A new policy calms the waters

By JASON KOLNOS , Cape Cod Times Harwich Harbormaster Tom Leach (photo credit Barry Donohue Cape Cod Voice)

HARWICH PORT - (8/15/04) Harwich Harbor Master Thomas Leach seems to smile a little more often this summer than he did last year. There are fewer irate citizens banging on his office door near Saquatucket Harbor. He spends considerably less time in contentious public meetings defending his policies on managing town-run boat moorings. For more than four months, Leach and a handful of private boatyards were embroiled in a dispute surrounding the availability of moorings. At the center of the debate were claims that some boatyards were transferring moorings to customers - even if those customers weren't on a town waiting list - creating an unfair system.

Last July, the state Inspector General's office criticized the policy in a report entitled "Favoritism and Private Gain in the Assignment of Boat Moorings in the Town of Harwich" and demanded the policy be made more "fair and equitable." That forced selectmen, Leach, and waterways commissioners to draw up a new system to regulate mooring placement, allotment and inspection. Selectmen adopted a new harbor management plan in February. And as the boating season winds down, the new system seems to be working. Leach said he has received few complaints. "We have a good foundation of a new plan, which is going along as well as can be expected," he said, "But a little tweaking here and there could help."

Perhaps the greatest modification was the creation of a mooring servicing agent for each of the town's five mooring areas - Allen and Wychmere harbors, Pleasant Bay, Round Cove and Herring River. The agents are responsible for the safety, care, positioning, maintenance and annual inspection of moorings. In the past, the harbor master handled those tasks.

Streamlined waiting list
The town also stopped a long-standing practice of allowing boat yards to rent available moorings to whomever they chose. In the past, boatyards controlled more than one-fifth of the 500-plus moorings and were not forced to adhere to the town's waiting list when assigning moorings. "It is much more fair for our office to control only one comprehensive town list instead of boat yards having their own waiting lists," Leach said. "But that has also forced us to put a ton of hours into a monitoring program to make sure the correct boats are placed on the correct moorings in the correct locations." The Inspector General's office is also impressed with the changes so far, a sharp contrast from last year, when the agency's first assistant, Richard Finocchio, called Harwich's practices "very poor public policy." Jack McCarthy, a spokesman for the Inspector General, said the office will keep an eye on how the policies are working, but it's basically back in the town's hands. "When there's a problem, most towns want to fix it on their own," he said. "They told us they were going to and they did just that."

Tweaking the plan
Though Leach said he is pleased with the waiting list system now, he does anticipate some future problems. "The only hiccups so far have been related to charges by the service agents," Leach said. "But the use-it-or-lose-it policy may get people upset." The latter reference is to a new rule requiring boaters to use their mooring for at least 30 days during the boating season, or risk losing the mooring. There are more than 150 people on the town waiting list and only a few moorings become available each year. The person at the bottom of the list may not have obtain a mooring for 15 to 20 years. Such waiting lists are common in Cape towns. Leach also said he would prefer that mooring inspections be done every other year, because of the cost. Boat owners pay $250 for a yearly inspection on average, he said.

Representatives from two of the main servicing agents, Allen Harbor Marine Services and Harwich Port Boat Works, were reluctant to describe how the plan is working so far. "We'd like to first see how the boating season unfolds," said Dan Lowery, service manager for Boat Works, which manages Wychmere Harbor. Lowery did, however, credit the plan with creating more room in the harbor because mooring placement is more controlled.

But both agents acknowledged that increased fees will be the biggest drawback. Craig LeBlanc, general manager for Allen Harbor, said agents have to incur tremendous insurance policies because they are liable for accidents. LeBlanc said service costs have slightly increased and have been passed on to the consumer. For example, they charge between $10 and $20 to supervise boaters who want to install their own moorings. "Things are all right," he said. "We're in a system that works and town officials did a good job given the circumstances."

Public responds
Reactions from boaters about the harbor management plan are also mixed. Henry Donaldson, a Concord, N.H., native who has summered and boated in Harwich for decades, is hoping to put his grandson on the waiting list now that it is more equitable. "In the old system, if he didn't contribute to the pockets of the boatyards, who knows if he would have gotten a mooring?" Donaldson said. "Now, at least I know he has a better chance."

Others, however, weren't convinced that the town couldn't be even fairer to boaters. Michael Schreibman, a resident who complained last year that he was denied a mooring because he didn't participate in the "good, ole' boy" system, said problems still persist. "The whole inspection process is cumbersome," he said. "You used to be able to select who does the inspections, but now the agents have the exclusive right and can find ways to charge anything they want." Leach said agents must file a fee schedule and said he is confident selectmen won't tolerate "price gouging."

While the state has approved Harwich's efforts, other towns are wary of overhauling their own systems in the same way. "Harwich's plan would not at all be suited for Chatham," said Harbor Master Stuart Smith. Chatham's bylaws allow boatyards to keep separate waiting lists in addition to the town's list, which has been working well. Joe Gibbs, mooring agent in Barnstable, said some towns are grappling with the same issues, such as how to make the waiting list process smoother. "Their plan is something we are definitely looking at," Gibbs said. "When one community comes out with something new, it's possible others may want to pick out things that work and try them out."

What's different with the Harwich harbor management plan: Mooring servicing agents

NOW: The town has designated four mooring servicing agents for five mooring fields. The agents are responsible for management and annual inspections of moorings in their fields. Boaters must use the servicing agent designated for the field they frequent.

THEN: The harbor master and his staff were responsible for inspections of moorings previously. Due to understaffing, some moorings weren't inspected for two to three years.

Waiting list

NOW: Harwich has merged private waiting lists with the previously existing town list, creating a comprehensive master list.

THEN: Boatyards and private marinas were "unofficially" allowed to rent moorings they controlled to people not on the town's waiting list. Last year, residents complained that practice was unfair.

Use-it-or-lose-it policy

NOW: Boaters must use their moorings for at least 30 days during the boating season, or they lose the spot.

THEN: There was no tracking of which moorings were used during the season.

Special purpose and transient moorings

NOW: The town has granted 27 special purpose moorings to boatyards, marinas and yacht clubs to promote water activities and boating education. Each boatyard can also apply for up to six transient moorings, to help them facilitate sales and repairs.

THEN: There was no documented policy involving these categories.