BREWSTER — Stiff public opposition has prompted town officials to hit the brakes on a plan to connect an island purchased by the town in 1961 to the mainland via a raised boardwalk across the Quivett Marsh.
Access to Wing Island and its beach is now limited to a footpath adjacent to the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History off Route 6A. Travelers cross the marsh on 2-by-10-foot planks installed in the 1990s. The crossing is flooded twice each day at high tide.
Walkers have damaged vegetation in the marsh out to about 50 feet on either side, prompting discussion of providing better access to the island. It’s a discussion that has been going on for years. A boardwalk was included in the updated master plan for Drummer Boy Park approved by town meeting last year, but the solution being proposed by officials has not been well received.
Engineers from the Horsley Witten Group first unveiled conceptual designs at an Aug. 15 public forum. The plan featured a raised 10-foot-wide boardwalk running an average of about 7 feet above the marsh. The proposed elevation took into account sea level rise over the next 50 years.
The August forum was followed by a public comment period, during which 60 percent of those responding opposed the plan. Respondents expressed a long list of concerns, from the effect an increase in visitors would have on the ecologically sensitive areas of Wing Island and Quivett Marsh to the need for more parking and bathrooms to the design’s effect on the expansive view.
There were also questions about the cost of the project and accusations about a lack of transparency by officials.
In an email to the Independent, Town Administrator Peter Lombardi said $50,000 for design and permitting was unanimously approved by last November’s town meeting. In addition, the town secured a $50,000 grant from the Dept. of Conservation and Recreation last year and received $30,000 from an anonymous donor via the Brewster Conservation Trust for design and permitting work. The same anonymous donor has pledged $1 million via the Brewster Conservation Trust toward construction of the boardwalk.
In late August, a citizens group called Friends of Wing Island formed to oppose the boardwalk.
Horsley Witten presented scaled-down plans in late September, narrowing the boardwalk to 6 feet, the minimum required under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and in one version eliminating access from Drummer Boy Park.
Meanwhile, the Friends have proposed their own design offering “a minimal impact alternative.” They suggest a marsh-level boardwalk from the Museum of Natural History, which they say is similar in design to one at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary, along with a separate viewing platform off Drummer Boy Park.
At the Oct. 17 meeting of the select board, Lombardi said there was no longer a plan to move forward with full design and permitting in November because of public objections. Instead, plans will continue to be revised, he said. One revision was lowering the height from 7 to 5 feet above the marsh, Lombardi said. An independent third-party review was also in the works, he said.
A forum to look at new conceptual designs will be scheduled, most likely in December.
Meanwhile, Horsley Witten has been asked to look at possible ecological effects of an increase in visitors and to consider construction materials that might reduce the visual impact of the walkway, Lombardi said.
“I think you really heard us and are considering alternative designs,” said Liz Perry of 80 Blue Jacket Way, an opponent of the initial plan. “I think we can all work together. We all love Wing Island and want to protect it.”
Janice Riley, a vocal opponent of the plan, said discussion of a boardwalk may have been ongoing for several years but argued the public hadn’t seen anything concrete until the Aug. 25 presentation by Horsley Witten. “That’s what galvanized us,” she said of the Friends of Wing Island group.
Though dialogue with town officials is happening, Riley said the group had to force it. “We have lost a lot of trust in you,” she said.
Friends member Gillian Mackenzie expressed concern that the $1 million pledge and the other funds that have already been allocated might leave voters without a voice. “If no funding is needed from the taxpayers,” she asked, “you don’t have to come to the voters. Is that accurate?”
Lombardi said that design issues have to be resolved before the town can determine the cost of the project. “Technically, if the town has funding from a donor and other sources,” Lombardi said, “the board would not have to go to town meeting for approval.” But, he added, “That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t.”
Lombardi said the donor of the $1 million has had no input into the design, and “if for whatever reasons the town decides not to move forward with the project, we’re certainly not obligated.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article, published in print on Nov. 3, gave an incorrect date for the public forum at which plans for the boardwalk were first revealed. It was Aug. 15, not Aug. 25. The earlier version also incorrectly reported that there were two separate anonymous donors to the project; both the $30,000 donation and the $1 million pledge are from the same donor.