Part 3: Cotuit Bans Docks but Suffers Moorings

A village allergic to docks

This is the last of a three-part series on the history of Cotuit’s opposition to docks and piers.

Part one is about the Harbor View Club and its 250-foot pier/marina that was built and then demolished by court order in the late 1960s.

Part two was about opposition in the late 1970s to the Sobin Pier on Bluff Point in 1978.

This final installment is about the efforts in the 1990s and 2000s to change the town of Barnstable’s zoning by-laws to permanently ban the construction of new piers in Cotuit from Handy’s Point to Loop Beach, and the attempt a decade later to extend that ban on new docks near any shellfish relay areas in all of Barnstable

As always, I’m looking for comments and insights from people who participated in past dock and pier issues.  Please email me at david@churbuck.com or leave a comment on the post.

Introduction

 Julian Sobin’s victory to get a 144-foot permanent pier for his new home on Cotuit’s Bluff Point triggered a mild case of paranoia among the anti-dock contingent in the village. They had missed the Conservation Commission hearing when the dock was first discussed in public, and realizing legal abutter notifications wouldn’t alert them to every new pier, the learned to be more vigilant and to comb through the legal notices posted in the Barnstable Patriot every week to ensure another pier wouldn’t catch them unaware. It wasn’t until email started to be more used in the early 1990s that it became much easier for the anti-pier activists to rally opposition and solicit letters of opposition from summer residents who weren’t on the Cape in the off-season when the various town departments and boards charged with reviewing pier applications usually met.

From the Cotuit Narrows to beaches fronting Nantucket Sound, every dock application was challenged. After a while it became a familiar process and the same cast of opponents with the same anti-pier arguments routinely appeared before the planning board, the shellfish advisory committee, the waterways committee, and the conservation commission. Both sides became  familiar with the other’s arguments, but it seemed no matter how many times the debates for and against docks and piers were made, it appeared nothing could be done to put the contentious issue to rest forever.

In the early 1990s the impact of the building boom of the 1970s and 80s were felt everywhere on the Cape.  The parking lots of the town’s beaches filled up before noon. The harbors filled with boats, and in Cotuit, where only a handful of boats were once moored in two distinct anchorages off of Ropes Beach and the Town Dock, the two coves merged around Lowell Point until moorings extended along all of the western shore line of Cotuit Bay. The surge in moorings put pressure on the parking spaces at Town Dock and Hooper’s Landing. Dinghys, Hobie Cats, kayaks, were scattered in the beach grass along the shore, some seemingly abandoned for years. The length of the town dock in Cotuit was extended further to accommodate more boats and four floats were installed to manage the surge of dinghies.

In the 1980s the town revamped the composition of its waterways committee – the board chaired by the town harbormaster which looked over  the town’s waterfront  — and reduced its size from 19 to 5 members, dropping the old system of assistant harbormasters who managed the town’s anchorages and public piers, sometimes with the appearance of conflicted commercial interest because some members of the committee owned boat yards or marinas or had some economic interest in the waterfront such as marine construction, boat sales or real estate transactions.  The new five-person committee, like its 19-person predecessor, lacked enforcement power and gave its recommendations to those town boards who did.

The era when a person could row out into the harbor and drop their own mooring was ending. Where the local assistant harbormaster had informally approved the placement of moorings in the past, the proliferation of moorings spurred the town’s Government Study Committee to start discussing the need for a formal mooring permit program.

Peter Murray, who served for 20 years as the town’s assistant harbormaster for Cotuit, told the Barnstable Patriot in 1989 “that until the harbor management committee plans are considered by the town for approval, there will be little done to unsnarl the mooring and launching area tangle.”

The Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association formed a waterways committee of its own in the late 80s to address the pressure the village was feeling from the surge in demand for access to its waterfront. In 1989 the head of the civic association’s new waterways group — Dr. John Shea — told the waterways committee that Cotuit had quickly become a haven for recreational boaters, many of whom were not residents of Barnstable.  Dr. Shea criticized the new launch service operating from town dock with the claim (according to the Barnstable Patriot) the launch attracted larger boats and was the main enabler of the expansion of the mooring field. Shea, also criticized the seasonal use of the boat ramp at Ropes Beach by commercial fishermen — mostly off-Cape scup fishermen — and told the committee the civic association wanted a restriction on the use of ramps to certain hours of the day.

Cotuit’s concerns over the rapid surge of moorings and the parallel decline in the harbor’s water quality spurred the Town Council to  commission a Boston consulting firm — Camp, Dresser & McKee — to conduct a comprehensive study of the town’s waterways and beaches. Citizens were invited to participate in a series of workshops moderated by the consultants. The recommendations that resulted were scoffed at by critics who deemed the entire study a waste of money with absurd recommendations to increase public access, not curtail it.   In the spring of 1990 the town’s Coastal Resources Task Force   held a hearing to discuss the study’s findings and recommendations. The public was not enthused. Frank Fuller of Osterville, in a letter to the editor of the Barnstable Patriot, wrote:

“The proposed Coastal Resources Management Plan for Barnstable’s southwest coast is, in many respects, ill advised and absurd…. We don’t need another costly commission or staff. We don’t need or want a shuttle bus system from inland parking lots to all public water access areas…. We don’t need or want a launching ramp at the Cotuit Town Pier, nor we need the pier enlarged. The addition or improvement of ramps would bring in more boats on trailers. Where are the additional cars and trailers to be parked?”

Frank Fuller of Osterville

Mr. Fuller’s opinion that improving the waterfront facilities in Cotuit would only attract more boats, more trailers, and more parking problems was shared by other skeptics in the village. Those improvements were, in the opinion of some, “attractive nuisances” that encouraged out-of-town boaters to avail themselves of Cotuit’s beaches, public pier, launch ramp and town ways to water . But the forces of progress and state and federal grant money prevailed. The Cotuit Fire Department obtained its first rescue boat but couldn’t launch it at low tide. That led to the boat ramp at the foot of Old Shore Road getting a major upgrade. What had been a somewhat iffy place to launch a small boat from the beach turned into a concrete slab bedded in crushed stone. Despite the warnings of some in the village that the new ramp would attract out of town boat owners and their trailers, the ramp was built and driveways on Old Shore Road began to get blocked by parked trailers that made it impossible for home owners to get in or out of their property. The shoulders of Putnam Avenue around Ropes Field began to get clogged with parked trailers every afternoon from spring to fall. What had been a scenic cove was cluttered with more than 50 various street signs from one end of Old Shore Road to the other. Traffic jams built up around the launch ramp as boat owners tried to back their trailers down at the blind curve at the bottom of the hill. Tempers flared and eventually the scenic lane was declared a one-way street.

More boat ramps were among the recommendations presented to the Coastal Resources Task Force by the Boston consultants. But there were others according to newspaper accounts:

“In the consultant’s recommendations are proposals for a commission or committee to oversee and enact this and similar plans town wide, the phasing out of seasonal mooring rentals by 1995, tightening transient mooring rental regulations, and a batch of new, higher fees lo pay for the numerous waterfront proposals such as boat ramp improvements, channel dredging, bus shuttles from inland parking arrangements, and the  construction of two marinas in Cotuit and West Bays.”

Attorney John Alger of Osterville — a familiar figure to dock opponents from his involvement in the Harbor View and Sobin pier disputes –told the coastal task force hearing:

“…the permitting process for new pier construction goes through at least eight different town, slate and federal agencies for approval before getting a final OK. Alger believes there are enough groups and regulations looking over applications for adequate review. “If people got their acts together, we can do it all at once,” he said, once again raising applause from the audience. This sentiment was echoed by several other people, all of whom believe there are sufficient departments currently in place to deal with these water issues.”

John Alger, attorney for pier applicants as quoited by the Barnstable Patriot

Bob Comes to Town

The catalyst to organize the chaos in Cotuit’s anchorage arrived in mid-August of 1991 whjen Hurricane Bob hit Cotuit and threw dozens of boats on the beach shoreline from Town Dock to Handy’s Point.  An estimated 200 out of 800 moorings in Cotuit failed when Bob blew through. The aftermath exposed the serious flaws in the traditionally laissez faire approach to moorings. Forty-foot sailboats were found on the beach still connected to a mooring suited for a 14-foot skiff. Worn out chains and tackle, mooring pennants with no chafing gear, and half-submerged hulls in the harbor led to calls by mooring holders nd give the Harbormaster more authority to manage the crowded anchorage, inspect ground tackle and bring some organization to the chaos that led to improperly moored boats break free and take neighboring boats ashore with them.  With boat owners suing other boat owners and cranes rolling down the beach to lift boats back into the water, a lot of attention was focused on the management of the anchorage. That attention made it clear, according to published reports, that “Cotuit Bay is believed to contain the largest concentration of moorings” in town. Today the town of Barnstable has more moorings than any city or town in the state. And more of those moorings are in Cotuit than any other town anchorage.

Bob’s aftermath at Ropes Beach – from the Barnstable Patriot

Like Peter Murray, another professional mooring servicer, Bob Jensen, owner of Cotuit Mooring and Marine service, told the Patriot that he felt the mooring field “had grown too large” and the town should take steps to “shrink the mooring area” and “eliminate rental moorings.”

Jensen wasn’t alone in his concerns.  When Hurricane Bob hit, the mooring field covered the western side of Cotuit Bay from Bluff Point to Handys Point and was creeping steadily eastward towards the channel. The sailors in the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club mourned the loss of a good portion of their  traditional race course inside the sheltered bay. Grumbling and grousing mounted as long-time village residents found themselves on mooring waiting lists, unable to do what they had done for generations when no more than 50 boats were moored in the harbor: set their own moorings and throw a dinghy on the beach so they could row out to it.

The Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association created a ten-member waterways committee chaired by Peter Hickman. In December of 1993 ,  after “a great deal of give and take” within its membership, the CSCA presented the town’s waterways committee with its recommendations to make things better on Cotuit Bay for the residents of Cotuit. Among those recommendations  were a proposed boundary line to keep the mooring field from expanding further into the harbor, a moratorium on new moorings, more  enforcement of boating and mooring regulations, and improving the mooring renewal process.

For the most part, most of those requests have  been honored.  Under the management of former Harbormaster Dan Horn, Barnstable was able to establish some control over the anarchy . His department started to keep a boat on patrol in the Three Bays, taking over enforcement powers from the former Barnstable Police boat the Alert. It acquired a pump out boat to empty onboard holding tanks from boats visiting or moored in the bay. The mooring permit process evolved and was tweaked, but still demand was soaring, and waterfront property owners who couldn’t get a dock began to demand a mooring off their beach. People would miss the renewal deadline and had to appeal to the Waterways Committee to get their moorings back. No one was happy with the situation.

The mooring boundary betrween the Sobin Pier and Gould beach house proposed in 1993

In 1993 the Cotuit Fire Department went to the town Waterways Committee seeking permission to tie its 17-foot Boston Whaler to one of the floating dinghy docks at Town Dock. Saying the boat ramp at Rope Beach on Old Shore Road was in bad shape and unusable at low tide, former Fire Chief David Pierce told the committee he couldn’t guarantee the fire department could launch the boat safely at all tides.  The Barnstable Patriot story about Chief Pierce’s request also disclosed, for the first time, plans to rehabilitate the Rope ramp, saying “If the ramp is refurbished by next season, it may preclude the need [of the fire department] to use space at the town dock.”

The town denied the fire department permission, and to this day Cotuit’s rescue boat depends on the kindness of private pier owners for a berth and Cotuit gained a new boat ramp it hadn’t requested.

Cotuit bans piers and docks

In 2000,Cotuit attorney Rick Barry was elected to the town council to represent the precinct now represented by Councilor Jessica Rapp-Grassetti.  Barry was an avid fisherman and clammer, so one of his first acts on the council was the filing of a resolution to designate all of Barnstable’s waterways as a “no discharge zone,” to give the town’s waterways a level of regulatory protection that superseded the regulations set down by the Clean Water Act of 1972. Barry pushed for the resolution, according to the Patriot,  because “…reports show fecal coliform bacteria levels in all of the town’s coastal embayments are having an adverse effect on water quality, forcing the closure of shellfish beds, and threatening the health and safety of the town’s residents.”

He was right. Feces from dogs, waterfowl, and boats were a disgusting problem that contributed to the decline in Cotuit’s water quality. So too was road runoff from rainstorms, lawn fertilizer leeching into the water table, phosphorus-based laundry detergents, the careless dumping of chemicals and solvents, and even the flushing of pills down toilets. What wasn’t identified then as the primary culprit was nitrogen, nitrogen in the form of human urine that leeched through a septic tank into the permeable sands and down into the water table. The freshwater springs that for centuries “sweetened” the waters of Cotuit Bay and made its oysters sweet and world famous, were now delivering an invisible tsunami of pee that was slowly making it’s way to the waterfront from subdivisions built in the woods in the 1970s as well as from the mansions and other homes along the shoreline.

Barry’s resolution succeeded in stopping boaters from flushing the heads of their yachts into the bays. The town purchased a pump-out boat and installed a pump out facility on a dock beside the marine boat lift at Crosby’s boat yard in Osterville.

Then Barry went further, and picked up on an earlier effort to beef up the town’s regulations for piers and docks that had stated in 1998 when the conservation commission tried to clamp down on applications for new docks in West, North, and Cotuit Bay . The ConCom argued that since it rarely approved a new dock and almost always had its denials upheld by the courts on appeal, the regulations should be tightened to dissuade waterfront property owners for seeking a dock they inevitably would be denied. Dock applications were clogging the commission’s meeting agendas and taxing the capacity of its staff to review each and every one. The ConCom didn’t seek a total ban on new docks, but the pro-dock forces of real estate agents, environmental consultants, attorneys, and marine construction companies feared one was coming, and argued to the Town Council that the Conservation Commission didn’t have the authority to change the existing regulations, and that the existing process that required review and approval by several other town boards was sufficient. Thus changing the zoning rules to govern the placement of new piers was considered by the town but dismissed until another study could be completed.

During all of this the attitude of the state courts towards dock applications changed dramatically. By the mid-1990s the country and state courts began to overturn the town’s denials and bless new docks.The reversal of its rulings forced the ConCom to change the way it reviewed new applications, gradually granting more approvals as the demand escalated. In 2000 the  town decided to take another look at its dock regulations, appointed a pier and dock committee, and waited for its report.

Rick Barry wasn’t going to wait. Having worked to get the “no discharge” resolution passed with the support of the town’s shellfishers, Barry drew up a “zoning overlay district” in December of 2000 to amend the town’s zoning laws to ban docks on the western shore of Cotuit Bay along a two-mile stretch from Handys Point to Loop Beach.

In his explanation of his proposed ban, Barry wrote:

“”The Cotuit shore of Cotuit Bay represents one of the last accessible, unbroken stretches of coastline in the Town: it is a remnant of what was once a much more common feature. The construction boom has reached the opposite shore, making this a highly advantageous time to preserve the Cotuit shore’s character while it still exists.”

Town Councilor Rick Barry of Cotuit

The Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association, bruised by the Harbor View and Sobin pier disputes that had divided its membership, decided to go beyond polling only its membership on the question: should Cotuit ban docks and instead mailed a survey to every Cotuit address: 2,000 of them. Thirty percent of those surveys were returned – over 600 – with nearly 80% indicating support for the ban. The CSCA helped Barry refine his proposal. The president of the CSCA at the time, Peter Hickman, told the Patriot “It was a subject of intense debate within the executive committee of the board… Some on the executive committee wanted to see a much more expansive prohibition, basically encompassing the entire Cotuit shoreline.”

The proposed ban would bar a potential 40 new piers from ever being built in Cotuit. Hickman told the Patriot he expected the ban would be opposed by waterfront property owners “…and a Cotuit-based group known as the Waterway User Association.”*

Over the winter of 2001, Barry’s Pier and Dock ban resolution sailed through a public hearing and was approved by the Town Council by a vote of 8 to 3.  The only dock construction permitted in the future would be the rebuilding and repair of existing ones.

The hearing attracted a good deal of public comment before the Town Council – most of it in favor of Barry’s proposal – with the ban’s opponents arguing for the right of property owners to apply for a dock on a case-by-case basis. Councilors Richard Clark and Osterville’s Carl Riedell voted against the proposal, with Riedell offering an amendment to put a four-year sunset provision on the new overlay zoning proposal. Clark wanted the town to finish its planned revision of its dock regulations and wait for the recommendations of council’s sub-committee studying the issue.

Cotuit’s ban relieved some of the pressure off the town council to change its regulations. Cotuit was the most ardent anti-pier village in the town and a ban there would take off some of the heat. The changes that were eventually proposed by the town council sub-committee would have tightened restrictions in environmentally sensitive areas and relaxed them elsewhere. The way the town study group defined “sensitive” was to set the minimum required depth at the end of a dock to 3.5 feet – a depth thought sufficient enough to reduce the impact of propellers on bottom sediments. Getting to that depth would require a dock longer than the 100-feet limit set by the study group.

The town-wide ban

Rick Barry went back to the town council in the spring of 2007 with a proposal to create another zoning overlay district to ban new docks and piers near any designated recreational shellfishing and relay areas. The Barnstable Association of Recreational Shellfishers (BARS), a citizen group formed to encourage recreational clamming, was fully behind the concept, fired up by the approval of a new pier adjacent to Cotuit’s Cordwood Lane area despite BARS’ vehement opposition and the opinion of the town’s shellfish biologist. Waterfront property owners in Osterville and Oyster Harbors began to complain about the impact of commercial aquaculture grants and floating bags of seed oysters off of their property. Now Barry and Cotuit were joined by the town’s clammers to take another stand to protect the bivalves.

Barry’s town-wide ban would have stopped new docks in Barnstable Harbor near the Scudder Lane recreational clamming area, in Hyannis Port  near the relay area (used to cleanse clams raised in polluted areas with cleaner water near the Sound) near the yacht club, the West Bay landing in Osterville to the east of the Wianno Yacht Club, North Bay in two locations near Bay Street and Sand Point Road, and all of Cotuit’s relay and recreational areas.

The town council took the proposal under advisement and turned it over to the zoning subcommittee to put some thought into it, reviewing the concerns of waterfront property owners, and refining the specific areas to be affected by the ban .

Things heat up on the town council

In January of 2008 the proposed town-wide ban went before the Town Council. For two and half hours it heard comments for and against the ban. It was one of the more heated hearings in the history of town goverment. Reporter David Still, writing for the Barnstable Patriot, wrote “…the town council pushed off a final vote …until other options are reviewed with the harbormaster and legal department. That move came after two reconsiderations, some parliamentary maneuverings and good deal of ill will among town councilors.”

The councilors debated the proposal, with some proposing that waterfront property owners be given a mooring off their property in lieu of a new dock – a move apparently objected to by the harbormaster’s office. Five councilors opposed the ban, their opposition led by Jim Crocker of Osterville who “…objected to the proposal because it was not fair to property owners, and also because he does not believe science supports such a ban as a protection for shellfish resources.”

“This is a grab, and we have to admit that it’s a grab,” the late councilor said. Before long Crocker and Barry were openly sparring on the dais of the meeting room at town hall, with Barry claiming Crocker had been a no-show at every public hearing he attended and Crocker saying “You’re going to regret saying that, but go ahead.”

The crowd gasped.

The Patriot reported of the 25 people who gave public comment at that hearing, all but two speakers were in favor of it. Barry openly challenged his fellow councilors who joined Crocker’s opposition. He called out one councilor who had abstained to take a stand.

The following month a compromise was hammered out. The ban would be limited to the Three Bays area and capped by a two-year sunset provision while the town figured out a harbor management plan. The town’s shellfish committee, chaired by Cotuit attorney Stuart Rapp, was disappointed because it hadn’t been consulted during the dickering that led to the compromise. Meanwhile the Planning Board was still in favor of the original ban without the two-year expiration and apparently they too were not consulted when the town council was working out a compromise.

It took two years, but in 2010 the town council approved a ban of new docks and piers in designated shellfish areas by a 10 to 3 vote.

Goodbye to all that

Rick Barry told the Barnstable Patriot that even if he could run for re-election to the town council (he was prohibited by term limit rules), he didn’t know if he would because “His experience with the pier and dock ban, an expansion of an earlier Barry-sponsored ban for Cotuit’s shoreline, proved discouraging.”

“I find issues like this personally very frustrating,” Barry told the Patriot. As debate wound down and the modified ban was passed, “he encouraged those in the room to remember how people represent them when they go into the voting booth for contested races.”

*If anyone knows anything about the “Cotuit-based Waterway Users Association” please contact me.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write View all posts by David Churbuck

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