Unpermitted side deal muddies waters for Edgartown dredge

The dredge, owned by Edgartown, works in Sengekontacket Pond. — File photo by Steve Myrick

The town-owned Edgartown dredge on January 12 made an unscheduled stop to dredge around a private dock in Katama Bay. The work was done without permits, and without the knowledge or authorization of the dredge advisory committee.

The Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection is now considering sanctions against the town of Edgartown, and the dock owner, a seasonal resident.

Several committee members declined to say specifically who ordered the dredging, and meeting minutes of the discussion about the incident are vague.

However, the facts and conversations with those familiar with the dredge operation indicate that the dredge crew did the work at the direction of dredge advisory committee chairman Norman Rankow for homeowners Stephen and Deborah Barnes.

Mr. Rankow offered an explanation of the dredging at a contentious meeting of the dredge advisory committee on January 26, according to meeting minutes and committee members.

At its January 30 meeting, selectmen voted to accept a $5,000 donation from Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, owners of the waterfront property.

Mr. Rankow resigned from the committee in a letter dated February 2, with no mention of the dredging project. He did not respond to a phone message from The Times left at his office Monday.

Mr. Rankow, a general contractor, is building a home at the site for the owners of the $8 million property.

Town counsel Ron Rappaport is assembling a complete record of the dredging project in order to advise the town how it should proceed.

Off course

According to dredge advisory committee members, on January 12, the dredge was returning from a project in Sengekontacket Pond on their way to the Katama boat ramp to haul the vessel out for the winter. They took a detour.

The crew set up a dredging operation around an existing pier at 51 Witchwood Lane. They dredged about 133 cubic yards of sand, and dumped it further offshore into Katama Bay.

The crew was paid at their hourly rates, a total of approximately $2,000, for several hours of work. The funds came out of the dredge operating account. Other expenses included fuel for the vessel.

The minutes of the January 26 dredge advisory committee meeting reflect that Mr. Rankow “relayed to the committee his chronological order of the event that took place.”

The minutes state, “During the discussion the following points were presented; dredging was done without permit or knowledge of the dredge committee (no vote taken), the job was done with town crew and equipment, area was over dredged and pipe was not placed on the nourishment area.”

Members of the dredge advisory committee minced few words in characterizing the dredging project, and Mr. Rankow’s role in it, at a February 9 dredge advisory committee meeting The Times attended.

“We got thrown under the bus by Norm [Rankow],” committee member and shellfish constable Paul Bagnall said.

“Before the next dredging season, we do have to address some of these issues,” newly elected committee chairman David Nash said. “We need protocols. Obviously, having Norm in charge wasn’t enough.”

Wait and see

Dredge advisory committee members say they will wait until the state and federal agencies take action before they decide how to respond.

In a phone interview with The Times, Mr. Nash said the committee has not talked to Mr. Rankow other than the exchange at the January 26 meeting, and has not questioned the dredge foreman or crew.

“Some of the question’s you’re asking are things the committee will want to find out,” Mr. Nash said. “But the committee is very comfortable waiting for other agencies, the Army Corps, the state, the conservation commission to do their jobs.”

No one was willing to say who ordered dredge foreman Ed Hardy to complete the job. The Times asked Mr. Nash and Mr. Bagnall who authorized the dredging project.

“I suppose the safest thing to say is the committee did not,” Mr. Nash said. “I think we all know who authorized the work. I have no authority or ability to ask that person questions.”

“In terms of damage control,” said Mr. Bagnall, “you look forward, not backward. Certainly we’ve got to tighten up the chain of command so it doesn’t happen again. If it was a private business you could fire somebody.”

The Army Corps of Engineers has also asked the committee for an explanation. In a letter sent to Stephen and Deborah Barnes on January 24, the federal agency, which is responsible for permitting dredging projects, asked them to respond to several questions.

“Who authorized the work in Corps jurisdiction to proceed and who had the ultimate responsibility to obtain the proper authorizations prior to starting the work?” wrote Karen Adams, chief of the permits and enforcement branch of the Army Corps of Engineers. “Who actually performed the work?” she asked. “Provide contact information for the person.”

Mr. Barnes did not return a phone call from The Times asking for comment.

Permit process

Securing permits to dredge is a complex and costly process. As many as nine different government agencies or divisions are charged with regulating the marine environment. Acquiring permits can take years.

The new owners of the property, Stephen and Deborah Barnes of Dover, applied to the Edgartown conservation commission on January 6 for a permit to dredge around the pier.

The conservation commission scheduled a public hearing for the project on January 18. One day before the scheduled hearing, the conservation commission received information that the dredging was complete.

After visiting the site, the commission issued an enforcement order to the property owners, requiring that they document the existing conditions. That survey confirmed that more than double the amount of sand requested in the permit application was removed, and areas outside the requested footprint were dredged.

The conservation commission considered sharp sanctions against the dredge advisory committee, including rescinding all permits it has issued for dredging in Edgartown waters, but decided against that. They also discussed fining the property owners and the dredge committee. The committee can impose a maximum fine of $300 per day.

“The commission voted to not fine the Barnes,” Jane Varkonda said at a subsequent meeting of the dredge advisory committee. Ms. Varkonda is the conservation agent, and she also sits on the dredge advisory committee.

“We’ve found that all the time and expense and plans they have to spend money on far exceeds the amount we can fine them,” Ms. Varkonda said. “The conservation commission said it doesn’t make any sense to fine the dredge committee as the contractor. We’re fining ourselves and paying ourselves.”

The Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Environmental Protection are now considering how they will enforce their regulations.

They have a range of enforcement options. They could order the owners, at their cost, to restore the dredged area. They could order mitigation in the form of some environmental benefit such as shellfish seeding or beach nourishment in another area of the bay. They could also impose substantial fines. It could take several months for the beauracratic process to play out.

In the current budget year, voters appropriated $236,000 for dredge operations. The dredge has been used to deepen channels for navigation and improve water circulation in prime shellfish habitat, most recently Cape Poge and Sengekontacket Pond, as part of a joint project with the town of Oak Bluffs.