

Controversy flared up around the airport again in August when neighbors of the George Ryder Road facility began questioning the contents of a draft update of the airport master plan. Residents were upset over a proposal to change the way planes approach the airport during poor weather; rather than circle until the airstrip can be visually identified, the new approach would allow pilots to use GPS to land in a direct flight path. The airport commission and pilots said the new approach was safer, uses current technology rather than the current outmoded system, and would cut down on the time planes have to circle before landing in poor weather. Critics, however, said planes will fly lower over homes and the new approach would increase use of the airport in poor weather. It would also require the trimming of trees on private property and securing air navigation easements over homes which could cost millions of dollars. The draft plan was also criticized for plans to install underground jet fuel tanks and construct a new administration building.

After two contentious three-hour meetings, during which airport critics accused airport commissioners and the airport manager of conflicts of interest and shouted down pilots attempting to explain the proposals, the commission proposed a compromise approach plan that would reduce the number of easements required for the straight-in landing from 46 to 18 and also cut down on the number of parcels where tree trimming would be necessary. While the commission was considering this proposal, the board of selectmen, in early December, criticized the group for not paying enough attention to public comments about the plan.

Fish Pier Deck

At year's end, the new deck on the Chatham Fish Pier remained unfinished. The $1.4 million project was supposed to begin in late winter and be completed by Memorial Day, but delays—weather, manufacturing, and a lack of workers on site, perhaps other reasons, depending on who you ask—meant the project didn't begin until the spring. By July 4, replacement of underground fuel tanks was well along but while the old deck had been removed, work on its replacement hadn't even started. The result was a summer without one of the town's most popular tourist destination, which in the past drew as many as 3,000 people per day to watch fishing boats unload and seals swim in Aunt Lydia's Cove. This summer, visitors were channeled away from the construction area to a small section of the north jog, where they jockeyed with fishermen for space.

Nobody was happy with the scene, including the visitors, the town, contractor Sciaba Construction, fishermen and Andy Baler, owner of the Chatham Fish Pier Market, which saw its business plummet due to confusion about access to the area.

In the fall, the town began fining Sciaba $500 per day after the firm missed the last agreed-upon completion date. The work continued, and as of this week, the deck appears to be nearly completed, although stairs and a small elevator have not yet been built.

Sharks

After the 2018 fatal shark attack on a boogie boarder in Wellfleet, officials were extra vigilant going into the summer season. A proposal to move recreation department swimming lessons out of Oyster Pond, where seals are sometimes seen, was turned down, as was $100,000 to study and implement shark deterrents at the popular children's swimming beach at the pond. There were no incidents at the pond this summer, nor were any other Chatham beaches closed due to shark sightings, although there were some closures when seals entered swimming areas.

A program to educate the public about great white sharks sponsored by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC) began at Lighthouse Beach this summer. The Shark Smart Beach Program, held at the popular beach three days a week, sought to provide beachgoers not only with shark safety tips but also to educate them about the predators and their presence in Cape waters.

Over the summer, state shark biologist Dr. Greg Skomal and his team of scientists, supported by the AWSC, conducted shark tagging trips along the Cape's east coast and in Cape Cod Bay. Dozens of sharks were tagged in one of the most successful seasons since the tagging trips began, with the information gathered contributing to research into the detailed movement of local sharks, with the goal of trying to discern when the creatures are most likely to be close to shore and thus a potential danger to swimmers.

Real-time detection buoys were used for the first time, providing instant notification when a tagged shark was nearby. Sightings from shore and from the air also led to many beach closures in Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet and Truro.

A $50,000 study of shark mitigation measures released in the fall concluded that education was the best way to protect beachgoers from attacks. None of the 27 deterrents studied by the Woods Hole Group were guaranteed to prevent shark attacks; many used in other locations were unlikely to work here, according to the report, and others were unproven. The report recommended looking further into a few, but suggested that the best course of action for now was to continue current practices, such as “shark smart” education, heightened awareness and emergency measures such as stop the bleed training and first aid kits at beaches.

Chatham 365 Makes Recommendations

After two well-attended public meetings where residents suggested ways to encourage a more diverse population, the Chatham 365 Task Force presented its recommendations to the board of selectmen at the end of September. The task force had been set up by selectmen earlier in the year after an outcry over a letter in The Chronicle that challenged a proposal to use taxpayer money to pay daycare costs to relieve local families of that often considerable financial burden. The debate blossomed into a wide-ranging discussion about ways to make the town more affordable for young families as well as older residents.

The group made recommendations in four areas: economic empowerment, zoning, community buoyancy and civic vibrancy. The high cost of housing is a major obstacle, the group found. Enhancing affordability in Chatham requires “closing the gap between wages and housing,” task force member Tracy Shields said. “It’s a glaring disparity.”

Recommendations included expanding high-speed internet access and offering business incentives, while increasing the town-wide minimum hourly wage to $15; allowing more apartments, townhouses and higher-density residential development in appropriate areas (town meeting in May approved a zoning amendment allowing accessory dwelling units, essentially apartments in private homes); providing property tax breaks for full-time residents and incentives for those who provide year-round rentals; and providing taxpayer funded daycare and universal preschool.

Selectmen sent the recommendations to several departments and committees for potential actions, and disbanded the task force. Two weeks ago the board voted to support expanding the existing childcare voucher program (see story elsewhere in this issue), and the economic development committee is scheduled to meet with selectmen this month to deliver its suggestions for carrying out some of Chatham 365's recommendations.

Tornado Hits Region

On July 23, a tornado ripped through Harwich and continued into Chatham, battering a slim corridor with 90 mile per hour winds. Huge trees were uprooted, branches snapped and wires downed, cutting power to most of the town. Two dozen boats sank or broke their moorings as the wind whipped across Stage Harbor and out to sea. An airplane at Chatham Airport flipped, but there was surprisingly little else in the way of property damage and no one was hurt. But the recovery took weeks, as crews systematically removed damaged trees and utility crews repairs lines and restored power. With no power at The Chronicle office on deadline day, the staff relocated to a conference room at the Chatham Fire Station and managed to get the paper out with only a day's delay.

Reimbursement for Chatham's $438,000 in costs for the cleanup was included in a supplemental state budget bill signed by Governor Baker at the end of December.

Harbor Shoaling, Dredging, And Coastal Resiliency

Shoaling in Chatham Harbor continued to create problems for commercial fishermen and recreational boaters. No further efforts were made to dredge the North Inlet after the project was abandoned last winter due to weather and mechanical problems. A North Chatham property owner lost his challenge to town approval of the dredging, but the town later dropped that section of its dredging plan due to shifting shoals. The property owner appealed the decision anyway.

Further down the harbor, the 1987 inlet also continued to be problematic. Sand movement to the south clogged the entrance channel to Outermost Harbor Marine, leaving the operation nearly landlocked. Over the summer, some of the marina's boats had to be moored outside of the basin and customers shuttled out to them after the channel nearly filled in. In August, the marina petition the town for assistance in keeping its entrance channel open.

There was good news in July, when the state awarded the town $100,000 to dredge the Aunt Lydia's Cove mooring basin. The federal government also announced plans to bring the Army Corps of Engineers dredge Currituck to Stage Harbor to clear the entrance channel, expected to happen later this month.

Meanwhile, a coastal resiliency report on the town's east-facing shoreline, projected out 20 to 30 years, showed significant challenges for the Little Beach area as well as several other areas along the shore. Other areas along the coast will see protection from migrating sand, according to the $250,000 Applied Coastal Research and Engineering report released in July, and navigation in and out of Chatham Harbor will remain difficult.

Transitions

The year began with some significant changes to several Chatham institutions. In January the Monomoy Theatre property was put on the market by the Steinder family after the University of Hartford declined to renew its lease on the Main Street complex, which had been a summer training ground for theater students for more than eight decades. Town inspectors had found numerous health and safety violations and the owners and university could not agree on how to go about making upgrades. In March Gregory T. Clark of Alexandra Properties in Newton Upper Falls revealed that he had a purchase and sales agreement on the property. For the first time in decades, the theater was dark over the summer. The sale, for $3.65 million, happened in September. In November, Clark presented conceptual plans to the historic business district commission to renovate the historic theater and home on the property, creating a year-round performing arts center, with housing at the rear of the property.

Also in January, the Candy Manor, for more than 50 years a Main Street institution, was sold. New owners Robbie and Paige Carroll had worked at the sweet shop for years, and Robbie's mother, Susan, was its longtime manager.

Across Main Street, George Payne and Richard Costello, founders of the equally iconic Chatham Squire, sold the business to Chatham-raised Todd Hearle. The former Connecticut businessman also purchased the Captain's House Inn in December. Also last month, Hearle's mother, artist Debbie Hearle, announced that she was closing her gallery, and that Todd would be reopening the space as a shop selling Squire merchandise.

Coast Guard, Food Trucks, Eelgrass and Charters

At the end of last year, the Chatham Coast Guard Station's designation was changed from a surf station to a heavy weather station. Coast Guard officials said surf wasn't heavy enough on the bar enough days of the year to meet the surf station criteria, but assured local officials that the change would not impact station operations. Selectmen weren't convinced and warned of a slippery slope that could lead to further curtailing the mission of the station.

The Coast Guard's rescue boats were having just as much trouble getting in and out of Chatham Harbor as other vessels, and the agency began working with the town to develop docking facilities for two of its 42-foot lifeboats at the town-owned Old Mill Boatyard. That would provide the flexibility to deploy the station's assets where they can be most useful and respond the quickest, said Senior Chief Petty Officer Carlos Hessler. The plans are scheduled to go before the selectmen this month.

Efforts to save the town's historical structures continued, with the historical commission working with the South Chatham Village Association to move ahead with National Historic Register District designation for the neighborhood. At year's end, it appeared as if agreement had been reached to save an iconic home on Stage Harbor, known as Starboard Light, and efforts were also progressing to preserve one of the oldest homes in town, built by the son of founder William Nickerson.

After a confrontation between a member of the charter review committee and a property owner, selectmen decided in July to abolish the committee. Some called the committee dysfunctional and criticized its sometimes confrontational approach. At the end of the year, selectmen named a new charter review committee and asked it to examine a provision in the town charter that requires review every five years, with an eye toward increasing that review period.

A proposal to have a food truck at the Chatham Merchants Association-sponsored Mondays on Main events over the summer met with a backlash from a number of downtown restaurant owners, who felt the truck would take customers away from their businesses. The merchants ended up dropping the proposal, and the selectmen agreed to look at town regulations to streamline permitting for similar proposals in the future. The Mom and Pops Burgers food truck did show up at the final Mondays on Main, giving out free food under the sponsorship of several local businesses.

Several neighbors of Chase Park complained about overuse to the park and recreation commission, especially focusing on the labyrinth at the rear of the property. They said cars are often parked on private roads in the area when events are held there. But park officials noted that few large-scale events are held at the park, and selectmen also rejected the idea that the park is too busy. However, the board requested that the park department keep neighbors updated on any changes to the park and investigate plantings along the property line behind the labyrinth.

In reaction to a proposal from Monomoy High School students, the board of health banned the retail sale of flavored vaping products; in the fall the governor implemented an emergency ban on the sale of all vaping products after numerous cases of lung disease were attributed to the activity. In December Chatham's health board banned the retail sale of all flavored tobacco products, ahead of a state ban slated to go into effect in June.

Finally, two iconic Chatham events returned this summer. The Art of Charity held its final auction and announced that it would disband after more than 25 years of providing grants to schools and youth-related organizations. And the Ms. Eelgrass contest returned to the Chatham VFW, 35 years after it began there, for a contest that definitely proved that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.