WELLFLEET — The select board has directed the dredging task force to pay $4.5 million for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers instead of moving forward with an environmental restoration project that would replace the penalty.
The directive came three months after the board voted on August 22 to withdraw a mitigation plan that would have dedicated 28 acres of Blackfish Creek to oyster habitat restoration.
The Army Corps determined that the dredging is likely to create an environmental impact significant enough to require the town to offset it — or, in lieu of that, pay a fine — to get the permit needed for the dredging.
At the board’s Nov. 21 meeting, members voted to pay the fine. Voters will be asked to authorize borrowing $4.48 million to complete the final phase of the harbor dredging project, which has been stalled for over two years by debate about the terms of mitigation.
Vice chair John Wolf, Ryan Curley, and Timothy Sayre voted to pay the fine; chair Barbara Carboni and Michael DeVasto voted against it.
The majority cited unresolved concerns about the Blackfish Creek mitigation plan as well as distrust of the Army Corps, while the two in the minority argued that the board has a financial obligation to act on behalf of taxpayers.
Dredging task force chair Joe Aberdale told the board that in meetings with the Army Corps he attempted to further negotiate the terms of the dredging permit, including the number of credits, or level of environmental impact, the Corps designated to the project and the size of the fee that the town would have to pay.
“Every avenue has been thoroughly pursued,” Aberdale said. “The answer was a firm ‘no.’ ”
Aberdale outlined three plans that the board could authorize the task force to pursue: the town could pay the $4.5 million outright, prorate it over two years, or develop a revised or entirely fresh mitigation plan.
Aberdale warned that the state Dept. of Fish and Game, the agency that administers the permit fees through the state’s in-lieu fee program, is looking to increase its fee structure by 30 percent in 2024. That means that the town could be looking at a fine of upwards of $5.6 million if it waits any longer, Town Administrator Rich Waldo told the Independent.
Aberdale recommended that the town opt to pay the $4.5 million outright. “We don’t want to be here again speaking about this matter next August,” he said.
The board deliberated for two hours. Wolf expressed concern that any mitigation plan involving environmental uplift would obligate the town to submit monitoring reports to the Army Corps in perpetuity. He told the Independent another worry was uncertainty about what the consequences would be if the mitigation plan were to fail.
“People might think it is fiscally irresponsible, but I think it is fiscally irresponsible to make the town signatory to such an open-ended promise,” Wolf said. He likened such an agreement to “a form of extortion.”
Board member Timothy Sayre expressed fear over collaborating with the federal agency: “I am totally against the Army Corps of Engineers being in this town,” he said.
Carboni said her vote against the mitigation plan in August was due to unresolved questions regarding property rights and ownership of the mitigation area. According to the plan, two-thirds of the 28 acres is owned by Mass Audubon, and the rest is under the jurisdiction of the state. According to Waldo, the town still has not received approval from Mass Audubon to use its land for oyster repopulation.
“Those are issues that can be resolved,” Carboni said, but “asking the voters for $4.5 million is not something I am willing to do until we have explored every option.”
After a sigh of reluctance, Curley voted to pay the fee. “I hate to ask the voters for $4.5 million, but we are at the point where we need to pick a lane,” he said.
A Dissolved Task Force
Missing from the Nov. 21 select board meeting were two members of the dredging task force who, up until the board’s Aug. 22 vote, had been regularly meeting with the board about the town’s mitigation plan.
Task force chair Chris Allgeier and member Curt Felix resigned two weeks ago, said Waldo. Skip Annett resigned a couple of days later, leaving Joe Aberdale as the only member of the group.
In an interview, Felix attributed his resignation to the select board “going in the wrong direction. They failed their fiduciary responsibility to the town.”
Wolf said he thought that the dredging committee members had “put their eggs in the mitigation basket,” and “they probably feel their efforts were not appreciated and decided not to spend any more time on it.”
But Waldo said that Felix, Allgeier, and Annett all told him that public verbal attacks from townspeople that plagued dredging meetings were the reason for their resignations.
The town has already received two applications to serve on the dredging task force, Wolf told the Independent. They are from shellfishermen Alfred Picard and Chris Merle. Merle has previously spoken out against the mitigation plan.