CHATHAM – Selectmen Tuesday balked at accepting the donation of the historic Stage Harbor Coast Guard boathouse, expressing concerns about renovation and maintenance costs as well as its future use.
Resident David Doherty has arranged for the 83-year-old building to be moved from Hull to Quincy, where it will be stored for up to six months, all with private funding. But what happens after that is too uncertain for the town to accept the donation of the boathouse at this time, selectmen said.
“I think we would be getting something that we don't really know the future cost of,” said Selectman Dean Nicastro.
Doherty has an agreement with contractor and part-time Chatham resident Jay Cashman to move the building to Cashman's Quincy shipyard, but whether that can happen without the town accepting ownership of the boathouse was uncertain Tuesday. It's just one of several questions – including the future use of the boathouse – that concerned selectmen.
“We need some time” to get answers, said Chair Shareen Davis. “I feel really forced in this decision.”
The town sent engineering consultants GEI Consultants and project manager Rick Pomroy to Hull last month to examine the condition of the structure and evaluate its potential to house a new shellfish upwelling system. Plans to build a new upwelling building at 90 Bridge St. are at the 35 percent design stage, but the boathouse is about the same size as the proposed building. The inspection found the boathouse to be in “fair condition,” and a comparison of the cost of the two buildings put a new, purpose-built upweller at at $400,000, while retrofitting the boathouse would be $440,000, according to a memo from Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson.
That doesn't include the cost of transporting the boathouse from Quincy to Chatham, which the consultants put at roughly $400,000.
“And what we're getting is an old building,” said Nicastro, questioning the ongoing maintenance cost should the boathouse be used to house the upweller. With the town facing as much as $66 million in capital expenditures in the coming years – including a new senior center, affordable housing and additional money to maintain a standalone elementary school in town – he said he found it hard to justify incurring unknown costs by accepting the boathouse.
Built in 1937 on the shore of Stage Island, the boathouse and its 300-foot pier was used by the Coast Guard to store, perform maintenance on and haul out its rescue boats, including the CG36500, the Gold Medal lifeboat used in the 1952 rescue of the crew of the tanker Pendleton on Feb. 18, 1952. Portrayed in the 2016 movie “The Finest Hours,” the mission is considered the greatest small boat rescues in the history of the Coast Guard.
The boathouse was decommissioned in the 1970s, and the town passed on an offer to buy it for $1. The pier became derelict and was ordered removed, and when a new house was proposed for the property in 2009, a group of residents, headed by Doherty, tried to find a new location for it in town but were unsuccessful. Cashman agreed to move the boathouse to his Quincy boatyard, where it sat until it was moved to Acushnet Marine's Hull property in 2019.
After learning in October that the boathouse was going to be auctioned, Doherty contacted Acushnet Marne owner Michael McDevitt and arranged to have it removed from the auction and agreed to pay $10,000 for the historic structure.
But the town of Hull has been fighting with McDevitt since 2019 over conservation and zoning regulations that were violated when the boathouse was placed on the Acushnet Marine property. A Plymouth Superior Court judged ordered the boathouse removed by Jan. 1, and demolition was scheduled to take place Monday, but Doherty worked with McDevitt and Hull officials to stay the order until Jan. 8 to provide time to arrange the boathouse's removal. Doherty said that on Monday he hand-delivered a building permit application for Cashman to remove the boathouse. Cashman can remove the structure by Jan. 15 – Doherty thought Hull officials will be willing to wait past the Jan. 8 court order date as long as the boathouse is leaving the town's shore – and is willing to store the boathouse for six months at no charge, although there would be a $2,500 a month charge thereafter.
Doherty said he plans to work with California-based national nonprofit the Giving Back Fund to raise money to pay for the cost of the boathouse and the initial move to Quincy. He didn't rule out donations helping to cover the cost of bringing the building back to Chatham, and also suggested that community preservation funds could help cover those costs, as well as restoration. The historical commission has also submitted a historic inventory form for the boathouse to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which could make restoration costs eligible for grants.
“There seems to be an appetite now, as opposed to 11 years ago, to preserve this building,” Doherty said. The Old Harbor Lifesaving Station, once on North Beach and now in Provincetown, and the CG36500 lifeboat, owned by the Centers for Culture and History in Orleans and berthed in Rock Harbor, were both lost to Chatham, he said.
“It's not very often you get a second bite at the apple. I really think we should take advantage of this opportunity,” Doherty said.
Selectmen wanted clearer figures on the cost of transporting the boathouse to Chatham as well as restoration and maintenance. They also weren't convinced that it was the right building for the upweller and wanted more information on other possible uses and places where it could be located.
“We need to know what we're going to be signing up for now and in the future, so we can prioritize it,” said Selectman Peter Cocolis.
“There are a lot of questions unanswered for me,” said Selectman Jeffrey Dykens.
Davis said she spent much of her adult life looking across the harbor at the boathouse. “It is an iconic piece of Chatham history, there's no doubt about that at all,” she said. But there are too many unanswered questions at this time for the board to take any action, she said.
Doherty said he would talk to Cashman as soon as possible and provide the board with answers quickly. After Tuesday's meeting, he said while he was disappointed that board members didn't seem interested in using the boathouse for the upweller, he was not willing to give up on bringing the historic structure back to town.
“It's not over,” he said.