Popponesset Oyster Grant Approved By Conservation Commission, Again

The Mashpee Conservation Commission last night unanimously approved an application by local shellfisherman Richard J. Cook for a two-acre shellfish aquaculture grant in Popponesset Bay for the second time in two years.

The hearing represented the latest chapter in a nearly 18-month-long battle between Mr. Cook and 20 homeowners on Popponesset and Daniels islands who are in opposition to the grant.

Unlike many of the past hearings, which were lengthy, contentious and tense, last night’s was calm and the commission rapidly dispatched of its business relating to the grant, perhaps signaling a case of fatigue on both sides of the debate.

The vote was taken two weeks after the commission continued the hearing, pending receipt of a detailed, written narrative from Mr. Cook that would clearly explain how the aquaculture farm would be operated.

“The applicant has submitted the requested information standards, and it meets our performance standards,” Mashpee Conservation Agent Andrew R. McManus said.

The grant was initially proposed to be smaller and located close to shore off the north end of Popponesset Island. Late last year, facing a lawsuit with the potential to create a lengthy and costly legal battle, Mr. Cook abandoned those plans, choosing to pursue a smaller grant near the Popponesset Bay inlet, located at least 1,150 feet from the shoreline and the nearest Mashpee residences. Nonetheless, the opposition and its legal team followed Mr. Cook to the new grant location.

The opposition to Mr. Cook’s grant proposal has presented a laundry list of concerns throughout the extended debate, primarily focusing its location in a velocity zone, which could potentially create storm-borne shellfishing gear and debris that could cause property damage.

Other concerns have included impediments to recreational activity, decreases in property value, noise and visual disturbance from motorized equipment that could potentially be used in the operation, endangerment of the habitat of terns and piping plovers, and the viability of anchoring systems that would tether the gear to the land under the ocean.

Most recently, the opposition has argued that the project was a development of regional impact, which would trigger a review by the Cape Cod Commission and call for all abutters along the bay, including those in Barnstable, to be notified of the plans.

According to details presented in the narrative, day-to-day operations of the business would entail two workers, including Mr. Cook, working four to five days per week, for approximately five hours per day. The grant would be accessed by a 21-foot boat launched from a Mashpee public boat ramp, and daily maintenance of the grant would include flipping the mesh bags used to grow the oysters, sorting the shellfish by hand once a week, and inspecting markers and gear on regular basis.

In addition, the narrative stated that all bags would remain completely underwater at mean low tide, and that Mr. Cook would not operate equipment on weekends, or before 8 AM on weekdays between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

The narrative also detailed a contingency plan for recovering any loose gear, and highlighted that Mr. Cook would also secure appropriate liability insurance.

Brian J. Wall, an attorney representing the opposition, briefly addressed the commission, but was quickly shut down by board Chairman John J. Fitzsimmons.

“We recognize that you have submitted a letter with a number of issues, but we will not discuss it tonight. We have thoroughly reviewed the letter, and found it to be without merit,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said.

While it is widely expected that the opposition will appeal the commission’s decision to Barnstable Superior Court as it did with the prior application, Mr. Cook appeared pleased and ready to move forward with his plans. A vote to support the project earlier this year by the Mashpee Board of Selectmen, another step in the lengthy, multi-agency permitting process, is already being challenged in Barnstable Superior Court.

“I am optimistic that tonight was the final hearing, and that I can now pull my permits at town hall and start growing oysters as soon as possible,” Mr. Cook said.

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