Part 2: the Sobin Pier and other dock fights of the 70s

A village allergic to docks

This is the second in a three-part series on the fractious topic of piers in Cotuit. Previously I detailed the story of the Harbor View pier dispute that took place in the 1960s. This chapter is about an even more divisive struggle between a waterfront landowner and the anti-pier forces of the village that raged in the late 1970s: the Sobin Pier.

Background

1978 marked the tenth anniversary of the demolition of the Harbor View Club’s 250-foot pier. Watching its dismantling might have felt like a victory for the preservationists in the village who wanted to preserve the quaint character of the place.  Morton Clark, the Rhode Island businessman who owned the club, passed away in 1968, the year before the state’s Supreme Court ordered the pier removed. His heirs held on for a few years longer before selling to a new group of Boston investors who tried to make a go of the business without a marina. In 1980 Harbor View Realty Inc. was dissolved and the big mansion on the bluff reverted to a residence which it has ever since. One of the subsequent owners tried, and failed, to get a permit for another 250-foot pier.

The anti-dock forces didn’t have long to savor their victory over off-Cape developers. The early sixties had focused world attention to Cape Cod during the JFK Camelot-era, and the opening of a four-lane highway (Route 3) from Boston to the Cape had cut the drive time to Cotuit from several hours to 90 minutes. Cotuit had a history as one of the first summer resorts on the Cape. With President Kennedy eating lunch on the fantail of the Honey Fitz with the president of Italy off the cove of Sampson’s Island, it was impossible for the westernmost and smallest village in Barnstable to hide from public view.

Large scale development on the Cape began in the mid-1960s. That development especially impacted the town of Mashpee which had remained undeveloped for the first half of the 20th century because of its tenuous identity as the soverign tribal lands of the Wampanoag tribe. Real estate developers succeeded in breaking the colonial covenants put in place by the tribe’s benefactor, Richard Bourne, who forbade the sale of any of the “Plantation of Marshpee’s” lands outside of the tribe. By the mid-1960s a large luxury development in Mashpee — New Seabury — sprang up along Cotuit’s western borders along Popponesset Bay to Waquoit Bay to the west.

The next decade, the 1970s, were the decade when what the Cape’s early preservationists called the “Rape of the Cape” occurred. Those early environmentalists and preservationists warned town selectmen and planning boards of the impact that unchecked real estate development would have on the sole source fresh water aquifer beneath the Cape’s sands as well as the water quality of the peninsula’s bays and harbors. As they pushed back against that development and created organizations such as the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, the first symptoms of over-development were emerging. In the early 70s Cotuit Bay was no longer a pristine place prized for its oysters. Eel grass beds began to disappear. “Marker” species like spider crabs that indicate a sick bay proliferated, while prized species such as scallops began to dwindle. Where once only a few old catboats and bass boats were anchored in the Bay, the invention of fiberglass and the convenience of outboard motors made boat ownership a reality for the Cape’s surge in new residents.

Environmentalism was gaining momentum in Washington in the early 70s, fueled by the back-to-nature movements of the 60s, and the realization that chemical dumping was threatening species such as the osprey. The passage of the Clean Air and Water Acts of 1972 marked a change in attitudes about unbridled development, but on the Cape, the land grab was just getting under way, and off-Cape developers jammed the agendas of planning boards with applications for subdivisions and demolition permits. Across the Cape, every town’s board of selectmen were glad to grant those permits. More houses meant more taxes, more employment for year round residents. Yet with nothing but the country government to unite them in considering the impact on traffics and roads and other infrastructure, the towns went their own way, with the outer Cape towns indignant over JFK’s creation of the National Seashore, and upper Cape landowners selling hundreds of acres of scrub forest to off-Cape developers before something similar to the Seashore could happen to them.

The veterans of the Harbor View fight didn’t let their guard down. Cotuit preservationists were on guard and learned to scrutinize the legal notices placed in the local papers for real estate transactions and applications for new piers, using the same organizing methods they developed in the 1960s to keep summer residents informed of hearings and meetings scheduled in the dark of winter when developers and their lawyers knew the opposition would be elsewhere. The year-round residents, many of whom were former summer residents and Cotuit Skiff sailors, were on high alert, swinging into action and soliciting letters of opposition from summer residents who couldn’t attend those hearings and filling the town hall hearing rooms with those who could.

Five years after the end of the Harbor View’s bid to become a commercial marina, the anti-dock forces found themselves facing another application for a permanent pier application, this one only a few hundred yards down the beach from the scene of the first fight.

Bluff Point: “One of the finest resort estates in New England

Bluff Point is home to Cotuit’s third summer home (the first was the Samuel Hooper’s house on the corner of Putnam Ave. and Old Shore Road, the second was the Thorndike house on Old Shore Road). It was built after the Civil War by Colonel Charles Russell Codman, the officer in the Union Army who commanded of the 45th Massachusetts Infantry. Codman was heir to the Sturgis China-trade fortune. After the war he commissioned the design and construction of an imposing three-story home on a 14-acre lot on Bluff Point (soon to be referred to in the village as “Codman’s Point”). It was the biggest house in Cotuit and commanded a spectacular view over Sampson’s Island and Dead Neck. Unlike many early summer mansions torn down in recent years Codman’s home still stands today.

The Codman “Cottage”

Colonel Codman’s son Russell Codman sold Bluff Point to Francis Alsop in 1919. Alsop  left the Codman mansion untouched for the most part, and in 1934 the property was purchased from him by Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Kirkman, president of the Kirkman Soap Company in Brooklyn.

The Kirkman’s were smitten by Cotuit’s charms and became generous benefactors to the Cotuit Library and Mosswood Cemetery. At the time of their deaths (within ten months of each other) in 1953 and 1954, the Kirkman’s had no children or other heirs, and to the surprise of many in town, they bequeathed their home and Bluff Point property, as well as their Manhattan residence and more than $1 million in public utility bonds to pay for the upkeep and improvements to Mosswood Cemetery as well as a significant part of the Cotuit Library’s operating budget. It was at the time the biggest gift the Town of Barnstable had ever received. The selectmen sent one of their own to New York City to meet with the Kirkman’s lawyers as if in disbelief of their good fortune. The value of the estate was so big that some Cotuisions joked later that it could have paid for the construction of a glass dome over the graveyard.

The Kirkman gift included their Bluff Point property and the Codman house. But that property was rejected by the town, who preferred that the executors of the Kirkman estate sell the house and 14 acres of land and include the proceeds in the proceeds from the Kirtman bequest along with the bonds and other securities. Apparently the Kirkman will was a bit vague and failed to restrict the proceeds for Cotuit alone. So the board of selectmen took advantage of its ambiguity to persuade the probate court to expand the intent of the gift to include all of the town’s cemeteries and libraries, not just Cotuit’s. Some villagers were not pleased by the move.

Sidney Kirkman, posed on the lawn of his beloved Bluff Point with Sampson’s Island behind him.

As it turned out, it wasn’t the rapacious raid of the Kirkman Trust by the board of selectmen that should have upset Cotuit, but the lost opportunity to obtain one of the best beaches for the public’s use. Beaches were popular and expensive to acquire, but in the early 50s nobody could have predicted the future demand for more of them. The town’s feelings about acquiring open space and removing valuable real estate (especially waterfront land assessed at an extremely high rate compared to interior lots) from the tax roll were indifferent if not openly negative.

In the spring of 1954 the Barnstable Patriot wrote two editorials which confirm how close Cotuit came to obtaining a significant new public beach for free.  In the first editorial, the writer stated: “The Patriot correspondent in Cotuit informs us that many residents there have expressed the hope that it may not be necessary for the town to sell the Bluff Point property. She writes that “the scarcity of beaches for swimming is so acute in Cotuit that the town has spent and probably will go on spending thousands of dollars on a mud hole like Hooper’s Landing. No matter how much sand is dumped in it, the mud manages to seep back in a year or so. If we can possible keep a decent stretch of sand for the use of Cotuit residents and their guests, why shouldn’t we have it?”

The second editorial endorsed those sentiments:

A Fitting Memorial to the Kirkmans

“The report given by selectmen after their New York conference with executors of the Kirkman estate indicates that it is almost certain the  terms of the will may be broadened and the Bluff Point property in Cotuit, with its beautiful beach, will become a memorial park for the use of all townspeople.

That this use of the property would be very satisfactory to the residents of Cotuit was suggested in this column several weeks ago by the Patriot correspondent in the village. It should seem that the plan should meet the approval of residents of other villages.

Apparently the Cotuit property will be probated in the Barnstable Court, the remainder of the property probated, in New York, then sold.

Then the question of acceptance of the fine bequest from the Kirkmans will be presented to voters at a special town meeting.

The town passed on its chance to acquire Bluff Point, raided the Kirkman fund, and disbursed its money around the entire town. The story of the Kirkman Fund is a fascinating tale of litigation, town politics and the perils of leaving behind bad wills . It deserves its own telling, but for the purposes of this story the Kirkman Estate  — and the lost opportunity to turn Bluff Point into a public park and beach —  sets the stage for subsequent events which would see the property once  “regarded as one of the finest resort estates in New England” broken up and subdivided into fourteen new house lots.

Billy Sullivan comes to town

The trustees and executors of the Kirkman Estate sold the property  to Albert Gustin of Kansas City in 1955.  Albert and his wife Hester owned the estate until May 1973, when their estate sold the property to  an entity called the ”Cotuit Trust” represented by its trustee, attorney Thomas Wooters of the Boston law firm of Sullivan & Worcester. Real estate trusts and limited liability corporations (LLCs) are common legal dodges used by lawyers and estate planners to minimize estate taxes and conceal the identities of wealthy clients shy about disclosing their holdings to the public. The mysterious  Cotuit Trust hired surveyors and in September of 1973 Osterville attorney John Alger filed a 14-lot subdivision plan with the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds following that plan’s earlier review and approval by the Barnstable Planning Board.

The Bluff Point Subdivision Plan of 1973

The identity of the new owners of Bluff Point became public when the Cotuit Trust sold parcels of the new subdivision in January 1975 to William H. “Billy” Sullivan, Jr,, heating oil tycoon and owner of the Boston/New England Patriots football team from the team’s inception in 1960. The price Billy paid the Trust for the parcel where the Codman mansion stands, was a sure indication of his involvement in the subdivision: $1 for the parcel where the Codman mansion stands as well as an adjacent lot for Sullivan’s son and daughter-in-law, Charles “Chuck” and Barbara Sullivan.

Cathy Hayden of Cotuit wrote a poignant  essay entitled “Bluff Point” that appeared in the April 3, 1974 edition of  the Barnstable Patriot:

Most of us traversing this most lovely stretch of Cotuit road viewed the homes and property with a vague, occasional thought of apprehension, seemingly groundless. Nothing ever seemed to change; development was not a viable thought in too many minds. Like the winds and the weather, all things change…

“Two weeks ago. the March winds dropped to a quiet ruffle of the harbor’s waters, allowing sound to be carried for great distances. No matter where you were in the village that day, the sound of the bulldozers at work was carried to you. Viewed close up, the brilliant yellow machine was busy at a very early hour of the morning, performing its unique gyrations, removing permanently many of the old cedars and deciduous trees that lined the drive to the main house at Codman’s Point. This marked the beginning of the development of a 14-lot subdivision.”

Cathy Hayden, “Bluff Point”, Barnstable Patriot April 3, 1974

Mister Sobin Tries to Build His Dream Dock

Billy Sullivan was far from the first “boldface” name to take a shine to Cotuit. Larry O’Brien, JFK’s chief of staff and former commissioner of the National Basketball Association, lived on the bluff overlooking Loop Beach and Sampson’s Island. H. Gates Lloyd Jr., deputy director of the CIA under Allen Dulles, lived at the southern most extreme of the village. On Oyster Harbors lived Mellons and DuPonts. Former Massachusetts Governor Foster Furcolo summered in Cotuit. Even in the earliest days of Cotuit’s summer community the literati and intellectuals of 19th century Boston, from Henry Adams to William James, George Santayana to Mark Howe had been guests at the Codman mansion.

Now it wasn’t a Boston Brahmin, but Billy Sullivan who was the owner of Codman mansion, and with his son Chuck living next door, the Cotuit Trust’s remaining parcels were sold off and the driveway was expanded into a private road called Bluff Point Drive.

Appearing before the town’s Planning Board in 1973 to present the subdivision plan, the Cotuit Trust’s local lawyer John Alger said (in essence), things could be worse, for while the “14-lot subdivision could quality under old half-acre zoning and therefore be twice as large, all lots are one acre or better.”

Billy Sullivan

In 1976 the Cotuit Trust sold  two lots  on Bluff Point to Julian and Leila Sobin of Boston.  The property, referred to as  “Lot 8” on the 1973 subdivision plan, was the prime piece of property on the north side of the point, across the road from the Codman house, with a view across  Cotuit Bay from Handys Point to Dead Neck.  The Sobin’s paid $247,500 for the land and started construction on a modern, seven-level main house and guest house  with balconies and decks tucked into the pine trees on the bluff.

Julian M. Sobin was not a celebrity figure like his neighbor, but he was a very successful businessman and consultant. As senior vice president of the International Minerals and Chemical Corporation.. Sobin was one of the first American businessmen to transact business in Red China following the Nixon-Mao visits of 1972. He was so deeply involved in the opening of US-Sino trade relations and accumulated so much valuable information about the formerly closed country that he co-authored the Encyclopedia of China Today, a book which was nominated for a National Book award.  The Gerald Ford Presidential Library has archived transcripts of interviews conducted by Sobin with other American businessmen who pioneered trade with China in the early 70s.

Update 2021_01_30: I ordered a used copy of  "The China Guidebook: 1990" another book Sobin co-authored with Frederic M. Kaplan and Arne de Keijzer. His official biography reads: "Julian M. Sobin is Chairman of  Chemtech Industries of St. Lous, and Hall Chemical of Cleveland, as well as Goldman Resources, Inc., of Boston. A former Fellow, now an Associate, of the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, he is retired corporate senior vice president of International Minerals and Chemical Corporation. Mr. Sobin was the first US businessman invited to Beijing (in March 1972). Over the next 12 years, he negotiated some of the largest Sino-US trade contracts, including the first US purchase of Chinese crude oil in 1977. Co-author of Encyclopedia of China Today, and author of China Trader, Mr. Sobin was chairman of the International Marketing Institute at Harvard Business School.

When Julian and Leila Sobin purchased the 5.75 acres on Bluff Point they already owned a summer home in New Seabury, then still a relatively new development built in the 1960s  along the coast of Mashpee between Popponesset and Waquoit Bays. At their New Seabury property (near the summer home of current Patriot’s owner Robert Kraft), the Sobin’s had a dock for their motorboat.  So why not build one in Cotuit?

One suspects Julian Sobin wasn’t briefed on the details of the Harbor View pier fight. Even if he had, his attorney John Alger would have assured him that a pier was his right under some of the oldest laws in the state.

The Sobin’s wanted to build a 144-foot permanent pile pier from their beach out to deeper water where they planned on dredging to cut enough depth to tie up their boat. They claimed the length was required to minimize the amount of dredging needed to allow them to get their boat on and off the pier. With Alger handling the filings with the town and state, few if anyone in Cotuit was aware of what was coming because other than Billy Sullivan, Julian Sobin had no other abutters who he was legally obligated to notify of his plans.

While Cotuit slept, the Sobin pier was quietly born. Then, on February 2, 1978, the lead story on the front page of the Barnstable Patriot sounded the alarm.: Cotuit was getting a new dock.

Bluff Point pier: controversy in Cotuit” – was the first published news that the Sobin pier, like the Harbor View’s a decade before, would be opposed. Just four months previously,  in October of 1977 the pier had been reviewed and approved by the town’s conservation commission with no opposing comments made by the public.  The harbormaster Richard Sturges and assistant harbormaster Chester A. Crosby, Jr.  were in favor of the pier and “Crosby considered the facility would be a help to harbormasters” according to the Patriot. Alger already had the approval of the state’s Division of Waterways of the Department of Environmental Quality Engineering in hand. It was when the Sobin pier was submitted to the federal Army Corps of Engineers for its blessing  that the anti-dock forces in Cotuit sat up and took notice.

Anna Murray, a long-time Cotuit skiff sailor and one of the founding spirits of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club, led the opposition. She was a formidable salty-voiced figure who would stand at meetings of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht club (the oldest junior yacht club in the country), to chastise adults for daring to vote on the club’s business when only members under the age of 25 (and who were unmarried) were eligible to vote. A veteran of the Harbor View fight, and possessing a photographic memory of anything to do with Cotuit’s shoreline, Anna Murray was ready to lead the fight against another pier.

She told the Patriot: “I think Mr. Sobin should have his pier, yes. But he doesn’t need one 144 feet long for one motorboat. If all the piers in the harbor were like the one he wants, we’d be in a helluva mess.” Cut it in half and don’t dredge, and she would be in favor she said.

The length of the proposed pier was required to minimize the amount of dredging required for the Sobin’s boat according to Attorney Alger, who also pointed out the pier it would be located at the site of a former dock owned by the Kirkman’s that was located on the same spot. Murray retorted that the Kirkman pier was seasonal – being erected only over the late spring and early fall and then dismantled for the winter, whereas the Sobin plan was to construct a permanent structure.

Of particular interest in the first story about the Sobin pier is the  description of the pressure that rapid real estate development in Mashpee on Popponesset Bay was having on Cotuit due to Mashpee boaters mooring their boats in Cotuit Bay.

 Cotuit resident Henry Walcott told the paper, “There’s increasing traffic in Cotuit. A number of boats have moved her from Popponesset Island and New Seabury. The reason? A sandspit extending from the Mashpee side has been steadily extending across the entrance of Popponesset Bay. Shoaling has reduced the narrowed entrance to a very shallow depth. You can get a canoe through at low tide, and not much more. Sometimes boats can’t get in at all.”

Unbeknownst to most people in Cotuit, at a time before the town of Barnstable began managing moorings with its program of annual inspections and renewals, a time when the was still plenty of open water for moorings in Cotuit, was the constitutional provision that no town could reserve its coastal waters for the exclusive use of its residents, and that the water — not the land surrounding it — was the domain of the Federal government under the authority of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Screaming Banshees for Peace and Quiet

A week after the first published story, the Sobin Pier made the front page of the local weekly newspaper the following week as well. The second story described the delicate diplomacy of the Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association as they prepared to mail a newsletter to its membership notifying them of the pier application but not taking an official position either for or against it.  CSCA president Thomas W. Aselton “said he wanted to make it clear that the general membership of the association is not opposed to the plan, although he modified that statement later to say they are not opposed to or in favor it.”

Aselton described the pier as a “very emotional issue.” That would prove to be a bit of an understatement. His caution and non-partisan diplomacy to keep the civic association neutral was doubtlessly influenced  by the group’s previous internal disagreements in the 1960s when its membership voted to  contribute funds drawn from the CSCA treasury to help pay the legal fees of the Harborview’s opponents. Unanimity is rare in any group of citizens, but the actions of the civic association in the Harbor View affair had apparently alienated enough members to make its board of directors very nervous about being the standard bearer for people opposed to piers. The civic association had also just opposed a previous  pier application made by Thomas Eisenstadt, a former country sheriff, but by the time the Sobin pier came along, it was struggling to present a neutral opinion. Aselton told the Patriot that tje members of the CSCA and himself  “are concerned about the great amount of out-of-town boats mooring in the harbor.”

Aselton initially told the Army Corps of Engineers that the civic association was opposed to the pier, but then he retracted that statement and told the ACOE the CSCA would be taking a neutral position. When the monthly newsletter went out that spring, some readers were surprised to see the board of the association endorse the pier by stating they felt “…there is no infringement on the right to enjoy the harbor.”

Aselton wasn’t the only civic leader struggling to keep their organization neutral. Geoffrey Jackson, president of the Association of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club wrote a letter expressing his personal opposition to the Sobin pier, only to change his mind later after being contacted by the Sobin’s lawyer with more information. Even with more than $20,000 still remaining in the ACMYC’s old “Watch and Ward Fund” raised to fight the Harbor View, the ACMYC, like the CSCA, decided to sit on the sidelines of the debate and let its individual members make their opposition known to the town and ACOE themselves.

Into the breach stepped Anna Murray and Barbara H. Sullivan. They founded
“STOPP” — Sensitive Thinkers Opposed to Permanent Piers — and organized a blitz of letters from Cotuit residents who were opposed to the pier to be sent to the Army Corps of Engineers. In all, more than 150 letters were mailed to the Army Corps regional office in Waltham where they became part of the public record.

The names of some of the opponents included:

  • John C. Linehan, waterways committee chairman of the Osterville Village Association
  • Mrs. Marcus Bryan of Cotuit wrote: “We are all concerned about this. We have lived here for over 30 years. We are no natives; we chose Cotuit because it is peaceful, quiet and beautiful. It is a paradox that people have to become screaming banshees to keep it quiet and beautiful.”
  • Marston and Louise Boden
  • Professor James and Anne Gould
  • Dr. Helen Taussig
  • Harriet Ropes Cabot
  • Geoffrey Jackson, president of the parents Association of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club
  • Mrs. Jacques Barzun
  • John Reardon
  • John Pickering
  • Stanley McElroy
  • Charles B. Swartwood III
  • Henry Walcott
  • Pemberton Whitcomb
  • and many more…..

Asked by a reporter how he felt about Cotuit’s “welcoming committee,” Julian Sobins said:
I am trying to be a good neighbor. I love Cotuit. It’s a lovely town. I’ve tried to be so careful with the property and restore it to its position of beauty.”

He added that he was “terribly discouraged” about the opposition.

STOPP and the  War of the Letters

Opinion was divided in the village. The old distinction between summer people (and some are not) and year-round residents was blurring. The older year rounders came from a tradition of making a living from the water. Docks were needed to offload oysters, boat yards needed marine railways and lifts to launch and haul boats. Even the bottom of the harbor was staked out and owned by the Cotuit Oyster Company. More docks meant more construction jobs. More boats to build and sell and paint and maintain. That faction remembered a far more commercial village than the newer arrivals did, when “downtown” Cotuit had a row of stores and shops on Main Street and the corner of School Street.

The anti-development faction were, for the most part, comprised of summer and year-round residents who had been summer residents in the past. With the long tradition of racing Cotuit Skiffs — one of the oldest continuously sailed one-design classes of sailboats in the world — those sailors preferred sailboats to motorboats, and were accustomed to racing those boats across the entire expanse of Cotuit Bay. Just as the Harbor View pier engendered hard feelings between neighbors and dominated the debate between members of the civic association and the yacht club in the 1960s, the Sobin pier seemed to kick the level of the vitriol within the village up to new heights.

Attorney John Alger was confronted by over a hundred letters opposed to his client’s pier. He wrote letters to every opposing letter writer and enclosed a six-page memo with plans and drawings. It some respects it was a brilliant move by Alger; instead of trying to sway village opinion in a raucous public hearing, he directly replied to every opponent with his best arguments for why their new neighbor should have a big pier. To some extent Alger’s letters and memo worked. He was able to persuade four opponents to withdraw their objections and two others to reverse themselves and publicly support the pier. If receiving a letter and six-page document from a local attorney was perceived as some sort of legal intimidation by its recipients is not known.. But Alger’s gambit paid off and soon some opponents changed their minds and joined the minority of supporters who had sent their letters endorsing the pier off to the Engineers.

Some of the supporters of the Sobin pier included:

  • Patriot’s owner William H. “Billy” Sullivan Jr (the Sobin’s neighbor,) who wrote, “I am writing because I was distressed at some objections and unfortunate stories that were being circulated.”
  •  Robert F. Hayden, long-time civic figure, mover of buildings and owner of the Treasure Highland, a salvage company formerly located on the site of the present Stop & Shop and plaza on Route 28 in Marstons Mills,  wrote: “This facility would not interfere, thwart or obstruct competitive or instructional navigation executed by competent participant therein…It would be extremely narrow to militate against a shoreowner’s desire to enjoy the same love as I do for the harbor.”
  • Harbormasters Richard Sturges and Chester Crosby Jr. (who also owned the marine construction company which performed the dredging around the proposed pier)
  • William Todd, the former caretaker of Bluff Point
  • Richard Pierce, Cotuit boat builder

Withdrawing their initial objections were:

  • Geoffrey G. Jackson, president of the ACMYC
  • Elizabeth Almy
  • J.E. Kelley
  • Malcome and Katherine Ryder
  • Sydnor Dever
  • Harriet Ropes Cabot

In his six-page memo sent to the objections, Alger characterized their “general objections as navigational hazards, including children and mosquito fleet youngsters, pollution, aesthetics, precedent-setting and ‘resentment of newcomers’ – ‘New Seabury and Prudential Center’ types. “

By claiming “resentment of newscomers” Alger blew a dog whistle that inflamed Anna Murray. Alger had been berating the Barnstable Patriot reporter — Fred Bodensiek — for including in his stories the fact of the Sobin’s off-season residence in an apartment adjacent to Boston’s Prudential Center on Boylston Street and their ownership of a summer home in New Seabury.

Bodensiek wrote, “Alger in phone conversations has objected to the Patriot’s mentioning of these places where the Sobins have homes, and its last three stories on the pier, the paper has omitted that data.”

Alger took off the gloves and deliberately pushed a hot button that had been pushed a decade before during the Harbor View controversy by the Harbor View’s sailing instructor in a letter to the editor of the Patriot in 1969. James Ryan then claimed Cotuit’s opposition was driven by anti-Semitism. Alger didn’t go that far, but he made it clear in his statements to the press that Cotuit didn’t like newcomers.

Alger was quoted in the March 30, 1978 Patriot story headlined “Paper pier war goes on and on”

“Probably to the petitioners the most serious opposition that has been raised, and the one most difficult to rebut, is the position raised by a small minority of the objectors that the petitioners are ‘Prudential Center’ or ‘New Seabury’ types who don’t belong in Cotuit. This is most distressing to the Sobin’s, who truly want to be accepted and to be part of the community. The size of their investment alone is some indication of their knowledge and appreciation of the charm and special qualities of the village.

“The mere fact that they have tried so hard makes the criticism even more hurtful. One of the attributes of Cotuit, which I early recognized and have always appreciated, was its willingness to judge its neighbors, both year round and seasonal, not by who they are but what they are. I feel certain that this criticism is totally irrelevant and needs no rebuttal.”

Attorney John Alger

Cotuit resident Anne Gould wrote a letter to the editor in rebuttal to Alger’s claims:

“I personally find your contention that opposition to the Sobin’s pier could stem from resentment of newcomers very disturbing. As one who was a newcomer not too many years ago, I have never felt there was this kind of attitude in Cotuit. However we may be a community prejudiced against piers.”

Anne Gould, one of the founder of the Mary Barton Land Trust and Barnstable Land Trust

Anna Murray combed through the letters on file with the Army Corps of Engineers looking for any impolitic statements or allusions to “New Seabury” and “Prudential Center” types of people. Finding none, she wrote Alger demanding an apology for his inflammatory claims that Cotuit was prejudiced against newcomers.

“After reading these letters carefully three times, I find no one writer using the words ‘Prudential Center’ or ‘New Seabury types who don’t belong in Cotuit,” wrote Murray. “You say this criticism is irrelevant. As there is no such criticism, I ask that you publicly, and by letter, apologize to each person written to.”

The Patriot’s Bodensiek also looked into Alger’s claims that some opponents were prejudiced in their letters, and like Anna Murray, found no evidence to support Alger’s claim. He wrote that, “In perusal of copies of the approximately 100 letters to the Engineers, secured by Mrs. Murray, this writer could find no statements indicating resentment of newcomers.”

Geoffrey Jackson, president of the ACMYC, explained his withdrawal of his objections, writing that Alger’s “fair summarization of the objections was illuminating…I too am particularly distressed at objections based on ‘resentment of newcomers’….the CMYC and the related association of the CMYC, has maintained since inception totally non-restrictive policy with regard to membership and will undoubtedly continue to do so. The concern expressed in my Jan. 31, 1978 letter to the Army Corps of Engineers …is, in my view, resolved by your communication.”

Lawyers living in Cotuit and writing on their own behalf  rebutted Alger’s claims on behalf of the Sobins. Charles B. Swartwood III wrote, “When Mr. and Mrs. Sobin purchased their house, they were obviously aware of the depth of the water adjacent to their property and the difficulty of constructing a pier in deep water. In fact, I believe the town pier is only a few feet longer than the Sobins’ proposed pier, and I question whether their needs are equal to that of the whole village of Cotuit.”:

Attorney John H. Galloway III wrote, “If all the property owners along the west side of Cotuit Bay were permitted to construct such piers and perform such dredging, Cotuit Bay would become nothing more than one large marina.”

Attorney Frank Opie wrote the pier “…would, for all practical purposes, destroy the harbor for small-boat sailing…I can assure you that any permit to build such a pier will result in litigation involving both the Sobins and the U.S. Government.”

Other opponents wrote:

  • “There is no question that if you allow this to be built that a precedent will be set, and anyone else in the small harbor can do the same thing. It won’t take too long before the entire small-boat sailing space will be taken up by the piers and it’s goodbye Cotuit Harbor….we certainly don’t want a mini-Atlantic City shorefront in Cotuit Harbor.” Donald C. Kneale of Cotuit.
  • “Some years ago, a similar request to install a large pier in Cotuit Harbor aroused a substantial group of opponents, and the matter was resolved only after much hard feeling and expensive litigation. Hard feelings continue.”  Bruce and Kathryn P. Eaken, Cleveland, Ohio.
  • “If the Sobins are granted this permit, would we be allowed a similar one? And would not the two practically box in this corner of the harbor, leaving only room for powerboats to maneuver with any degree of safety?” Olivia Brane, Cotuit.
  • “We do not want to exclude people but we do want to invite them into a quiet, clean Cotuit Harbor that is safe for children in small boats.” – Sarah Schear, Belmont.

The inimitable Anna Murray had the last word in the Patriot’s story of March 30, 1978:

“If the petitioners [the Sobins] are upset, think what we are. We stopped the Eisenstadt pier, the Harborview Pier and the 160-foot Blakely pier. I will fight any permanent pier over 75 feet5 with every breath in my body until  I’m pushing up daisies.”

Anna Murray, founder of STOPP

Proliferating Piers

Murray’s reference to the “Eisenstadt” and “Blakely” piers, were in reference to two previous battles over applications to build permanent piers on Cotuit’s shores.

In 1974, surveyor and engineer Charles Savery was denied his bid to build a 163-foot pier near the bottom of Cross Street near Riley’s Beach across from the point of Sampson’s Island. Savery claimed the  former Riley estate had historic approval for a 232-foot pier that dated back to 1898 and he also “pointed to the many private piers in the area” in his unsuccessful arguments before the Barnstable Appeals Board.

The 1970s saw a large number of new piers constructed throughout the Three Bays. Nine were constructed in the Three Bays region in 1979 alone. John Alger argued they should be encouraged and expected.

“They should be allowed as a matter of course. There is absolutely nothing in the town zoning by-laws or the town by-laws to forbid this, providing they are approved by the conservation commission and the owner is entitled to them. The people in many cases are assessed for $100,000 per acre, or 80 or 60, depending on the area. The reason is that these lands cost that much to buy. And the reason they are so expensive is that they are there to enjoy the waterfront and one of the rights of shorefront property owners since time immemorial is to enjoy their boats and their own waterfront as long as they do not substantially impinge on the public’s right…With the prices land is going for, they almost have to have piers on them.”

Attorney John Alger

Alger, who was also Town Moderator of Banstable’s town meeting, successfully represented seven of those nine waterfront property owners who received docks in 1979. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 76, a formidable opponent to any one who dared speak against one of his clients in a public meeting.

At the conclusion of the Patriot’s extensive story about the burgeoning pier problem, Bodensiek wrote:

“A string of piers at every property on the outer and inner rims of the great bays is not an impossibility. The crowding of the harbors by boats on moorings is another factor. Summer and off-season boat traffic, in the ring created by the Three Bays and the Seapuit River is increasing. And the ecological damage? The day when small Mosquito Yacht Club boats held sole sway is undoubtedly long gone. The overcrowding of one of the town of Barnstable’s great seashore assets may not be long off.”

Fred Bodensiek, writing in the Barnstable Patriot

The tide turns against piers

The Army Comes to Cotuit

The Army Corps of Engineers took notice of the 150 letters that eventually arrived at its Waltham offices . At the request of STOPP, the Corps convened a public hearing in Cotuit at Freedom Hall on June 29, 1978. According to published accounts, the hearing was packed with 250 people. The Corps arrived with a preliminary assessment of the project and stated at the start of the hearing that it saw no significant environmental impacts, pointing ouit that “Piers are considered to be an accessory use of waterfront property throughout the area. Cotuit Harbor is heavily used for recreational boating, and the proposal pier construction and dredging are consistent with those areas.”

The Cotuit hearing underscored some serious deficiencies in the review process for piers. At that time the only town board with any jurisdiction over  a pier application was the conservation commission. The town waterways committee reviewed pier applications but had no authority to deny or approve them, only to give its opinion of their impact on navigation. That committee is chaired by the harbormaster and has been traditionally comprised of members drawn largely from commercial backgrounds such as assistant harbormaster and marine construction company owner Chester Crosby Jr., had reviewed the  pier and saw “nothing detrimental navigation-wise with the pier plan.”  

Chester also dredged the harbor around the Sobin pier.

When the Freedom Hall hearing was called to order equal numbers of the public took to the microphones to speak for and against the pier. A petition to approve the pier was presented to the Corps by Alger bearing the signatures of 123 names; a move by the pro-pier forces that caught STOPP and its letter writers by surprise. Still, faced with a divided hall, the opponents tried to make their case:

“The question before us tonight is quite simply the freedom of a small community to have a decisive voice in controlling their own surroundings. When a conflict arises between the interest of an individual and those of a community such as ours, the interest of the community must take precedence. For many years we have successfully fought the building of large piers. The proposed pier is only the latest attempt to encroach upon the amenities of our shoreline.”

Robert Hewick speaking to the Army Corps of Engineers at Freedom Hall

Robert Hayden of Cotuit said both local and state agencies had approved the pier and he urged the Corps to abide by those decisions. Ralph  Baker stated the Kirkman’s had a pier on that beach in the 1940s and saw no reason why the Sobin’s would be any different.

Barbara Sullivan of STOPP, daughter-in-law of Billy Sullivan and also a resident of Bluff Point,said her neighbors in the Bluff Point subdivision “feel the pier will cut out their vested right to traverse the beach around the point.”

Sullivan’s neighbor, Anthony Franchi, said the pier would hurt property values, and according to the Patriot, he said if the pier was approved then he would apply for one for his two boats.  Another Bluff Point neighbor, Frank Sweet, said he was neither for, nor against the pier, but “If he [Sobin] wants a dock, I can’t argue with him.”

The Sobin’s were present at the hearing at Freedom Hall but did not speak.

The Silence of the Sobin’s

It’s impossible to speculate what went through Julian Sobin’s mind as he built a new home  and waited for his pier to be approved while some of his new neighbors rose up against him. Few in town knew the Sobins, but in the spring of 1978 his neighbor Barbara Sullivan sat down with Julian Sobin and urged him to abandon his pier and put his energies into commissioning a comprehensive study of Cotuit Bay and its boating facilities in order to better utilize the town’s facilities and discourage future private docks. Sobin listened but refused her request to drop the pier. According to the Patriot’s account of the meeting, Sobin said he thought such a study would be a good idea. “As a citizen of Cotuit, and as a resident, which I hope to be, it sounded to me like a sound, intelligent suggestion, if a reasonable study were made of the total situation.”

Barbara Sullivan asked Julian Sobin to split the cost of her proposed study. According to her he rejected the idea.

Appeal

After the Cotuit hearing in June, 1978,  the Army Corps of Engineers retreated to its office outside of Boston to review the public comment it received from the village’s residents and come to a decision. Months went by. Then the new year arrived and with it the Corps’ decision.

The Corps approved the pier with no conditions.

After news of the approval was known Sobin’s neighbor-once-removed  on Bluff Point, Anthony Franchi, wrote the Sobin’s “asking them to reconsider constructing the 144-foot pier sticking out into Cotuit Harbor.”

Asked if he were suggesting the possibility the Sobins might consider not building the pier, Franchi told the Patriot:

“That’s my hope. That they will reconsider constructing it. It’s just a matter of trying, hopefully, to resolve the differences in the dispute. We want to be as peaceful as we can with our neighbors. I am of course disappointed the Corps has given the permit because we would like to keep the beaches and the area as they are. I certainly hope he will reconsider in favor of what we believe is best for the beach, the town, and the area. Before I do anything, or plan to do anything, I would like the opportunity to talk to the Sobins.”

Anthony Franchi

Little could be done to thwart the Sobin’s from moving ahead unless an abutter objected. That abutter was Franchi, who like the Sobin’s had purchased a parcel of Bluff Point from the Cotuit Trust and built a home there. Franchi’s objections were based on a reading of the rules of the  Bluff Point homeowners association which required all members of the association have free and unobstructed passage along the beach around all of Bluff Point. Franchi filed a lawsuit against Sobin in May of 1979 and successfully obtained a temporary restraining order to block construction.

 Temporary is far from permanent and the clock ran out for the pier’s opponents in May of 1980 when the Massachusetts State Land Court ruled in favor of the Sobin’s pier. In his ruling, Associate Justice John E. Fenton Jr. approved the 144-foot pier with the stipulation that the pier not interfere with any neighbor’s right of passage along the beach of Bluff Point, thus conceding to Franchi his claim the pier would interfere with his right of passage a. Judge Fenton ordered the Sobin’s to build a passageway under the pier so walkers could pass through unobstructed.

And in the end…..

The pier was built in the late spring of 1980. It  still stands today.  A boat was tied to it for a while throughout that decade, but little was seen or heard of Julian Sobin after the dock went up. Aside from filing various plans with the concom to build a hot tub and some stairs to his dock, and going on record with country registry of deeds for waiving the right of first refusal to buy any other properties within the Bluff Point neighborhood (as is the right of any property owner under the rules of the Bluff Point Association), the Sobin’s seemed to simply fade from the headlines as they settled into their new home. Julian Sobin never backed down, offered no concessions or room for compromise, and doubtlessly his legal costs were considerable. Julian Sobin got his pier.

Billy Sullivan died in 1998. He sold the Patriots in the late 1980s when the team couldn’t meet its payroll due to the reported loss of $20 million by his son Charles (who had been the promoter of the late Michael Jackson’s Victory tour which apparently turned out to be a debacle for the Sullivan fortune).  After filing for bankruptcy, the team and its Foxborough stadium were sold. Today the Codman mansion is  owned by the Sullivan Trust, the trustee of which is Jeanne Sullivan McKeigue, former member of the New England Patriot’s board of directors.

In 1999 Julian and Leilla Sobin sold their Cotuit property at 124 Bluff Point Drive  to Bluff Point 1999 Trust No. 2 for $2,155,860.00.    That trust still owns the property,  pier and the entire point of sand  to this day. The identity of the beneficiaries of the Bluff Point 1999 Trust is unknown.

Julian Sobin died in August of 2001. His widow, Leila, died ten years later in 2011. When Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was uncovered in 2008, among the list of names of the investors he defrauded was the name of Julian Sobin of Boston.

 Next up….

How Cotuit fought for, and won, a change to the town’s zoning bylaws to prohibit the construction of any new docks on the western shores of Cotuit Bay.