Popponesset Island Opposition Gears Up For Oyster Farm Fight
By: Geoff Spillane
Approval of a proposed one-acre aquaculture grant off of Popponesset Island was put on hold last week after a contentious Mashpee Conservation Commission meeting.
During the well-attended meeting, concerns presented by Brian J. Wall, an attorney with Sandwich-based Troy Wall Associates, who represents 21 nearby homeowners, compelled commission members to conduct additional research and confer with town counsel before making a final decision.
Meantime, opponents have filed a legal appeal of an earlier approval of the project by the Mashpee Board of Selectmen.
The one-acre shellfish grant in Popponesset Bay was requested earlier this year by Mashpee resident Richard J. Cook Jr., who has been shellfishing in Mashpee for nearly four decades, and has operated an oyster farm in Ockway Bay for 28 years.
According to a document filed with the selectmen’s office, Mr. Cook plans to use the grant to grow oysters, quahogs, and possibly scallops in 4-foot-by-4-foot wire mesh cages, with a maximum of 3,000 cages spread over the site.
The selectmen approved the one-acre grant in March, but the decision was appealed to Barnstable Superior Court by owners of neighboring properties who claim their property values, safety, quality of life, recreational activities, and view would be affected by the proposed aquaculture grant.
Legal opposition to the shellfish grant has been spearheaded by Leslie A. Caffyn, a longtime Mashpee visitor who purchased a $4.15 million home on the tip of Popponesset Island in 2010. The proposed grant is located 30 feet offshore from Ms. Caffyn’s waterfront property. The complaint now includes 21 individuals representing 11 properties on Popponesset Island and nearby Daniels Island.
Ms. Caffyn declined to comment when reached by telephone at her Wellesley residence this week.
“I’m surprised at the resistance. In 28 years at Ockway Bay I’ve never had one registered complaint,” Mr. Cook said.
Opponents of Mr. Cook’s plan contend that the Popponesset Bay and Ockway Bay grants are two distinctly different locations, with the latter being much shallower and calm, further offshore, and not abutting private residences.
At last week’s meeting, Attorney Wall presented several arguments on behalf of his clients that led to the request of a continuance by Mr. Cook.
Concerns included a lack of critical information about the scope, nature, and location of the project in Mr. Cook’s Notice of Intent filed with the town.
According to a document prepared by Mr. Wall and delivered to John J. Fitzsimmons, chairman of the conservation commission, Mr. Cook’s application contains only two basic paragraphs, and does not mention that it is a substantial commercial operation that will occupy nearly 50,000 square feet of ocean bottom in an area subject to strong weather, potentially use noisy motorized winches, and house as many as 3 million oysters.
In addition, aquaculture equipment qualifies as being a “structure,” and Mashpee town regulations prohibit new coastal engineering structures within 100 feet of a coastal bank, Mr. Wall contends.
Storm damage prevention is also a major issue, as the grant area is located within a velocity zone as designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Neighbors have expressed fear that the aquaculture equipment will be exposed to harsh wind and waves, and, in the event of a hurricane or Northeaster, the aquaculture cages and equipment could become storm-borne debris, causing potential personal injury and property damage.
“If there’s a hurricane, she’ll have more to worry about than shellfish cages,” Andrew R. McManus, town conservation agent, said during last week’s meeting while referring to Ms. Caffyn.
Concern over trespassing was also expressed, should the equipment become untethered and wash ashore. Mr. Cook would not be able to retrieve the gear, as he would only have access to the grant by boat, Mr. Wall noted.
Mr. Wall also reminded the committee that a town bylaw protects recreation interests in certain wetland resource areas.
“This is a highly recreated area. Kayaking, swimming, and boating are some of the reasons that property owners chose to buy here. An aquaculture operation would have an adverse effect on the recreational use of this location,” Mr. Wall said.
Aquaculture is a proven method for removing nitrogen pollution, and has been utilized in Mashpee by seeding shellfish, primarily oysters and quahogs, in the Mashpee River, Waquoit Bay, and several other ponds and rivers. As the shellfish feed on nitrogen-rich plant matter in the water, a portion of the nutrient remains in the shellfish. When they are harvested, the nitrogen is completely removed from the water.
“My clients are not opposed to aquaculture, nor are they challenging its environmental benefits. This is just not an appropriate location for this grant, given that it’s in a velocity zone and would be prone to storm damage,” Mr. Wall said.
A decision regarding the aquaculture farm has been continued until the commission’s June 16 meeting, although it is likely to be continued again, according to Mr. McManus. “Mr. Cook needs to show more details in the plan, including structures, anchoring systems, and layout,” Mr. McManus said.
Mr. Cook has engaged Orleans-based Coastal Engineering Company Inc., an environmental permitting consultancy, to assist in the process.
“We’ve attended the hearings. As of now, we’re his engineering firm of record, and will assist with further information requests from the commission,” Roy. E. Okurowski, marine division manager at Coastal Engineering, said in an interview this week.
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