Round Hill salt marsh item pulled from Town Meeting agenda

Sep 26, 2017

The fate of a salt marsh restoration project at Round Hill Beach is once again up in the air after the Select Board on Monday voted to pull the project from the Fall Town Meeting agenda.

Following several hours of debate, the board voted 3-2 to withdraw the measure from the warrant, with Chair Frank Gracie and Shawn McDonald voted against the removal. As part of a project to restore an 11.6-acre salt marsh filled in by the wealthy Ned Green in 1928, the project would have transferred ownership of the portion of the property set to be restored to the Conservation Commission, which is spearheading the project. The Parks Board would have retained control of the beach portion of the property.

It was a move initially proposed by town counsel to alleviate concerns Parks Board members and the public raised with the project’s potential effect on the town’s residents-only parking policy at Round Hill Beach.

During the meeting, Environmental Affairs Coordinator Mike O’Reilly cited the ecological value of salt marshes as a reason to move forward with the project. He said that value exceeds that of the scrubby woodlands that currently occupy the space targeted for restoration.

“It’s a unique opportunity to recreate a salt marsh that has been gone for nearly a hundred years,” O’Reilly said.

The Parks Board initially voted down the project citing a number of concerns, including a worry that accepting the $5.1 million in federal funding for the project could open the beach parking lot up for use by everyone, not just Dartmouth residents.

By removing the proposal from the Fall Town Meeting agenda – scheduled for October 17 – the fate of the project itself is now in limbo. O’Reilly said that one of four sources of funding, a $2 million grant, will be unavailable if the project is not finished by 2019. He said permitting must begin by the end of October to meet that deadline.

Gracie said the vote could effectively kill the project for now.

During Monday's meeting, Parks and Recreation Director Tim Lancaster listed off the Parks Board’s other concerns, including safety concerns with the culvert that would link the salt marsh to the ocean, issues with facility’s aging septic system, and the true cost to the town for additional staffing and other costs for which Parks and Recreation and the town could be liable.

Adding to the concerns, O'Reilly told the Select Board that even if Town Meeting members approved the project, the Parks Board would have to OK the land transfer. That information, O’Reilly said, came from the town’s legal counsel. Parks Board member Joe Vieira also said his board would need to give the go-ahead to approve the transfer.

“I really don’t like the idea – it’s almost like we’re taking a gun to the head of the Parks Board that because Town Meeting said 'yes,' now you got to do it,” McDonald said.

Despite O’Reilly's statement about the importance of salt marshes, Select Board members aren't convinced that the work is necessary.

“There’s too many unanswered questions, and it goes back to why are we fixing it,” Select Board member Kelli Martin Taglianetti said. “We don’t have a problem with the ecology right now; everything’s working perfectly right now.”

Members of the public also spoke at the meeting. Residents questioned why the project is being voted on with so much confusion over the project and an uncertain final plan.

Gina Purtell, from Mass Audubon's Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary, spoke of the positive benefits the project could have in restoring the salt marsh, although she added that the public needs to be better informed about the project.