Town Gets Behind Rock Harbor Bulkhead Project

by Ryan Bray
Bill Amaru speaks in support of an article seeking $9 million for a revitalized bulkhead at Rock Harbor during annual town meeting in Orleans Monday night at Nauset Regional Middle School.  RYAN BRAY PHOTO Bill Amaru speaks in support of an article seeking $9 million for a revitalized bulkhead at Rock Harbor during annual town meeting in Orleans Monday night at Nauset Regional Middle School. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – Bill Amaru still remembers the dock where he first began fishing 50 years ago.

“Guess what,” he told attendees of Monday’s annual town meeting. “It’s the same dock.”

Amaru was referring to the aging pier neighboring the commercial bulkhead at Rock Harbor, which has largely fallen into disrepair. Town officials successfully made the case for spending $9 million to redevelop the bulkhead into a modern facility that will be safer for commercial fishermen and more attractive to residents and tourists.

Voters overwhelmingly supported funding the project through a Proposition 2½ override 575-24 Monday night. The funding must be approved on the ballot at Tuesday’s annual town election.

“It’s hard to believe we let this get to this point,” Nate Sears, the town’s harbormaster and natural resources manager, told voters at Nauset Regional Middle School. “This is a hub of our community. This is our heritage.”

Sears presented a number of photos showing the decrepit condition of the existing facility, which Sears said dates to the 1950s. The bulkhead was first deemed unsafe for use in 2017, leading the town to close it off to parking due to its instability. The town pier, meanwhile, has wooden ladders that have posed safety issues for the commercial fishermen that scale them. Some, including Amaru, have endured dangerous falls.

“I’m lucky because I didn’t bang my head against the boat,” Amaru said. “All I did was scrape myself against the ladder and the barnacles and oysters that were growing on it.”

Improvements call for a new bulkhead that will be set 20 feet back to allow end-in docking, as well as a new town pier to the north. The project would also involve the installation of a hoist system for offloading commercial catch, underground utilities, the restabilization of an existing seawall and an area for public seating between the bulkhead and docking for the harbor’s charter fleet.

One voter questioned how the town plans to make money on the new facility with only 12 to 15 commercial fishermen utilizing it. But proponents noted that millions of dollars in seafood are brought in through the harbor by commercial fishermen. Beyond that, Sears said, a revitalized bulkhead would more properly honor the town’s maritime legacy.

“This isn’t about 15 fishermen,” he said. “It’s about our community, and about remembering how unique our community is and what makes people want to come here.”

A “no” vote Monday would have put the town in the position to seek between $6 million and $7 million at a future town meeting to fix the existing facility, Sears said.

Scott Zenke pointed to the success of the new fish pier in Chatham, and said Orleans and the harbor’s commercial fishermen deserve the same.

“We’re landlords, and this is the beginning of Orleans,” he said. “This is the oldest industry in Orleans.”

Suzanne Phillips, a member of the shellfish and waterways advisory committee, works seasonally at the Chatham Fish Pier. She said she’s seen first hand the interest that a modern pier inspires in residents and visitors.

“It’s very much a tourist draw,” she said. “People are very, very interested in what the fishermen are doing here.”

The town plans to apply for two state grants, one from the Seaport Economic Council and the other from the Office of Coastal Zone Management, that together could provide up to $3 million in funding toward the project’s construction. Tony Pearl of the finance committee said that the town has a “good chance” of securing the grants.

Sears said that the town should hear back about the status of the grants in July or August, and said that support for the project through town meeting could go a long way toward helping Orleans secure the funding.

A second override of $960,000 was approved for the planning and design of the third phase of town sewering in the areas of Pilgrim Lake, Crystal Lake, Lonnie’s Pond and Areys Pond. Approximately 300 properties would be tied into town sewer in the area.

Voters also approved Article 19, which expands the Meetinghouse Pond sewer area by tying in an additional 28 properties. The additional work will be done at no additional cost to the project.

Voters gave the OK to $150,000 in support of plans for a new Snow Library. The funding is required as a condition of applying for a grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners that Library Director Tavi Prugno said could help cover as much as half of the project’s planning and design up to $100,000.

“If the town does not receive the grant, these funds will not be expended,” he said.

The Snow Library board of trustees and the Snow Library feasibility task force envision a new 24,000-square-foot library, ideally in the location of the existing building on Main Street. Schematic renderings show a facility with two entrances from Main Street and a side parking lot that would include expanded collection and programming space as well as room for community meetings and events after library hours.

Tracey Salley, president of the nonprofit Friends of Snow Library, said the new library would be a facility that everyone in the community can use.

“Everyone is welcome at Snow Library,” she said.

Officials have a May 31 deadline in which to apply for the state grant, and the town could hear back from the MBLC about its status in the fall.

Town officials see the potential in developing a town campus on Eldredge Park Way that could accommodate a new fire station and Orleans Elementary School, and voters Monday night thought the idea worth studying.

Voters authorized spending $150,000 for a feasibility study exploring options for the 24-acre site. With town land in short supply, Orleans officials see a campus as a way of identifying two of the town’s most pressing infrastructure needs at a lower cost than if they were pursued separately.

The town’s fire station has been in operation since 1987, but is too small and outdated to meet the needs of a modern fire facility. School officials are also weighing their options as to what to do with the elementary school, the original portion of which dates back to 1956. Town Manager Kim Newman said a new school design could include additional space for community programming.

Mefford Runyon of the select board said with the study, the town could be in a position to bring an article back to voters to design a new fire station in the fall.

An article seeking $85,000 for a feasibility study to look at options for a multi-use pathway along Beach Road won the support of voters over some objections to how a path might impact the town’s character.

Alice Thomason Van Oot of the town’s transportation and bikeways advisory committee said the funding would help the town identify four design options for a multi-use path stretching along Beach Road out to Nauset Beach. Supporters of the project Monday spoke of the dangers that the existing roadway currently pose to pedestrians and cyclists. From blind spots and poorly designed shoulders to the volume of cars that Beach Road accommodates, Libby Callahan, who lives on the road and walks and bikes the stretch, said more needs to be done to protect non-motorists.

“We need to separate pedestrians and cyclists, physically separate them, from motor vehicles,” she said.

Beach Road resident Catherine Stevens said the path would likely require that the town take private property along the road to accommodate it, and said the path would disrupt the quaint charm that people have long associated with the town.

‘“This is Cape Cod,” she said. “We want to preserve Cape Cod the way it used to be.”

“We alter this streetscape, we alter our quality of life,” echoed resident Bill Wiebel.

But residents supported funding the study to see what options can be presented to possibly make Beach Road safer for people of all modes of transportation.

“We need to get the facts,” said John Ostman. “We need to get the information.”

While some saw it as another tax placed on select property owners, voters on Monday adopted a resolution to opt in to a local real estate transfer fee that would allow the town to assess a fee on properties sold at or above an amount to be determined, with revenue from the fee to go to support future housing projects.

The town will set the fee and threshold at which it would like to apply it at a future date. The article also includes approval of a seasonal communities designation, which would allow a property tax exemption for developers of year-round rental units in town.

A petition article seeking to require that any new wetland regulations or changes be approved through town meeting before going into effect passed with voters.

Town Moderator David Lyttle, who authored the petition, said he put the article forward in the interest of transparency. He said while conservation commission deliberations and votes on regulations are done in public session, the commission’s meetings are sparsely attended. As a result, he said the changes often go unnoticed by the public.

“Given that proposed regulatory changes can noticeably affect residents, it is imperative to acknowledge that the current public meeting process often lacks widespread awareness among citizens,” Lyttle wrote in the summary of his petition.

Town Counsel Michael Ford said that while the creation of a bylaw or changes to it go before voters at town meeting, it's common for the commission and other boards and committees to make regulation changes within the parameters of their respective bylaws without town meeting input.

Commission members Ginny Farber and Drusy Henson spoke against the petition, as did Orleans resident Charlie Carlson. The article was among the very last to go up for a vote, and Carlson wanted the article to be postponed to a future town meeting when more voters are in attendance to weigh in.

But others saw value in supporting the petition. Gerry Mulligan, who chairs the zoning board of appeals, called the commission’s current mode of operation “inherently undemocratic,” and said the integrity of the commission would be strengthened through support of the petition.

The article passed 128-98.

Email Ryan Bray at