New Harbor Regulations Proposed for Saquatucket Harbor

By Merrily Lunsford

HARWICHóOver the past years, the mix of boats in Saquatucket Harbor has changed. More passenger boats began showing up in the harbor, and the additional business brought additional problems with moorings and parking. Now selectmen are getting their feet wet by taking over the permitting process. On Monday, the board agreed that issuing licenses for charter/passenger vessels, or Class C and D, should come under their authority rather than the harbormasterís. "It doesnít change anything," said Selectmen Chairman Sandra Daniels. "It simply brings back that permitting to this board."

Selectmen will hold public hearings on a package of changes in harbor policies. "I think this proposal is the best thing in 10 years," Town Administrator Wayne Melville said Wednesday afternoon. "Many of the problems will be solved, not all of them."

Although he can issue permits, Harbormaster Thomas Leach cannot attach conditions to them. Thatís why the selectmen decided a policy-making board should be looking at potential impacts of the applications, Melville said. He added that Leach has done a "good" job at handling the situation at the harbor. Saquatucket Harbor opened in 1970 with 162 slips for recreational and commercial ground fishing boats. In 1984, the harbor was expanded to include 33 more slips for a total of 195. Parking facilities have never been increased and have actually been reduced to expand the main building. There are 119 spaces in the west lot and 98 spaces in the east lot. Of those, 61 are trailer spaces related to the state-funded boat ramp, six are reserved for disabled parking and five are for staff.

Over the years, Class B off-load permits was created to recognize the number of boats that fished out of Saquatucket Harbor during the off-season. These boats were given the same off-loading and fueling privileges as Class A, year-round boats, but their privileges were limited to the off season, Melville said. In the early 1990s, charter captains argued that they too should have access to these privileges and a dive boat and a passenger ferry appeared in the harbor. Off-load permits for Class C, for vessels carrying up to 32 passengers, and Class D, for more than 32 passenger, were created, Melville said, and the perception that off-loading permits applied not only to fish but to passengers was established. "The pressure at Saquatucket Harbor is not the slips, itís on the parking," he said.

When Freedom Ferry Cruise Lines entered the harbor, Melville said, selectmen required owner Alan McMullen to find off-site parking for his passengers. The same requirement should be imposed on any new passenger vessel if needed, he said. "Alan McMullen changed this harbor forever," Melville said Wednesday. "Once you open that door, itís hard to close." McMullen said Wednesday morning that tighter control by selectmen was probably "the way to go." He said he needed to have more information on the regulations before commenting.

Residents will also have their say on the board of selectmenís proposal to create a third waiting list for passenger/charter vessels, which are under Class C and D. Now there are two lists, recreational and commercial. The commercial list has been designated for ground fishing boats only and all others, including charters, have been sent to the recreational waiting list. "Weíre not creating more slips," Melville said. "All this proposes is to set the mix among charter, fishing and recreational vessels. If the lists starts to get long, then we can evaluate the mix in the harbor." "The issue is, waiting lists and making sure everybody can predict when they can get a slip and under what circumstances," he said.

Selectmen proposed a March 1, 1999, deadline to transfer from the other two lists. If boaters decide to transfer, their seniority will also transfer to the new charter list. "The transfers that have gone on, I think, are our primary source of confusion," Melville said. "You have to decide in short what it is your boat is all about unless youíre a commercial fisherman, in which case I think there are circumstances beyond your control that are going to force you to supplement your commercial activity. A fisherman who needs to supplement his income should be allowed to charter as long as he meets the definition of fishing." Another problem that the board has wrestled with is boat owners selling vessels and whether any of their rights are grandfathered. Melville said McMullen has a pending application for an additional off-loading permit and slip, and noted one charter is being sold. "People in businesses which utilize vessels, dock at town facilities, need to be able to sell their business," Melville said. "I would maintain that if the existing vessel is sold to a current or a prospective slip occupant the parking rights currently provided to that business should be received as a new application. People who buy boats in the harbor should not be allowed to jump the list as it will not move." Boats, he recommended, could be sold to people on waiting lists in a position to be assigned a slip, or sold and relocated. Secondly, Melville recommended the new owners of vessels requiring Class D off-loading permits should be treated as new applicants for off-load permits and held to the same standard as the last "new Class D application," which was the Freedom Cruise Lines with respect to parking at Saquatucket Harbor. "What Iím saying simply is the last person who wanted to carry a large number of passengers here was told that he had to look at the parking situation," Melville said. "I think that any business in this harbor sells that person ought to have access to a slip and there should be no guarantee of parking. That new person is new on the list and should come before this board to take about their plans and see what plans are and address parking."

The argument with this recommendation, Melville said, is that owners will not be able to liquidate the equity in their business if they cannot sell their location with the vessel. This provides a more limited market, he said. "I think we should demand that people who have slips at Saquatucket Harbor, commercial or recreational, should have their name on ownership documents," Melville said, noting there are some corporations showing up in the harbor. "Beyond that, I donít think there is much else we can do." Selectman Peter Luddy agreed: "Number one, town property is not for sale, grandfathered or not. I donít think these businesses down there should be selling their boats pertaining to how many parking spaces the fellow had. I mean, if we were into real estate, that would be totally wrong for the town of Harwich." Selectman Dana DeCosta said the town administratorís recommendations "are in line with liquor permits... someone who buys a restaurant is not guaranteed to get a license."