'It's A Hub Of The Community:' Funding Sought For Rock Harbor Bulkhead, Wharf Upgrades

by Ryan Bray
The town pier north of the commercial wharf at Rock Harbor could soon get a much needed upgrade if funding is approved for improvements to the wharf and commercial bulkhead at annual town meeting in May.  RYAN BRAY PHOTO The town pier north of the commercial wharf at Rock Harbor could soon get a much needed upgrade if funding is approved for improvements to the wharf and commercial bulkhead at annual town meeting in May. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – The commercial wharf and bulkhead at Rock Harbor is in dire need of repair, and has been for some time. How bad is it? Nate Sears, the town’s natural resources manager, said all anyone has to do is go down and have a look for themselves.

Nothing at the aging facility speaks more to the need than the wooden town pier to the north of the wharf which, despite its dilapidated condition, is still in use.

“There’s fishermen using that thing, but it’s literally being held together with come-alongs and chains,” Sears said following a discussion with the select board Feb. 14. “It’s nuts.”

Now after a lengthy permitting and design process, the facility could be in line for a major overhaul, that’s if voters approve funding for the construction at the annual town meeting in May.

A proposal made to the select board calls for new floating docks in front of the wharf and at the town pier to the north, upgraded underground utilities, the installation of a hoist system for offloading catch, a restabilized wall near the neighboring charter fleet docks and a small public seating area.

An inventory of town bulkheads done in 2017 found the bulkhead at the end of the commercial wharf to be “unstable and failing,” Sears said. But Christine Player, the lead project engineer with Foth CLE Engineering, said further analysis led the town to move ahead with a plan to upgrade the whole facility.

“As we started to look into all of the different components at the site that really do make this a functioning working waterfront, the project scope expanded,” she told the select board.

Sears said an upgraded facility will give the 12 to 15 commercial fishing vessels that pay for dockage in Rock Harbor the same amenities that recreational boaters have had for some time.

“All the fancy recreational boats have hoses, water,” he said. “They’re backing into their beautiful slips and they have nice gangways to walk up and down with their coolers. And these guys barely have water. They’re unloading their quahogs by hand, throwing them up over the sides of their shoulders onto the loading dock. They’re climbing up greasy wooden ladders. I’m telling you, you wouldn’t dare go down one of these ladders.”

The poor condition of the commercial bulkhead led the town to institute a vehicle restriction on its use in 2018. Player said the bulkhead is also prone to flooding, and the ability for fishermen to use it to offload their catch is “tidally dependent.”

A new concrete bulkhead will be designed that will be flush with the rest of the parking lot pavement, allowing vehicles to safely use the bulkhead, Player said.

Meanwhile, a new floating dock will allow for “end-in” vessel docking in front of the wharf. Currently, vessels are tied abreast together extending into the harbor channel. The existing wharf will be set back an additional 20 feet, which with the new docking will help keep the channel clear for other vessels to navigate.

“This will give us that space without encroaching into the waterway and the navigation channel for the fleet to have end-in berths,” Player said.

The new dockage fronting the wharf will connect to another floating dock system to the north, which will replace the existing town pier system.

The project also includes the restabilization of an existing stone wall near the charter fleet docks, the addition of new sidewalks allowing public access down to the Rock Harbor boat ramp and a small public viewing area with seating next to the new bulkhead.

The project design was done with the input of local commercial fishermen, both in the form of a 2019 public hearing and subsequent virtual meetings held during the pandemic.

“We wanted to make sure that the facility we moved forward with would really accomplish what the fleet felt was needed to modernize their operations, and to bring it into a modernized safe operation,” Player said.

Sears said Rock Harbor is a fertile fishing area that generates millions of dollars in catch. As such, he said it’s only fair that commercial fishermen have the resources they need to support their work.

“It’s actually a fishery that’s sustainable at the moment,” he said. “It’s not on the decline. There’s young fishermen, young fishing families that are buying quahog draggers and getting into that fishery. The majority of those vessels are going two miles, three miles off shore and coming in with their limit.”

The project is currently estimated to cost between $6 million and $7 million, but a firm project cost is expected to be ready in time for town meeting. The project is expected to go out to bid in March, according to a timeline presented to the select board.

If the funding is approved, construction would begin in October and conclude in April 2025.

“It’s a tight window,” Player said. “There’s a lot going on here.”

There’s also the possibility of lowering the project cost by as much as $3 million through the receipt of state grant funding. The town plans to apply for up to $1 million through the Seaport Economic Council, as well as for up to $2 million from the state Office of Coastal Zone Management.

While acknowledging it as a “challenging site,” Kevin Galligan of the select board applauded the plans as presented. But he stressed the importance of informing the public on the project ahead of town meeting, including using the visuals and schematics presented to the board last week.

“I think it allows them to get a sense of what the future can hold if they vote for it,” he said.

Mefford Runyon of the select board saw one upcoming opportunity to pitch the project to the public in the form of the Orleans Citizens Forum’s upcoming presentation on the blue economy on Feb. 29.

“If Rock Harbor isn’t a central part of the blue economy, I don’t know what is,” he said.

Sears said the primary goal of the project is to “catch up” the commercial fishermen with their recreational peers. But more broadly, he said the project will have great benefit for residents and visitors alike in Orleans.

“It’s a hub of the community,” he said. “One of the reasons people visit Orleans is because of Rock Harbor.”

Email Ryan Bray at ryan@capecodchronicle.com