Despite accusations of impropriety by the town’s conservation agent, tirades by angry opponents, and the occasional low-volume emotional appeal, the Mashpee Conservation Commission voted 4-to-2 to allow local shellfisherman Richard J. Cook Jr. to cultivate a one-acre aquaculture site off Popponesset Island.
Approximately 70 people, mostly residents of Popponesset and nearby Daniels islands, attended last week’s hearing at town hall, which at times the commission chairman had to interrupt to warn the audience of bad meeting decorum.
The grant in Popponesset Bay was requested earlier this year by Mr. Cook, who has been shellfishing in Mashpee for nearly four decades and has operated an oyster farm, similar to the proposed farm in Popponesset, in Ockway Bay for 28 years.
Last week’s meeting was a continuance from the June 2 conservation committee meeting, when Mr. Cook was asked to present additional details of his proposed plan, specifically regarding the anchorage of up to 3,000 four-foot-by-four-foot wire mesh cages that would be placed in an area prone to strong storms.
The Mashpee Board of Selectmen approved the grant back in March, but the decision was appealed to Barnstable Superior Court by owners of neighboring properties who claim their property values, safety, recreational activities, and views would be affected by Mr. Cook’s growing and harvesting oysters in the bay.
According to Brian J. Wall, an attorney with Sandwich-based Troy Wall Associates, who represents more than 20 nearby home-owners, an appeal of the conservation commission’s approval may also be filed.
“I still believe that the Mashpee Wetlands Protection Bylaws protect aesthetics and views, as well as recreational rights of property owners. This is a commercial operation that is being proposed,” Mr. Wall said.
Mr. Wall also plans on contesting a letter from interim building inspector Charles Maintanis that states that underwater shellfish cages are not considered structures, and therefore his organization has no jurisdiction in the issue. Mr. Wall expects to present an argument to the Mashpee Zoning Board of Appeals within 30 days.
While legal battles loom, Mr. Cook, who lives in the Sandalwood subdivision off Great Neck Road South and also works as an electrician, said he plans to move forward with the approval process for the aquaculture grant, but work on the project is on hold until the legal issues are settled.
“I firmly believe that the residents of the islands fear that this approval would open the door to other shellfish grants directly in front of their homes. That is not the case. The area in question is unique because there are no shellfish in sizable quantities...The whole idea is to utilize an area where there are little or no shellfish and make it productive. The homeowner who originally filed the complaint has made this issue something that it is not,” Mr. Cook said in an interview this week.
Andrew R. McManus, town conservation agent, cited a variety of evidence from the state Department of Marine Fisheries, the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, and the state Department of Environmental Protection that the grant would not have an adverse effect on the environment, as major reasons for the commission’s vote of approval. The abundance of other water-dependent structures, such as docks and floats, currently in use in Popponesset Bay was also a key factor.
“We did what we had to do. The project meets requirements, and there will not be unreasonable interference with swimming, kayaking, and other recreational activities,” Mr. McManus said.
The meeting took on an accusatory tone when Robyn Glaser, legal representative for Daniels Island residents Robert and Jonathan Kraft, who oppose the shellfish grant, addressed the commission and brought Mr. McManus’s ethics and character into question. Several residents of Popponesset and Daniels islands, including the Krafts, submitted letters of opposition to the conservation commission prior to last week’s meeting.
“I’m so aggravated. Why is Mr. Cook here? Mr. McManus could have done all the speaking for him. He is advocating for Mr. Cook. I don’t know what your interest is, but a bystander would think you are his partner and that you did all of his homework. I’m so overwhelmingly upset; I can’t believe what has gone on here tonight. This is not a rich and poor issue, it’s a Mashpee resident issue,” Ms. Glaser said.
According to Mr. McManus, following the meeting he received calls from some residents who oppose the aquaculture farm, yet wanted to let him know that they did not endorse Ms. Glaser’s comments and behavior.
“The purpose of my comments was not to be an advocate, but to clarify points brought up by the opposition,” Mr. McManus said.
Ms. Glaser’s remarks opened the floodgates to a steady parade of opponents approaching the town hall conference room lectern to address the commission.
“You must have a piece of the action. There is a moral issue here. It’s a big business. You are approving a factory,” said opponent Robert J. Zammito, referring to Mr. McManus.
Leslie A. Wagner Caffyn, a Popponesset Island resident who has been leading the opposition, took a less adversarial approach when addressing the commission.
“For 37 years, I’ve been coming to Mashpee, and I was finally able to purchase my dream house on Popponesset Island. If I knew this was happening, I never would have purchased it. I invite the commission to visit my property during the July Fourth weekend to see all of the recreational activity that occurs in the bay,” Ms. Caffyn said.
Ms. Caffyn purchased her home at the tip of Popponesset Island in 2010 for $4.15 million, and contends that the grant, approximately 30 feet from her property, could affect the home’s value, and also cause potential personal and property damage in the event of a major storm.
According to Mr. Cook, he was surprised at the animosity exhibited by the opponents and is open to speaking directly with anyone who is interested in learning more about his proposed aquaculture farm.
At least one topic addressed by the opposition—recreational safety—convinced Chairman John J. Fitzsimmons to change his vote on the issue.
“Safety is a major issue, kayaks may be able to pass over the cages, but certainly not power boats. I was also concerned about what would happen if Mr. Cook went out of business or went bankrupt, how would the cages and other apparatus be removed?” Mr. Fitzsimmons said.
Mr. Cook claims safety will not be a concern, as the grant is located in a no-wake area, and boaters with propelled outboards would not go through the acre, especially if there are buoys.
“I am hoping that the shellfish warden will post signs at all town landings to educate people about the contents of the shellfish farms. These signs are posted in Barnstable, and are available for free through the Barnstable County Extension Service,” Mr. Cook said.
Mr. Fitzsimmons, along with fellow commissioner John Rogers, cast the only dissenting votes.
After the votes were cast, and the results announced and approved, Mr. Fitzsimmons made it clear that the type of behavior exhibited by some of the opponents to the aquaculture farm was inappropriate. “The comments about Drew McManus were out of order,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said.