The past several weeks have seen multiple articles and editorials about the aquaculture facility being proposed by Richard Cook in Popponesset Bay and the opposition by the group of neighbors. The press has sympathetically described Cook as a “local fellow” proposing a “small-time operation” to “eke out a living” and has vilified the homeowners as off-Cape “wealthy neighbors.” By framing the dispute in this way, a lot of newspapers have been sold, but the whole story has not been reported.
Mr. Cook’s proposal is to install 4,500 aquaculture cages on two acres of a sand bar where he intends to raise 1,000,000 oysters. He intends to use this area in conjunction with another aquaculture facility that he is already operating in nearby Ockway Bay. Mr. Cook will work this commercial enterprise at least five days a week by continually putting oysters in the cages, agitating the oysters (to shape them for market), sorting the oysters with a motorized sorting machine, moving the oysters from cage to cage, harvesting the oysters and cleaning the cages. This business will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. This is no “small-time” operation. Indeed, Mr. Cook estimates that the revenues will be millions of dollars over the life of the license.
The town approved this substantial commercial project in an area surrounded by long-standing homes that are located in a residential zoning district, which does not allow any commercial activity. That we homeowners are opposed to this and are trying to enforce the zoning bylaw that is supposed to protect us, and all local residents, should not be surprising to anyone who owns a home.
We have also raised legitimate safety concerns because of the location that Mr. Cook selected for his facility: a FEMA velocity zone. A velocity zone is an area that is subject to damaging waves during storms. After experiencing Hurricane Bob, Katrina and more recently Sandy, we all know how devastating a storm can be to a residential community.
The Mashpee zoning bylaw seeks to protect against this danger by preventing new commercial development, such as Mr. Cook’s facility, in velocity zones. Similarly, the Mashpee’s wetlands regulations presume that, when commercial equipment such as that proposed by Mr. Cook is placed in a velocity zone, it is likely to become dangerous storm-borne debris. Despite these regulations, which are intended to protect homeowners and which clearly prohibit a commercial facility such as Mr. Cook’s from being located in a velocity zone, the town has issued permits approving Mr. Cook’s commercial project. We are justifiably concerned that the 4,500 cages Mr. Cook intends to put offshore from our homes will dislodge during a storm and become storm-borne debris that will damage our homes.
It has been suggested that we have exaggerated this danger. But the opposite it true: The town agencies failed to adequately vet Mr. Cook’s commercial project for compliance with the town’s regulations and failed to adequately condition it to protect the homeowners. The Audubon Society cautioned that these issues required careful examination, which they did not receive. Indeed, last month, on the eve of a hearing on one of the pending appeals, Mr. Cook quietly agreed to increase the size of his proposed anchors by 20 percent and to increase the number of anchors by 50 percent. This was in direct response to evidence presented by the homeowners that Mr. Cook’s original anchoring system, which had been twice approved by the town, was far from adequate. Notably, there was no press coverage of this.
The town has been more than just lax in the enforcement of its regulations with respect to Cook. The town has been actively backing him. During the court appeals over Cook’s permits, the town’s attorney has been fighting Cook’s cases for him—all at the taxpayer’s expense. Why has the town manager authorized the expenditure of tens of thousands of tax dollars to help one individual develop a lucrative for-profit business? Maybe it’s because Cook has political connections in town. Cook’s sister-in-law, Theresa Cook, was the chairman of the board of selectmen at the time that Cook first applied to the board of selectmen for his aquaculture license. Theresa Cook is currently a member of the finance committee and the town’s economic development and industrial corporation. She was previously a member of the school committee and the liaison to the capital outlay committee. While she was a selectmen, she voted to appoint Cook to the shellfish commission. And she has worked with the town manager in many capacities for the past 30 years. Cook himself was a member of the shellfish commission and his friends on that commission recommended that the board of selectmen approve his application. All one has to do is connect the dots to figure out that Cook is using political connections and public resources to advance his business interests.
Why else would the town be so actively involved? Certainly not for the $25 per acre annual license fee the town will collect from Mr. Cook. That’s right—$25 per acre. While Mr. Cook stands to earn millions during the 10-year term of his license, he will pay the town a mere $25 per acre over 10 years—after the town spent tens of thousands of dollars on lawsuits helping him.
Our opposition to Mr. Cook’s commercial project is not at all unusual. We are simply responding to the unwanted effects of a commercial enterprise being located near our homes. And all we are seeking is enforcement of the town’s regulations. Arguments similar to ours are heard in every town on the Cape, week in and week out, at public hearings held by municipal regulatory agencies.
This particular dispute has garnered attention because the homeowners are fortunate to enjoy waterfront properties. But focusing on the homeowners’ financial status has allowed an important story to go unnoticed: what is going on at the Mashpee Town Hall. The Mashpee Enterprise should investigate and report on Mr. Cook’s use of political connections at the Mashpee Town Hall to advance his business interests; the lax enforcement of regulations on Mr. Cook’s project; the use of public funds to pay the town’s attorney to help Mr. Cook; and the granting of valuable publicly owned land to Mr. Cook for $25 per acre to be used in a for-profit business.
The reporting by the press recently reached its zenith when we sought the assistance of a state legislator to help us in our effort to protect our homes. Ironically, Mr. Cook has been using political connections the entire time to help him create a multi-million dollar business at public expense on publicly owned land. There has not been a single word printed about this. Well, Mr. Cook is the local fellow trying to “eke out” a living on several hundred thousand dollars a year. That apparently makes it all right.
Charles and Gloria Clough
Daniels Island Road
Warren and Kimberly Fields
Popponesset Island Road
C. Michael and Sonia Hayward
Daniels Island Road