West Tisbury selectmen mull Mill Pond dredge plea

Mill Pond in seasonal colors. — File photo by Tim Johnson

Just like the vegetation that frequently appears in the middle of the Mill Pond next to the town police station, the question of whether to dredge the historic, manmade pond resurfaced this week.

At the selectmen’s regular meeting Wednesday, September 12, Bob Woodruff, chairman of a specially appointed Mill Pond committee tasked with coming up with a plan to restore the pond, made the case once more for dredging.

A majority of the six-member Mill Pond committee favors dredging the historic 2.5-acre artificial pond, to prevent it from drying up and disappearing because of silting and vegetation.

But one member of the committee, engineer Kent Healy, opposes dredging and believes the pond can be preserved with simpler and less expensive measures.

Dredging will not be cheap. At a selectmen’s meeting August 8, Mr. Woodruff presented three options developed by ESS, an environmental engineering firm, for dredging the pond. The plans cost between $240,000 and $700,000.

Mr. Woodruff said his committee settled on the first and least costly option, to remove 3,150 cubic yards at a cost of $240,000. That would increase the average depth of the shallow, murky pond from 1.7 feet to four feet.

At the same meeting, Mr. Healy called for a full watershed study before the town started a dredging project.

Selectmen agreed and asked the pond committee to draft a warrant article for the special town meeting November 13, outlining the scope of the study for the watershed system that includes Mill Pond, Mill Brook and other tributaries.

This appeared to place the dredge question on hold, at least for the time being, as the town instead focused on conducting a watershed study that could provide valuable information about water quality, water sources, and flow.

But Mr. Woodruff was back before selectmen Wednesday to talk about the dredge option for Mill Pond. He said his committee wanted to place an article on the warrant of a special town meeting for funding for a dredge project.

Mr. Woodruff said his committee also wanted to schedule a formal discussion with selectmen, to discuss efforts to restore Mill Pond, and also wanted to submit an application to the Community Preservation Act Committee, seeking funding for a dredge.

Cynthia Mitchell, chairman of the selectmen, asked why the Mill Pond committee was pursuing a dredge project before the town completes the comprehensive watershed study.

“I think it’s fair enough to come and ask for these things. However, I think the board needs to make a call on a key question, does the watershed study need to proceed a question put before voters about dredging?” she said.”Or are these parallel pursuits? I think members of the Mill Pond committee indicated that in its view – with the exception of Kent [Healy] – this is a parallel pursuit.”

Ms. Mitchell then read a record of votes at town meeting, over the past two years, that cast doubt as to whether voters ever officially gave the green light to dredge Mill Pond.

At the 2010 annual town meeting, Ms. Mitchell said, voters considered a warrant article authorizing $25,000 to fund an engineering study conducted by the ESS Group in preparation for dredging the pond.

Voters amended the article so that it removed the language relating to dredging and instead stipulated the engineering studies would be used to “base a long term management plan for the preservation of the town’s historic Mill Pond.”

At the 2011 annual town meeting, voters agreed to raise $4,000 to conduct testing of the Mill Pond water quality, Ms. Mitchell said.

At the annual town meeting earlier this year, voters approved an article authorizing the Mill Pond committee to pursue, at no cost to the town, grant opportunities for dredging the pond.

Voters amended the most recent article so that it stated that any further action on dredging would need to go back to town meeting.

“I would offer there is a case to be made that you can’t request any funding for dredging until the town meeting agreed that dredging is what the town wants to do,” Ms. Mitchell said.

“Lets just say the board and the town agree that a watershed study should come first. Then why would we apply for dredging if we don’t need to down the road, if a watershed study argues somehow against it?”

Mr. Woodruff disagreed. He said there was nothing to prevent the Mill Pond committee from concurrently pursuing both a watershed study and funding for a dredge project.

“I think a lot of us are going to have a hard time staying sane through this. I thought we were on a parallel track,” he said. “The consultants we have just paid a lot of money to don’t have a problem with dredging being on a separate track than the watershed study.”

Selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, who has opposed dredging the pond in the past, said there was nothing to prevent the pond committee from seeking a warrant article for dredging or asking the CPC for funding.

“I just see it differently . . . I don’t agree you have to ask permission and later come back and ask for the money – that can be applied to anything,” Mr. Manter said.

Ms. Mitchell read a letter from the town conservation commission that cited a 2009 preliminary watershed study by Bill Wilcox, the former water resource planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

The conservation commission writes that, in his report, Mr. Wilcox identified 15 things that needed to be done “in order to have a full understanding of the watershed,” and that accomplishing those goals would take a significant level of effort and expertise. The conservation commission in the letter recommended that the study started by Mr. Wilcox be completed before more money is appropriated for a dredge project.

Conservation commission member Prudy Burt said she opposed the Mill Pond committee seeking more CPC funding, when they already received money to hire the ESS Group.

She also criticized the pond committee for not aggressively seeking grants for a dredge project.

“It was their choice not to pursue grant funding . . . after having talked to some people who aid in the process, they were told it might be arduous but not impossible,” she said. “I would like to see things slowed down . . . as opposed to leaping ahead with another article to get more money from CPC for engineering.”

Ms. Burt has asked the town to consider removing the dam and allowing the stream to revert to it natural state.

In the end, selectmen made no decisions regarding the dredging of Mill Pond. Instead, they agreed to meet with the full Mill Pond committee at their regular meeting on October 3, to discuss the issue some more.