Selectmen: Despite Delay, Shellfish Upweller Still A Priority

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Infrastructure , Shellfishing , Waterways

A computer rendition of the proposed upweller building and related docks, as seen from the drawbridge. COURTESY STANTEC

CHATHAM — From the trap dock reconstruction to the long-delayed fish pier observation deck, the town has a host of waterfront projects underway. And selectmen are reassuring shellfishermen that, despite delays, their request for a new upweller building is still progressing.

Now located underneath the harbormaster’s office at Old Mill Boat Yard, the aging upweller is key to the town’s shellfish propagation program, which supports both the commercial and recreational shellfisheries. That system, which circulates seawater through a cascading series of tanks, is on its last legs, Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne told selectmen this week.

“The facility’s very old and tired,” she said, and investing more money in temporary repairs doesn’t make sense given the current plans to build a new upweller building at 90 Bridge St. But with that project having apparently stalled, shellfishermen are worried that a malfunction could derail the propagation program entirely. “And that’s something we don’t want to see,” she said. “Eventually there’s going to be something we can’t fix.”

Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the plans for the new building have been underway for two-and-a-half years and were scaled back last April at the request of the board of selectmen after concerns were raised about the building’s size and cost. When town officials received an updated cost estimate for engineering, design and permitting for the new building, they noticed a substantial jump in engineering costs, despite the fact that the project itself had been scaled back, Duncanson said. The town sought an independent review of the estimate, and then asked the engineer to reconsider its estimate. The engineering firm didn’t immediately reply to the town’s request, he said.

Given the delays the town has experienced with the fish pier observation deck, “there’s been a lot of due diligence to make sure we get this done in a timely manner” that’s also cost-effective, Duncanson said. The town has asked a second engineering firm to prepare an estimate for the upweller building, but the original firm has since replied and expects to have a report shortly. Within two weeks, “we should have two engineering proposals in,” he said.

“We’d like to know when this is going to be done,” shellfish advisory committee member Bob Davis told selectmen Monday. The committee is also looking for assurances that the project will be fully funded, and that it still has selectmen’s support.

Board members reaffirmed their support, saying the shellfish propagation program supports local businesses and provides a great benefit at relatively low cost to the town.

“I think ultimately there’s great return here,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said.

Depending on the results of the engineering report, design of the new facility could begin in the spring, and would likely take a year, Duncanson said. There would then be roughly another year for permitting before construction could start, which would take a third year. Because it involves a new building built on piles in a flood zone, the project requires a large number of permits, he noted. Some have proposed building the new bulkhead while the permitting process for the building is still underway, but that approach is still under consideration, Duncanson said.

The original project cost estimate was $3.44 million, but that number may change based on the final engineering reports. Three funding sources have been identified for the project: a 2017 bonding authorization for waterfront projects, grants from the state’s Seaport Economic Council, and waterways user fee revenues. Davis said he’s concerned that the shellfish advisory committee has no official role in advising how those waterways user fee revenues are spent.

Duncanson stressed that while the project includes a new building for the upweller and other amenities at 90 Bridge St., it does not include new upweller equipment. “There’s probably another million dollars, or thereabouts, to outfit the interior of the building,” Duncanson said. Town officials continue to pursue grants for the equipment, but have so far not been successful.

“Trust me, we’re looking everywhere we can” for grant funds, he told the board.