By Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
The Fairhaven Selectboard on 11/2 allowed Robert “Hoppy” Hobson time to comment and question the board about its apparent readiness to grant Kevin McLaughlin of Casey Boat Realty, LLC use of a town-owned boat basin at Union Wharf that has for decades been made available to commercial lobster boats.
Mr. Hobson is a member of the Fairhaven Marine Resources Committee (MRC) and a member of the Board of Public Works.
Mr. McLaughlin has for many months been trying to secure the basin for use by the Buzzards Bay Rowing Club. He went before the Selectboard during its last two meetings to work toward an agreement with the Town to issue him a license for access to the water at Union Wharf.
Town Counsel Thomas Crotty explained the Town’s opposition thus far during those two prior meetings, saying that in 1943 when the Town sold waterfront property Casey Boat Yard that the Town maintained ownership rights to the water access point, which is recorded in the deed; however, the Selectboard has expressed a willingness over the last month to issue Mr. McLaughin a license of sorts to grant him use of the basin without explicitly giving up ownership.
Mr. Hobson expressed his opposition to the deal in the 10/22 edition of the Neighb News after he was not given an opportunity to speak during the board’s 10/19 meeting when Mr. McLaughlin made statements that Mr. Hobson says were factually incorrect. According to Mr. Hobson, despite Mr. McLaughlin’s assertion that the basin has not been used by lobster boats for at least 20 years, it has; taking the spot away from commercial lobster fishing would not only rob those on the waitlist for the basin of their chance to make a living at Union Wharf, but would also result in an annual loss of the town’s $1,900 slip fee.
Mr. Hobson asked why the board did not seek a recommendation from the MRC before indicating its cooperation with Mr. McLaughlin. He said that state and federal grant money paid for repairs and upgrades to Union Wharf over the years “for fishermen — not recreational people,” he said.
“How could we just give this away to these people?” Mr. Hobson asked, adding he was also baffled by Mr. McLaughlin’s recent appearance before the Planning Board, and wondered how that board could issue approval before the Selectboard.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Mr. Hobson. “I don’t think it’s right that the Town should be giving away property from commercial fishermen…. It’s a commercial area; it’s meant for the commercial [fishing industry]. All the grants were given for the commercial fishermen; it wasn’t for any other reason.”
Selectboard member Bob Espindola referenced the Town’s Master Plan, which he said was driven by public feedback and encourages the Town to provide more public access to the waterfront in addition to supporting industrial and commercial marine business.
“Maybe [one could] make the argument that this is not the way to do it,” said Mr. Espindola.
Mr. Crotty later stated that if the Town grants permission to Mr. McLaughlin that it could be revoked at any time.
“The Town would give him a license … but [the basin] would remain Town property. As far as we’re concerned, we’re not relinquishing any property rights,” said Mr. Crotty.
If the Town needs that space for a lobster boat, he continued, “Then we have to make that decision on whether we’re willing to give up that space, even on a temporary basis for the [rowing club boats].”
The license is not for Mr. McLaughlin’s unilateral use, he added.
“One problem I have with it is we can’t create any more slips,” said Selectboard member Keith Silvia, “and that’s one that we have there…”
He mentioned the lobster boat waiting list and added, “The $1,900 is a very small amount to pay to have a working boat there,” which helps out small-scale lobsterers. “If people [are] on the waiting list, I think we got to take care of them. I’m against it (granting Mr. McLaughlin use of the basin) myself, but I’m only one person.”
MRC member Michelle Potter, who accompanied Mr. Hobson, asked, “Where are these (rowing club) boats now? They have a spot, so why would they want to come here?”
“We still got a lot of work to do,” said Selectboard Chairperson Daniel Freitas. “This thing has been going on for years. We’ll take all of that into consideration when it gets to that part.”
Mr. Freitas appeared to support issuing Mr. McLaughlin a license to use the basin during the board’s 10/5 meeting and was apologetic during the board’s 10/19 meeting when Mr. McLaughlin reproached the board for not following through with its promise to send a draft license agreement to him and his attorney.
Now, Town Administrator Mark Rees suggested that the board could “revisit” its decision to grant the license.
Mr. Espindola pointed out that the Selectboard did direct Mr. Crotty on 10/5 and on 10/19 to send a draft license. On 10/19 Mr. Freitas even suggested holding a special meeting on the following Friday, 10/23, which was not held.
“If this board feels … the appropriate thing to do [is] to reach out to the [MRC] … and the Economic Development Committee to have them weigh-in on,” said Mr. Espindola, then it could. He noted that Mr. McLaughlin is a member of the Economic Development Committee.
Mr. Freitas was resistant to the idea, saying, “Sometimes we (the Selectboard) have to make the hard choices instead of sending it to this one and this one and this one…..” This is why some matters take years to get resolved, he suggested.
Mr. Espindola asked Mr. Freitas if that was what he would prefer, to authorize the license without pausing for the committees’ input.
“Bob, we’ll send it out to any committee you’d like,” said Mr. Freitas. “We can even start a committee…. We’ll call it ‘a committee to make a decision.’”
“Things change,” said Mr. Freitas, adding that often the Selectboard listens to feedback “and we make a decision based on that.”
However, he continued, “It’s been two years we’ve been talking about this…. I don’t even think it’s ever gonna get done.”
He recycled the proverbial can the board has been kicking down the road that Mr. McLaughlin used at the last meeting to describe the situation.
“Why don’t you make a motion if you feel like we should make a decision on this?” Mr. Espindola said to Mr. Freitas. “If we’re the ones who are supposed to make the decision, why don’t we make a motion to go one way or another and be done with it?”
Mr. Freitas refuted the suggestion and said the board would send the matter off for committee input.
Mr. Hobson redirected the board’s attention to the prior government grants used to fix up the wharf and said that those grants were to benefit those in the fishing industry, “Not a bunch of yuppies going around in a little whale boat.”
“They pay their taxes too, so let’s, you know…” said Mr. Freitas.
Mr. Espindola motioned to seek input from the two other committees, and the vote was 2-1, with Mr. Freitas opposed.
Planning Board member Jeffrey Lucas spoke in favor of soliciting committee recommendations “because that’s what they’re there to do. That’s what they’re volunteering to do.”
He said it offers a variety of perspectives, and he voiced support for protecting the integrity of the commercial fishing fleet at Union Wharf.
“Once you start to gentrify it … once you start to put a restaurant on Union Wharf or a park,” he said, that is when the paradigm shifts and people start complaining: “Boy, that smells like fish down there,” likening it to people who move to the countryside and then complain about the smells that accompany the cows, so to speak.
When the board excludes committee recommendations in its decision making, said Mr. Lucas, “I think it makes the Town look bad.”
Also during the meeting, the board voted to accept Mr. Crotty’s response to an Open Meeting Law Complaint filed by Stephane Robbins. Mr. Rees did not read the response and gave no details about the alleged violation during the meeting.
At the request of the Neighb News, Mr. Rees shared the town’s response to Mr. Robbins’s complaints about the 9/21 and 10/19 Selectboard meetings. He alleged that during both meetings the number of people in attendance violated the governor’s COVID-19 order, but town counsel stated tha was incorrect and also not relevant to the OML.
The town also refuted Mr. Robbins’s allegation that some members of the Selectboard should have recused themselves from discussion with A-1 Crane on 9/21 because there was no need to, and also that the OML does not pertain to recusals.
The response also addressed Mr. Robbins’s claim that he was not recognized to speak on 10/19, explaining that because it was not a public hearing, the board was not compelled to allow public input and therefore there was no OML violation.
In other business, the Selectboard and three members of the Planning Board appointed the one applicant to fill the vacant seat on the Planning board, Jessica Fidalgo. Serving on the Planning Board attracted Ms. Fidalgo because of “how active the board is,” she said. “I figured that the best way to kind of learn how things run is to get your hands dirty in it.”
The Selectboard also appointed Cory Pietraszek and John Dallen to the Conservation Commission; Wendy Drumm and Suzan Galpin were both appointed to the Cultural Council.
Mr. Rees announced that the Historical Commission will move forward with the handicap accessibility project at the Academy Building; but because of insufficient funding, will postpone a project to restore the front door entrance. The cost to bring the Academy Building, which houses the Fairhaven Visitor’s Center and Office of Tourism, is $149,000. An article to fund the other project will be added to the warrant of the Annual Town Meeting.
The Fairhaven Police Department is in the process of attaining full accreditation from the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission, and the required internal assessment should be completed by mid-December. The department was awarded initial accreditation status in September of 2019.
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