Is the Select Board preparing to gut the membership of the Conservation Commission amid the ongoing feud over the Sconset Beach Preservation Fund’s controversial geotube erosion-control project?
That’s the concern among some environmentalists, former elected officials and others as the Select Board approaches its committee appointments next Wednesday, June 22.
“Replacing members based on this (the SBPF) dispute would be a usurpation of the powers and duties of an independent town commission,” the Nantucket Land Council announced in a prepared statement this week that it sent out with the headline “Local Concern Mounts That Select Board Is Poised To Gut ConCom Over ‘Sconset Geotube Dispute.”
The Conservation Commission, which is charged with enforcing the state Wetlands Protection Act, ordered the 900-foot, multi-million dollar geotube project to be removed last year after declaring the Sconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF) to be in violation of its permit.
That decision set the stage for more than a year of acrimony and litigation that continues to this day.
The Select Board, which appoints the members of the Conservation Commission, asked the commission to reconsider its vote, a request which was soundly denied last August. Since then, the SBPF has appealed the Conservation Commission’s decision in Nantucket Superior Court, and signed a memorandum of understanding with the Select Board to expand the geotube project while also setting the groundwork for cooperation on the future relocation of Baxter Road away from the eroding bluff.
Two members of the Conservation Commission who voted to have the geotube installation removed and have been sharply critical of the SBPF - Seth Englebourg and Maureen Phillips - are coming to the end of their terms and are seeking to be reappointed. A third seat - being vacated by David LaFleur - is also up for grabs.
The Land Council and others believe the Select Board is trying to stack the Conservation Commission with “more pliant” members and change the course of the project before a Superior Court judge rules on the SBPF’s appeal.
“The Land Council, which has attended hundreds of ConCom hearings over the years, urges the Select Board to refuse to bow to political pressure from a vocal minority around a single issue, and rather, to let the regulatory and judicial process proceed as it should,” Land Council executive director Emily Molden said.
Select Board Chair Jason Bridges said he’s been fielding calls on a daily basis from community members urging him to keep the incumbent members on the Conservation Commission. No one has called him to say the commission needs new members.
“I don’t feel any pressure in the sense of what’s happened in the last year with SBPF and the ConCom,” Bridges said. “They look at one area that’s in their purview, and the Select Board has to look at the big picture...There's more than just one background and level of experience, you have to take everything into consideration. We have a lot of people applying, and if you just stick with who’s been on there, that’s not the way to do it either.
How do you put together the best team to come up with the best solutions? I like people who listen and work well with others, but I’m not going to penalize anyone because we disagreed with them in the past.”
Matt Fee, who said recently that his attempts to find compromise and common ground in the controversial geotube project had failed, said he had actually not been heavily lobbied with regard to the Conservation Commission appointments. The key is to find balance in making the selections for members, he said.
“We all have our own take on it and and we need to have a knowledgeable and competent ConCom and I’ve gone to bat for that and fought for that,” Fee said. “But we also need a ConCom that is able to work with the town. In this situation, I think a lot of scar tissue has built up.”
That scar tissue was evident in comments by former Nantucket Select Board and Finance Committee member Rick Atherton, who told the Current this week that “I can recall no, none, action by the Select Board to stack a commission to simply meet the desires of one applicant for a permit.”
Atherton added: “I also believe the Select Board has developed a response to any exploration of the damages to property owners to the north and south by parroting SBPF President Josh Posner (to paraphrase): You cannot PROVE the impact of the geotubes. I simply suggest a jury will not have the same response. You know it when you see it, and the evidence confirms that, in fact, harm has been and will continue to be caused by the geotubes. Our Select Board has its eyes only on the money, not the well-being of the Nantucket beaches and environment.”
Another Select Board member, Melissa Murphy, said committee appointments are among the most important jobs the Select Board has, and each position requires careful consideration to ensure appropriate community representation. She shared with the Current how she is approaching the upcoming ConCom appointments as well.
"Tenure is valuable, and so are fresh opinions and fresh ideas," Murphy said. "Expertise is valuable, and so is a willingness and commitment to learn. With the Con Com, I am looking for candidates who will not further polarize this important body, who have the commitment to the Wetlands Protection Bylaw and upholding it’s regulations, who have a commitment to the health of Nantucket today and in the future, and candidates who have the time to commit to the work. We have been fortunate in my time on the board to have many great candidates want to join the commission and participate in our government. For that, I’m thankful. I have made, and will continue to make, appointments based on my best judgement of who will best serve the entire community of Nantucket, not just special interests."
The appointment process is playing out simultaneously with new developments in the SBPF’s appeal of the Conservation Commission’s removal order in Nantucket Superior Court. Judge Mark Gildea recently ruled that the case would move forward to a trial, starting with a view of the geotube installation next Tuesday, June 21 at 10 a.m.
“The NLC and other community members worry that the Select Board will respond to political pressure by SBPF, fearing a likely loss of their meritless appeal, and replace three ConCom members before the Court rules on the merits of the appeal,” the Land Council asserted in its statement.
Former Conservation Commission member Dr. Sarah Oktay, who was recently named executive director of the Center For Coastal Studies in Provincetown, said she has continued to follow the SBPF proceedings at the Conservation Commission. Oktay urged the Select Board to “do the right thing” next week with the appointments.
“I hope the Select Board would vote their conscious and not their bias, and re-appoint people who are doing a good job protecting the wetlands and not vote based on a single issue,” Oktay said. “They should keep the best people. I don’t have a feeling about what they’re going to do, but I hope they do the right thing and remember this is an independent board and we need the most qualified people who are passionate and into doing the job.”