Oak Bluffs selectmen weigh dredging options at Little Bridge

Although long-awaited FEMA funds may be released next week, wary town officials discuss contingency plans.

Michael Cummo

It appears that the long-running, painstaking pursuit of federal funds to dredge the choked channel at Little Bridge in Oak Bluffs may finally be at an end. At Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting, town administrator Robert Whritenour read aloud an email he received that morning from Tom Perry, a high-ranking official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“We are now in the later stages of the approval process and expect to be able in the next week to provide you with the news that you have an approved FEMA Project Worksheet,” Mr. Perry wrote. “As always, it is possible we could encounter additional review/approval problems, but we do not anticipate any at this time.”

The news received a tepid response from town officials, who’ve heard words to this effect several times before. “It’s very encouraging, but it does stop short of final approval,” Mr. Whritenour said. “We’re changing our attitude with FEMA applications. As long as approval is not completely final, we need to go ahead with a new contingency plan. We can’t be sure of anything with FEMA. I recommend the town take this on as its own project.”

Mr. Whritenour said that one option is for taxpayers to vote to appropriate the funds at town meeting, possibly with a short-term bond issue, and then use the federal funding as reimbursement, rather than be beholden to a bureaucracy as clogged with red tape as Little Bridge channel is clogged with sand. “Waiting for a federal agency is not the way to go, he said. “They have a different mindset than we do.”

“In the FEMA scope, this project is nothing,” selectman Gail Barmakian said.

FEMA has budgeted the Little Bridge dredge project at $321,000. Shellfish constable David Gruden said that if the town self-finances the project, it would be free of onerous federal regulations and the job could be done much less expensively, and with local contractors. “With all the federal criteria, no local companies could bid on the job because none of them had the fancy GPS depthfinders that were required,” he said. “I talked to one of the interested local companies that said their bid would be more in the neighborhood of $150,000. If we did it our way, it could be half price or less. That said, there’s a lot more sand there now then when the project was bid on. All estimates were for removing 4,000 cubic yards of sand. It’s three or four times that now.”

Mr. Grunden added that another advantage of self-financing is that the town has permits in hand to use the sand for beach nourishment.

“I agree this is the only sane way to go,” chairman Greg Coogan said. “What’s the timeline look like?”

Mr. Grunden said the town has until April 1 to complete the dredge, otherwise — due to regulations by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage Endangered Species Program that protects nesting birds — the project would have to wait until the following autumn.

Since annual town meeting will be after the April 1 deadline, selectmen discussed calling a special town meeting to vote on financing the dredge project.
Mr. Whritenour also noted that given the declining health of Sengekontacket Pond, there is additional urgency to clear the Little Bridge channel, one of only two openings that feed water from Nantucket Sound into the pond.  “We don’t have the luxury of waiting for the federal government to write us a check,” he said.

“We need to work on this as soon as possible,” shellfish committee member Rick Huss said. “It’s already gone longer than it should. Every nor’easter is going to pile up more sand.” Mr. Huss said the lack of circulation due to the clogged channel is doubly deleterious because it endangers the shellfish population that helps buffer rising nitrate levels.
“I recommend that Bob [Whritenour] and David Grunden look at all the options, town meeting, special town meeting, and see where we stand,” Mr. Coogan said. “Hopefully we’ll hear some good news next week and this will all be moot.”

Robert Grimley, FEMA Region 1 recovery division director, told The Times in August that funding for the dredge project was likely to be released in a matter of weeks. Mr. Grimley has not returned repeated calls and emails from The Times regarding the latest FEMA developments.
In other business, selectman Michael Santoro, after recusing himself from the proceedings, went before the board to apply for a transfer of license for the Ocean View restaurant from the current owners, Ocean View Inc., to Santoro Hospitality II, Inc. “The Ocean View is an institution,” he said. “I’m going to have some tough shoes to fill. I’m going to continue the Jackson tradition as best I can. I’m going to add a few new menu items, but I won’t touch the fish sandwich or the steak sandwich, I promise.”

Noting the charitable work the Jacksons have done in the community over the years,  Mr. Santoro also promised to keep on the current Ocean View staff. “I’ve been doing business here for 23 years,” he said. “It would be foolish for me to go in there and turn it upside down.”  The selectmen approved the transfer unanimously, 3–0. Selectman Kathy Burton was absent due to illness.