What Are Orleans’ Harbors Worth? Town Officials Want To Know

By: Ryan Bray

Topics: Waterways , Orleans news , Economic development

An article set to go before voters at the special town meeting on Oct. 17 will seek $15,000 for a study to determine the economic value of Rock Harbor, Nauset Harbor and Town Cove. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – Town officials believe that pinpointing the economic value of Rock Harbor will be key when it comes to funding various projects and initiatives in the coming years.

Voters at the special town meeting on Oct. 17 will be asked to authorize spending $15,000 to fund a study to figure how much money the harbor contributes to the local economy. In addition to Rock Harbor, the study, outlined in Article 11 of the warrant, would also identify the economic value of Nauset Harbor and Town Cove.

In a phone call Monday, Select Board member Mefford Runyon said that other towns such as Wellfleet have placed dollar values on their harbors and waterways. With projects including a full dredge, a bulkhead replacement and full makeover of Rock Harbor being planned for in the years ahead, Runyon said knowing the value of the harbor could make it easier for the town to secure grants and other funding for those efforts.

"I think it's justifying costs and investments," he said. "If you're planning on spending three or four million dollars redoing the harbor, it's one thing to say the economy brings $5 million into the harbor every year, but this would make that decision more justifiable."

One upcoming project involves the redevelopment of the commercial wharf at Rock Harbor, including construction of a new commercial bulkhead and pile pier. The planning board was provided with information on the project during its Sept. 27 meeting as the town prepares to apply for a Chapter 91 license from the state to do the work.

"There is no action that you need to take, but the town is moving forward on this," George Meservey, the town's director of planning and community development, told the board. "It is definitely a very old structure that needs to be replaced."

Runyon estimated the wharf reconstruction to be a multi-million dollar project, and reiterated that an economic assessment will help in financing that project and others.

"Having that number is going to be important for the town to make a lot of decisions that are going to be coming up in the next couple of years," he said.

Other short-term Rock Harbor projects on the horizon include a full harbor dredge, which is scheduled for fall 2023. An emergency dredge of the harbor's inlet was done earlier this year.

The town is also planning to replace existing underground fuel tanks at the harbor with new ones that will be situated above ground. The town recently secured a $600,000 grant from the state Office of Coastal Zone Management to be put toward that project. An article at the special town meeting will seek $30,000 for permitting and design work, while the balance of the construction money could be sought at the annual town meeting in May.

Longer-term, the town is planning a comprehensive overhaul of the harbor, which Runyon estimated to be two or three years out, depending on what grant funding the town secures for the work.

Runyon said Monday that the town wants to take as broad a look as possible to quantify the harbors' value through the study, including looking at money that is brought in both commercially and recreationally. Documented fish landings and employment records for charter and commercial fishing vessels could make assessing the commercial value of the harbors easy, he said. But figuring out how much money is generated through their recreational use will likely be trickier.

"The people who come for a charter board for the day, are they staying at a motel in town, eating at a restaurant or doing all these types of things? I don't know how they go about learning that, but I think that's part of it," he said.

A similar article seeking funding for the study was rejected by town meeting voters in May. The article's failure surprised select board members, and Runyon said he believes language in the article referencing the "blue economy" may be to blame for it being voted down.

"The way it was worded made it subject to some ridicule," he said.

But town officials hope with retooled language, the relatively low cost attached to the article will make it an easier sell on Oct. 17. The $15,000 would come from the town's free cash reserves, and Meservey said Sept. 27 that the study could amount to just a few pages.

"It's not going to be an expensive one," Runyon said of the study during the planning board meeting. "Everyone does feel that a lot of this information is probably available to people who know where to look for it."

Email Ryan Bray at ryan@capecodchronicle.com