Under pressure from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repeal a ban on anchorage in Edgartown harbor, town officials stood their ground this week and said no.
The anchorage ban was approved last summer to protect the rich shellfish beds in Katama Bay.
At a heated two-hour meeting Wednesday afternoon in the Edgartown town hall, spokesmen from the Army Corps, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency tangled with town officials over the anchorage ban. The meeting was reportedly sparked by a complaint filed with U.S. Cong. Barney Frank by a disgruntled boater who was barred from dropping anchor in Katama Bay last summer.
The Edgartown harbor reaches into Katama Bay, a vast and pristine salt water bay that includes many acres of productive shellfish beds.
On Wednesday the Edgartown harbor master, the town shellfish constable, one selectman and members of the marine advisory committee told federal officials that protecting the health of Katama Bay is paramount.
But Richard A. Roach, a senior project manager for the New England division of the Army Corps, opened the meeting by charging that Edgartown officials have a monopoly on the mooring rental business and that the town was not giving boaters an alternative. He said the town was turning boaters out of the harbor in stormy weather.
Town officials denied the charges.
"I am not exactly clear why you are saying that we offer no anchorage in Edgartown," said selectman Arthur Smadbeck. Anchorage is permitted in the outer harbor, and no boaters have ever been turned away from the harbor during a storm, he added.
Harbor master Charlie Blair cited six instances of foul weather last summer when boats were permitted to anchor in the inner harbor.
Shellfish constable Paul Bagnall said the town offers boaters more mooring and anchorage space than any other town on the Island.
Mr. Smadbeck said Katama Bay is a critical resource for both wild and cultivated shellfish. A number of oyster farmers have begun aquaculture projects in the harbor area known as the Narrows.
"Whether you agree or not with what we did, our motive was to protect our harbor and our harbor plan involved a lot of people," said Joseph Cressy, a member of the town marine advisory committee.
Mr. Roach reminded town officials that jurisdiction over the water is shared by the town, state and federal government. He said an anchorage ban should have included a public process involving local, state and Army Corps officials.
Mr. Blair said prior to the closure, anchorage in Katama Bay was an enforcement nightmare, with boats as large as 70 feet routinely left unattended and often dragging anchor. "People dragged their anchors into each other. Many of them don't even know how to anchor. I had accident forms that had to be filled out," the harbor master said.
Mr. Blair was even more troubled by the boat owners who brought their boats into the bay, anchored them and then left them unattended for weeks.
"We had 80 to 100 boats in there during the Fourth of July weekend," Mr. Blair said. Mr. Bagnall expressed concern about visiting boats that dropped anchor and failed to use the town's free pumpout service.
Mr. Bagnall said for every boat owner who complains that there is no anchorage in Katama Bay, there are five local shellfishermen who support the town's decision.
Coast Guard spokesman Kevin J. Blount suggested that the town declare the inner harbor a federal no-discharge zone with the help of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The harbor is already protected through state and local regulations.
EPA spokesman Ann Rodney said she could help the town through the application process and the designation could be in place by summer.
Mr. Blair said a no-discharge designation is fine but will not get at the whole problem. "Fecal coliform isn't so harmful to shellfish. What really gets them is that capful of bleach that gets dumped," he said.
In an effort to find compromise, town officials agreed to work with the Coast Guard to establish a more formal anchorage area outside of Edgartown harbor, south and east of the Chappaquiddick Beach Club and Chappaquiddick Point, where boats already anchor.
Mr. Blount said the Coast Guard can adjust the aids to navigation in the area to reflect the change and have it appear on future charts.
Marine advisory committee member Bailey Norton said he did not want to see a lot of boats anchored near the Edgartown Lighthouse.
Mr. Roach warned that the Army Corps has some clout over the town, because it approves the town's mooring field. "We can revisit that permit," he said.
He also said: "I have no argument with the town establishing a conservation area as part of their harbor management plan. But the point is we prefer a public discussion of the appropriateness of the dedication in an area of public waters."
He said the town failed to follow a public process that involved the state and federal government when it discontinued anchorage in Katama Bay, and the Corps was never notified of the change.
In the end Ms. Rodney of the EPA acknowledged the need to protect the resource. "I think the town of Edgartown has taken a very proactive approach to the harbor, in keeping it healthy. I am not familiar with the Coast Guard and the Corps of Engineers jurisdiction over moorings and anchorages. In listening, Edgartown officials have an important shellfish resource and it needs protection. The resource is a gem," she said.