Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Off-Cape lawmaker's move to close beds sparks outrage

MASHPEE — The latest attempt to block a 1.9-acre oyster farm in Popponesset Bay has a Mashpee shellfisherman and Cape Cod officials steamed over what they say is a blatant attempt to thwart local control.

An amendment was slipped into the state budget last week that would declare the exact borders of Mashpee resident Richard Cook's grant a "special coastal resource sanctuary." The designation would prohibit not only the oyster farm but any other projects, including routine dredging, in the area that is just west of the Popponesset Spit and in view of homes on both Popponesset and Daniels islands.
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Shellfisherman Richard Cook

Cook, who has fought a three-year battle over the Popponesset site, said he was "shocked, but not surprised" when he learned of the amendment late last week.

"I'm still in shock over it, that something like this could happen without notification to anyone in town, for one thing, or the representatives in this area," he said. "If there was some concern, obviously, they should take it up with the local people or the local governing bodies."

The amendment was added to the House of Representatives budget by Rep. Michael Costello, a Newburyport Democrat whose district is 100 miles from Mashpee. Costello didn't consult with any members of the Cape Cod delegation about the item, which was part of a consolidated block of amendments considered and passed toward the end of the budget process. The amendment references only the longitude and latitude of the area and doesn't mention Mashpee, Popponesset Bay or the oyster project.

Costello, who is not seeking another term in office, did not return multiple messages from the Times seeking comment Tuesday.

"On face value, it seems outrageous," said state Sen. Daniel Wolf, D-Harwich. "It's filled with GPS coordinates so that it would be difficult to know the exact place and location unless you have GPS ingrained in your head. It appears as though the intention was to have it be a quiet amendment that sailed through."

Cook has operated a 3.3-acre shellfish grant in Ockway Bay in Mashpee since 1983. He first proposed a 1-acre site in Popponesset Bay in 2011, but moved it farther away from shore to pacify nearby homeowners who called it a nuisance and potential safety hazard.

His changes didn't lessen the homeowners' ire, however, and they've fought him through the town, local and state courts, and Massachusetts regulatory agencies at every turn. Two court cases stemming from lawsuits filed in Barnstable Superior Court are pending in the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

"(They) have lost every step of the way, so it's obvious they feel they cannot win in the court system," Cook said Tuesday. "To go behind everyone's back without notification is just beyond belief."

Mashpee Town Manager Joyce Mason said no one contacted her or anyone in the town about the amendment or concerns over the bay's environmental safety.

"It's frustrating. Mr. Cook has done everything he can, above board and legally, within the permitting process," Mason said. "It's frustrating he's hit a stone wall."

Although the amendment passed quietly, Wolf said the publicity surrounding the item will help him stop it on the Senate side. If a concurring amendment isn't filed with the Senate budget, then the item would go to conference committee, with three members each from the House and Senate.

Even if it makes it out of conference committee, Wolf said he would petition Gov. Deval Patrick to use his line-item veto to ax the language from the budget.

State Rep. David Vieira, R-Falmouth, said he voted in favor of the budget but did not realize the amendment pertained to his district because of its unclear language.

"The question I still have is why did Rep. Costello submit this amendment? Under what pretense and purpose did he think it was a good idea?" Vieira said. "He better share (his reason) with the legislators, if he has one."

While the amendment wasn't illegal, it was borderline unethical, said Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Joseph W. Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College.

"It's a bad process," he said. "It's completely lacking in transparency. It wasn't vetted, there was no hearing so no one has a chance to review any of the allegations that Costello is making. It's a very clear example of a legislator with power pushing through an amendment to benefit a group of people."