Part 1: A Village Allergic to Docks

“The battle of the pier has resulted in neighbors no longer speaking to each other, name calling and the collection of money for legal fees from the citizenry.”

If you have any memories of the Harbor View pier, the court battles and controversies, or if you have a photo of the former 250-foot pier, I would be grateful and happy to include your thoughts on the matter, or any correction to the record of the dispute which follows. Thank you.

David Churbuck

The history of docks and piers in the village of Cotuit would seem to be one of the most tedious topics I could be blogging about. Yet it is a story that goes to the heart of Cotuit’s early maritime history, the reason why the village was once known as “Cotuit Port” and became one of the most important commercial ports on Cape Cod in the 19th century. Docks have  been a subject of intense controversy and debate in the village over the past 50 years, debates and court fights that have pitted neighbors against neighbors, dominated village politics, and ( it could be argued), lay the foundation for the village’s tradition of   preserving open space, fighting the demolition of historic homes, and advocating for the environmental health of its waterways and beaches.

The current application by a life-long summer resident to construct a new pier adjacent to Cotuit’s town dock has reignited community interest in the controversial and divisive topic of piers and docks. This essay is not about the pros and cons of that present proposal, but a brief look at Cotuit’s history of opposition to new docks and piers. I’ll break up the story into three parts.  

Older residents will recall the first major battle over a pier: the Harbor View Club’s 250-foot long permanent pier which was built in the mid-1960s, and then demolished in 1969 after years of court cases culminating in the state’s Supreme Court order to have it removed. The Harbor View pier fight was followed in the late 1970s by another battle over the so-called “Sobin pier” on Codmans/Bluff Point, a battle the pier’s opponents lost and its  owner won, again a fight entailing  years of hearings, court cases and arguments within the village  that pitted neighbor versus neighbor. The third major controversy over docks and piers came nearly 20 years ago, in 2001  the village and recreational shellfishermen successfully pushed for a ban on new piers from Handy’s Point to Loop Beach despite vigorous opposition from the real estate and construction lobbies.

But before jumping into the sad tale of the Harbor View, let me digress with a little history of docks in Cotuit

The First Docks

The reason the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has unique laws governing the ownership of waterfront property down to the edge of the water, and not the high-water mark like most other states, is the important role piers played in the settlement of the colony in the mid-1600s. Piers allow a ship to unload its passengers and cargo without needing to transfer them to a small boat – or lighter – which would then be rowed ashore into shallow water where it would be unloaded and carried the rest of the way. A contributor to the high mortality rate of the Pilgrims over their first winter in Plymouth was blamed in part on the need for the passengers and crew of the Mayflower to wade ashore in frigid waters, soaking their boots and clothing twice a day as most of the passengers lived aboard the ship while the first houses were being built ashore.  As subsequent ships arrived carrying Puritan colonists to Salem and Boston, it was apparent to the first colonial governors that substantial piers would be needed to handle the passengers, cargo and livestock arriving from England. Those piers – some of which remain to this day along Boston’s waterfront – were massive structures created by dumping boulders and stones into the harbor, then encasing the fill in timbers and planks to create a permanent pier where ships could berth and be easily offloaded. To encourage such construction the colonial regulations granted waterfront property owners control over the entire beach – from dry sand down to the water’s edge and then beyond into the waters of the harbor, giving them “water rights” over the submerged bottom under the pier. Because shipping and fishing were the foundation of the colony’s survival and success, the regulations succeeded and Massachusetts became the most successful maritime colony on the continent, with its  piers leading to shipyards, warehouses, ropewalks, and other related trades.

The first commercial pier built in Cotuit wasn’t built until 1797. It was owned by Braddock Crocker on the beach where the current yacht club pier stands at Ropes Beach/Hooper’s Landing, and some remnants of it can still be found buried in the mud there. Crocker’s pier was soon joined by Hezekiah Coleman’s pier, then others, making the Ropes Beach cove the commercial center of the village and leading to the renaming of the neighborhood as “Cotuit Port” to distinguish it from the original colonial settlement inland at Santuit near the Mashpee town line and the Santuit River.

Braddock Crocker’s pier, built 1797

In the early 19th century Cotuit’s piers were used to load cordwood for the island of Nantucket, to embark and disembark passengers on the  packets which ran daily between the village and the island, as well as load other cargo bound to the prosperous island.  After the Civil War, when the first summer residents began to build homes along the shores of Cotuit Bay, the commercial center began to shift to the area around the current town dock. Carleton Nickerson built a boat shop there, the Cotuit Oyster Company’s headquarters were there, and Sears, a Hyannis lumber company, built a depot at the town landing along with sheds to store coal delivered by coastal schooner to the village’s stoves.  The harbor was an important commercial port, and businesses such as the Coleman family’s Santuit House hotel, the blacksmith shop on Old Shore Road, Thomas Chatfield’s sail loft, and the Handy’s shipyard at Little River all prospered serving the hundreds of coastal schooners that passed through Nantucket Sound every day, carrying the cargo the country depended on at a time before roads or railroads connected its cities and towns.

As Cotuit made the transition from commerce to recreation in the late 19th century, the piers near Ropes Beach were used for the pleasure of the summer visitors staying at the Santuit House. Ice cream and clams on the half-shell were served from a shed on the end of one pier. Later, with the construction of the Pines Hotel near Riley’otHGs Beach and Sampson’s Island, a pier was built for the convenience of the guests who hired retired whaling captains to take them for day sails around the bay in their catboats.

The Harbor View Club

In 1902 a wealthy businessman—one  W.T. Jenney and his wife — built a large waterfront home on the bluff overlooking Cotuit’s town dock. Thereafter known  as the “Jenney House” it still sits next to Freedom Hall on Main Street and commands a spectacular view over the harbor, Dead Neck, Sampson’s Island, and Nantucket Sound beyond. The property  may also be the   “white elephant” of  the village, having changed hands nearly a dozen times since its construction.

The Jenney House in modern times

The Jenney House sits in a residential zoning district,  but it  became an informal  business in the early 1930s when  its owner, Annie Flanders, opened a tea-room that served sandwiches, ice cream, soda and yes, tea. She was unable to make a go of it, fell behind on the mortgage and taxes, and  lost the property to a foreclosure by the Wareham Savings Bank – who held onto it for six years before selling it in 1944 to a businessman from Worcester, Joseph Abdella.

In the early 1950s Abdella sold the Jenney House without making any significant modifications to it. In 1951 it was purchased by a Providence, Rhode Island “industrialist “named  Morton Clark and his wife Edith. The Clarks incorporated Harbor View Manor Inc., sold the property to that entity, brought on a partner, Ellsworth Rouseville of Attleboro, and gradually expanded the commercial use of the property, running it as a seasonal inn and making some minor modifications that didn’t attract much attention from the abutters despite its ongoing non-conforming commercial use in a residential zone.

In 1956 the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club celebrated its 50th anniversary with a regatta on Cotuit Bay. Headquarters for the event was the Harbor View, as the CMYC at the time had no pier or beach of its own, but depended on the hospitality of members to provide it with a home. Ironically, in ten years time the CMYC would be involved in a fight against the harborside inn.

In 1964 the Clarks received a permit from the state Department of Public Works to build a 250-foot long, eight-foot wide permanent pier with a 50-foot wide “T” at the end and slip accommodations for 26 boats.  While it appeared to be a marine, Harbor View Inc. founded a yacht club, registered it with the International Yacht Racing Union, and applied to the town of Barnstable for building permits to enclose and enlarge the home’s porch, to construct locker rooms for the yacht club’s members, dig up the 6,000 square foot lawn to make a parking lot, and various  other modifications to turn the former Jenney House into a year-round restaurant, hotel, and yacht club.

In January of 1965 the Harbor View Manor Club went before the Barnstable zoning board of appeals to get a variance for its non-conforming use and permits for the new construction. At that meeting the Clarks and investors in the corporation were met with opposition by 300 village residents and 200 telegrams sent by summer residents unable to make it to the Cape for the hearing in the off-season.  After taking the matter under advisement, the board unanimously voted to deny the building permits and variance and it appeared the expansion plans would be thwarted.

The Barnstable Patriot’s Cotuit correspondent, the late Frances X. Schmid, wrote in the weekly Cotuit news column of January 15, 1965, an item with the headline: “Villagers Protest Proposed Yacht Club”

“Three hundred villagers in person and 200 telegrams were part of  a protest presented to the zoning board at a  standing-room-only only hearing In the hearing room at the town office building last Thursday afternoon, protesting the petition of the Harbor View Manor Club, Inc.,  for an extension of the non-conforming use to permit the enclosure of a part of the existing building on Main Street and lo allow the use of the premises as a hotel-yacht club. Harbor View Manor Inc. President Lloyd J.  Clark has asked permission to enclose the  porch. Install plumbing facilities  on first floor, extend basement area for enlargement of cocktail lounge, and to add a sub-basement for installation of 228  lockers, shower and toilet  plumbing for both men and women. Representatives of the fire district and the prudential committee were also present lo protest the granting of the extension. Summer homeowners — among them Victor Boden of Stamford. Conn , and  J.C. Stookey of Hasting-on-Hudson, N.Y.— made the trip from their winter homes to join the protest. The petition was taken under advisement”

Frances X. Schmid, Barnstable Patriot, Jan. 15, 1965

Emboldened  by the state’s  permit to build the pier, the Harbor View pushed ahead with construction in the spring of 1965 and received a special building permit from the town’s building inspector, Herbert Stringer for the modifications to the building.  Two neighbors – Dr. Donald and Mary Higgins, and Mr. and Mrs. William Crawford – sued the building inspector in June of 1965. The battle over the new yacht club had begun.

Public opinion was divided. Some year-round villagers welcomed the arrival of a “real” yacht club and marina. Cotuit lacked a gas dock or boating facilities like Osterville, and the Harbor View Yacht Club promised to bring some real waterfront amenities to town  – including a fancy restaurant – which the village lacked since the decline of the commercial district at the turn of the century. The opponents were mainly summer people who wanted to preserve the informal, uncommercial character of the village.

In 1967, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times wrote a feature article about the impact of the late President John F. Kennedy’s summer “White House” at Hyannis Port on the sudden popularity of the Cape, especially along the south side between Cotuit and Hyannis Port. Cotuit summer resident and former Secretary of Commerce John Connor told the reporter that life in the village was “… delightfully unorganized.  Here, the ‘yacht club’ is the end of a dock and dues are one dollar a year. There is none of that white-jacket stuffiness you get over in Oysters Harbors.”

That state of  “delightful unorganization” changed forever in 1966 when opponents to the Harbor View began to raise money through the Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association and the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club  to help pay the fees of the Higgins and Crawford’s  attorney: the late Richard Anderson.  One wag nicknamed the effort the “Watch and Ward Society of Cotuit” in humorous reference to the Boston Watch and Ward Society that was  notorious for banning books in the early 1900s.

The agenda of the Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association meeting of August 1966 was dominated by the topic of the Harbor View. Frances Schmid wrote in her Barnstable Patriot  column:

Too Many Boats Too Many Gulls

Although it would take more Boston and Philadelphia lawyers than those barristers which have already been involved to make “Harborvlew” synonymous with “happiness” to most summer and settled residents of Cotuit, the attitude of the villagers toward “the external forces impinging on our community” was made much clearer than the water in Cotuit Harbor will be, at the annual meeting of the Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association at Freedom Hall Friday night. After such preliminaries as reading of last year’s meetings, the reporting of the amount in the treasury (some of which, In a motion by William Morse, Jr., will be used to Join with the Mosquito Yacht Club “in their efforts to enforce zoning regulations which we believe have been breached by Harborvlew”), the election of three new members, and such variegated discussions as jal-lai, Popponessett Bay, Barnstable Harbor Motel, cedar tree treatment, keeping Cotuit clean, a new dump site and the growth of the herring gulls, the remainder of the meeting got hotter than the afternoon that preceded this writing as various pro and con speakers rose to express their views and concern over the possible polluting of the harbor by boats that will tie up at the Harborvlew’s pier.

Although the State Health Department is concerned with the pollution of harbors and there are laws concerning the sealing of “heads” while boats are in the harbor or tied up at the dock. It was explained by Dr. Donald Higgins that it is hardly possible to police boats dumping. Robert Hayden, who feels that the pier and boats there can be an asset to the village, advocated the furnishing of more “facilities.” He also felt present regulations were acceptable to the modern day.

Motions for the joining of forces with other interested groups in the taking of more samples of water for testing by the Board of Health, followed by appropriate action if indicated, came from Dr. James Dunning, Mrs. D. T. Craw, and William Morse, Jr.

Gordon Browne, Jr., noted that although many protests were received over the holding of the firemen’s ball at the Harborvlew, there was no other place in the village to hold it. Which reminds us of a good joke about why firemen have so much more lavish affairs than policemen, but you’ll have to send a self-addressed stamped envelope for the answer.”

Frances X. Schmid, The Barnstable Patriot, August 1966

The dock was built in 1966  and the Harbor View Club opened for business. The Civic Association met again in August 1967 and the members voted to contribute $400 to “help defray expenses in the suit now pending in Superior Court.”  

That suit was heard by  Barnstable Superior Court Judge Edward F. Hennessey in January of 1968. To the dismay of the plaintiffs and the anti-Harbor View coalition, Judge Hennessey upheld the building inspector’s issuance of the special building permits, finding the changes to the property were “as lawful exercise in the discretionary powers of the building inspector under the terms of the (town) by-law.”  Judge Hennessey  also approved of the changes made to the property, writing in his decision: “…the new enclosures have enhanced the internal and external appearance of the building….the new (blacktop) surface was applied in a professional fashion and is attractive in appearance …motor vehicles, formerly parked on the dirt path and indiscriminately on all part of the grass surface … the new pier is attractively constructed …. There is no credible evidence that boat traffic in the vicinity has been increased by reason of the pier (and that) it is an obstruction to navigation…appropriate state authorities approved its installation before it was constructed … the efficiency and utility of that portion of the harbor has been enhanced.”

Judge Hennessey concluded: “All of the alterations complained of in the petitioner’s bill have made Harbor View and its immediate neighborhood more attractive to the eye.”

The Higginses and Crawfords appealed Hennessey’s decision and it was heard by the state Supreme court over the winter and early spring of 1967.  There, with Bernard A. Dwork of Dwork & Goodman representing the Harbor View, and Daniel J. Fern representing the abutters, the appeal was reviewed by five justices who focused on precedent and a close interpretation of the town of Barnstable’s zoning laws as they related to the concept of “non-conforming use.”  On May 2, 1967 the Supreme Court ruled against the Harbor View. Two years later, in June of 1969, Associate Justice Paul G. Kirk ruled that “use of the pier, constructed without a building permit in 1964, be stopped then and there.”

 The Patriot’s story about Kirk’s decision  said: “Judge Kirk’s ruling shuts off application for a special permit from the Town of Barnstable Appeals Board.” Yet despite the massive set back, the Harbor View did just that and made one final effort to gain a permit from the town zoning board of appeals  to preserve the pier. Denied unanimously five year before by the ZBA, they were denied again despite a new show  of support for the pier.

The sailing instructor at the Harbor View yacht club, James Ryan of Acton, wrote an impassioned and bitter letter to the editor of the Barnstable Patriot. He began by saying Judge Kirk should have disqualified himself from hearing the appeal because he was a “summer resident of the area.” (Kirk had a summer home in Centerville). Then Ryan described a malignant atmosphere of harassment and lies (and even anti-Semitism) by the opponents to the pier. Some of his claims included:

“Harborview Club and its members have been constantly harassed by those opposed to the club. The concern of those opposed is not with a zoning law, but to cause the failure of Harborview and eventual eviction of its members. They have charged us with polluting the waters, conducting noisy parties, trespassing on their properties, using obscene language, peering at them through binoculars, dirtying their beaches and other falsities. They have recently stooped to anti-Semitism. These self-appointed guardians and protectors of Cotuit Bay have, by their actions, done a disservice to the village of Cotuit. The Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club has, on several occasions, solicited funds from Cotuit Post Office box holders to pay the cost of litigation against Harborview.”

James Ryan, sailing instructor at the Harborview, in a a letter to the Barnstable Patriot, August 1969

After Judge Kirk issued his demolition order, the Barnstable Patriot wrote in an editorial published August 28, 1969:

“For about five years a battle royal has sputtered in Cotuit, as quiet, and sedate a little village as any in New England.

The bone of contention has been a pile of timbers extending  from the Harborview Club into the bay. This, summer a superior court judge decreed that the controversial pier must be torn down as it had been constructed without proper permit.

Arguments for and against retaining the pier were heard by Barnstable Appeals Board this week in a marathon session attended by a horde of opponents and proponents in the matter.

During debate of the issue one Cotuit resident declared that until now controversies in the community had been resolved among the villagers themselves. However, the battle of the pier has resulted in neighbors no longer speaking to each other, name calling and the collection of money for legal fees from the citizenry.

As a matter .of principle, he contended, the law in a town should be upheld without citizens having to reach into their own pockets.

It is a certainty that the gentleman from Cotuit would find many who support his theory.”

Editorial, Barnstable Patriot, August 28, 1969

On September 4, 1969, the lead story on the front page of  the Barnstable Patriot reviewed the long, sad history of that  “Battle Royal” and reported on the Harbor View’s final arguments in its August appearance before the ZBA.  So many people turned out to witness the hearing  that the meeting had to be moved from town hall  to the auditorium at Cape Cod Community College.

The three-hour long meeting opened with the club’s attorney, John Curley, Jr., arguing that unlike the 1964 hearing for variances to renovate and change the former Jenney home,  the  current application was to seek a permit for the pier, which had not been on the agenda five years before.  Curley’s arguments focused on the yacht club and recreational benefits  of the pier, not its commercial use by a for-profit corporation.

The Harbor View contingent  arrived with a petition signed by 90 names urging the pier be preserved,   two letters from  a current and former selectman who were in favor of the project, and testimony by the Falmouth Harbormaster who  said since it was nearly impossible to enforce sanitation regulations on the water, the harbor would be better served by onshore toilet facilities. Thirteen people in all  stood to speak on the Harbor View’s behalf.

Attorney Richard Anderson, representing the Higginses and Crawfords, argued the club was purely a commercial venture and quoted from the Harbor View’s promotional literature which stated: “Our magnificent new dock can accommodate your craft, even cabin cruisers.” Attorney John Alger, representing Cotuit realtor Helen MacLellan on the side of the plaintiffs,  disputed the Harbor View attorney’s claim that the pier had never been reviewed by the ZBA and said the hearing was not to determine “what recreational facilities should be available to children nor to determine if there is a shortage of piers in town, but rather to determine an issue of zoning.”

The Patriot’s article concluded: “Perhaps the most acute observation came from a native Cotuiter who commented on the impact the issue had on the village, bringing about a situation where neighbors and friends have become enemies and the breach created will be difficult to close.”

On October 30, 1969, the ZBA rejected the Harbor View’s proposal. One member of the board, Jean McKenzie Bearse of Centerville voted in favor, the other two members were opposed, saying in their decision that while they may have been inclined to grant the club its pier, their hands were tied by the state Supreme court’s decision.

And with that, the Harbor View Yacht Club’s fate was sealed. In the aftermath the Barnstable Patriots editor groused in an editorial titled “Never the Twain Shall Meet”

“Probably no village controversy in the past year has raised such dissension among neighbors as that of the pier at Harbor View Manor Club in Cotuit. The hearing in August routed more Cotuitites out of their oyster shells than any in some time, most of them strongly opposing the petition by the club to build another pier….”

“From beginning to end, the case of the Cotuit pier seems a paradox. At no time has there been greater demand for expansion of waterfront facilities than now. Yet a court orders one such accommodation torn down and the local appeals board cannot, in its opinion, legally accede to the request for building another in its place.

“Legality and logic appear at times to be much like east and west, and as the saying goes, never the twain shall meet.”

Editorial, Barnstable Patriot, November 6, 1969

In response, a leader of the anti-Harbor View contingent,  Dr. James Dunning of Cotuit, wrote a letter to the Patriot:

“Cotuit could easily fall prey to the intense commercial development that has occurred in other parts of the Cape. If this were to happen, Cotuit would lose it quiet village character. Its harbor waters would be polluted to the detriment of both the bathers and the oyster industry. Residents of Cotuit do not want this to happen. The many visitors and summer people we now entertain value the village just as it is. Conservatism and conservation have their place. We are glad the Supreme Court respects this concept.

“Second, the Harbor View dock was constructed without permit and in flagrant violation of zoning ordinances. Off-Cape money was forcing the development. We are justifiably afraid of such lawless tactics. We must resist them, as must all who respect law and order.”

Dr. James Dunning, letter to the editor, Barnstable Patriot, November 1969

The Harbor View still stands today with a very short, permanent pier in front of its beach. It is a private residence now, living on as a would-be marina and yacht club in the memory of those who lived through the first of what would be several brutal battles over piers on Cotuit’s shore.

Next: The Savery and Sobin Pier Fights  of the 70s

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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