Oak Bluffs selectmen award North Bluff contract for the final time

Long-awaited seawall rebuild moves ahead after bidding process do-over that brings $270,000 in savings.

The North Bluff seawall restoration project will go back out to bid on Oct. 22. — File photo by Michael Cummo

When Oak Bluffs selectmen unanimously voted on Sept. 22 to accept a $5.25 million bid from Westborough-based MIG Corp. to rebuild the North Bluff seawall, contingent on additional Community Preservation Committee (CPC) funding, it appeared that the much-anticipated project was finally moving ahead.

However, due to a complaint from the second-place bidder, Weymouth-based Northern Construction Service, citing ambiguous wording in the Request for Proposal (RFP), Oak Bluffs selectmen, on the advice of the state attorney general’s office, town counsel Michael Goldsmith, and town administrator Robert Whritenour, voted to rescind their decision, and to rebid the project. At the time, Mr. Whritenour said the rebid process could spare the town a long appeals process and also possibly save the town money in a more competitive bidding climate.

At Tuesday night’s selectmen’s meeting, Mr. Whritenour’s words proved prophetic, as selectmen voted unanimously to accept a new bid from Northern Construction for $4.9 million, saving the town roughly $270,000 from the previously accepted bid.

Despite the additional delay, project manager David Lager of Netco Management told The Times Wednesday morning that the completion date stated in the contract would remain June 30, 2016. Mr. Lager declined to give a firm start date because Northern Construction will not begin ordering materials until a “notice to proceed” from the town and a contract signed by the entire board of selectmen is received. Mr. Lager said he expects the project to be largely completed by Memorial Day, and that the month of June would be largely dedicated to punch-list items.

Rake’s progress stalled

In other business, conservation agent Liz Durkee, responding to growing citizen support for a beach rake to remove large rocks and to improve the overall sand quality at town beaches, specifically Pay Beach and the Inkwell, presented selectmen with a PowerPoint presentation that explained why such a rake could be counterproductive to the health of the beaches. Ms. Durkee showed selectmen a geological profile of the Island that demonstrated how the north-facing beaches, like those in Oak Bluffs, have been rocky since the glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age. These beaches acted as filters that siphoned off the larger rocks when the glaciers made their initial southward migration, resulting in the finer sand being deposited on south-facing beaches. “Long sandy beaches are rare in New England,” Ms. Durkee said. “Menemsha Beach has rocks, and you never hear complaints; it’s a beloved beach.”

Ms. Durkee cited opinions of several experts, including Greg Berman, coastal processes specialist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), who advised that removing rocks from historically rocky beaches with a beach rake would accelerate beach erosion.

“The finer the sand, the faster it washes away,” conservation commission chairman Joan Hughes said. “It has to be compatible size and shape or it won’t hold.”

Ms. Durkee also cited the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act that said any project on a coastal beach “shall not have adverse effects on the beach or surrounding area.”

“We would like to have beach people can sit on and relax on,” selectman Greg Coogan said. “But are we creating more problems trying to fix it? This gives me pause to think about it more.” Selectman Kathy Burton concurred.

Richard Seelig, de facto chairman of the Beach Committee and outspoken beach-rake advocate, listed numerous towns on the Cape that employ beach rakes, and he added that Nantucket recently followed suit. He said that a three-year study done at Provincetown beaches concluded that beach rakes did not exacerbate beach erosion. Ms. Durkee said that in those instances, beach rakes were used for removing seaweed and human debris, not rocks.

“WInthrop raked out rocks for years and had to pay $10 million to put back the sand that washed away,” Ms. Durkee said. She added that plans were in the works to shorten the groin at Pay Beach and to lengthen the groin at the Inkwell, thus capturing more sand as the dominant current moves it from north to south.

Selectman Gail Barmakian agreed that the sand on Pay Beach, largely dredge spoils excavated from Little Bridge this past June, was less than ideal, and suggested that a middle ground may be achievable, where larger rocks could be removed periodically by the highway department.

“There’s no simple solution to this. We need more information,” Mr. Coogan said.

Building-permit fee hike revisited

As he had done in July, building inspector Mark Barbadoro presented selectmen with a schedule of proposed fee increases for building permits. Mr. Barbadoro said the fee increases would pay for improved service in the building department by funding a full-time local inspector and zoning enforcement officer, as well as paying for technology improvements. He added that the presence of an additional staff member would provide stability in the department and ensure a smooth transition when he moves on or retires.

In July, Mr. Barbadoro showed selectmen that Oak Bluffs had some of the lowest permit fees in the state, based on the most recent International Code Council (ICC) Building Valuation Data (BVD). BVD calculations factor in current economic conditions, the type of building, and the materials used. Mr. Barbadoro said the inherent flexibility and uniformity of BVD is a better measure than square footage or building valuation, which encourages builders to lowball the overall cost of the project.

“The goal of the proposed new fee is to be about one percent of the total construction cost, which is the national average,” Mr. Barbadoro said, adding that since the BVD figure is a national average, builders in Oak Bluffs will pay a relatively smaller amount, since their construction costs can be three times the national average.

As he had done in July, Mr. Barbadoro showed how the formula would place the financial burden more squarely on new construction of larger projects, larger additions, and second homes, and would have little or no impact on smaller projects on existing homes, such as a new roof, siding, or deck. Under the proposed fee revisions, a building permit for a $225,000, 2,000-square-foot house would increase from $900 to $1,464. A first-time home buyer would still pay the $900 fee.

“I support the idea of making the expensive houses bear the burden,” selectman Walter Vail said.

Mr. Barbadoro acknowledged the new formula would make Oak Bluffs building permits the most expensive on the Island, but did not think the increase would dampen home building in Oak Bluffs. “We will be the highest, but we also have the most density, which results in more zoning complaints and inspections,” he said. “There’s nothing about Oak Bluffs that aligns with Chilmark and Aquinnah. They’re totally different.”

Selectman Gail Barmakian said she saw the benefits of the additional staff member, but questioned if raising permit fees was the best way to finance it.

As they had done in July, selectmen agreed to take several weeks to examine the issue. Ms. Barmakian suggested that the board consider a public hearing before taking a vote.