with permission, MV Gazette

by Sam Bungey

The Wampanoag tribe has another 30 days to clean up the mess at Menemsha Pond left by an oyster propagation project abandoned over two years ago.

Aquinnah selectmen voted Tuesday to grant the extra grace period on top of an original 60-day cleanup deadline. In exchange, tribal leaders were asked to prepare a plan detailing a scaled-back proposal for a future shellfish operation in the area.

Meanwhile, selectmen have made no move to renew a tribe’s bottom grant in the pond.

The bags and lines from a major commercial oyster venture launched by the tribe more than a decade ago have dislodged and are littering the pond and shoreline.

On top of the damage to the beauty of beach and inlet, the fallout has cost the town of Aquinnah some $50,000 including lost property tax revenue to date. The town recently granted generous tax rebates to homeowners around the pond as compensation for the fouled shorefront.

Comments made by former selectman Jeffrey Madison at the Aquinnah annual town meeting last week underscored that little progress had been made in the allotted time period. The tax losses also came to light at the meeting, further charging the issue.

“It’s important the tribe realize what they’ve done to that body of water. It’s absolutely disgusting,” said Mr. Madison at the meeting, which was attended by around 70 townspeople.

But at a site inspection Tuesday, a high tide and ample advance warning ensured there wasn’t much to inspect.

Selectmen peered through binoculars during an awkward meeting with tribal spokesmen at Red Beach.

“I really tried to clear all that was out there,” said tribe planner and grantsman Durwood (Woody) Vanderhoop,

Selectman Jim Newman pressed tribal chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais to agree to a number of bags and size of pond lot going forward, while selectman Camille Rose asked her to remove an ancient tribe-owned barge from the area.

“What, our beautiful barge?” said Ms. Maltais to a smattering of awkward laughter.

“The barge could be a sticking point,” said Mr. Newman.

Later the discussion continued back in the selectmen’s meeting room at town hall. Ms. Rose said town inspectors had deemed the aged vessel unseaworthy. In a downscaled operation the barge may no longer be necessary, Mr. Newman added.

Ms. Andrews-Maltais said she would investigate the ongoing need for the barge and presented the selectmen with a tribe statement which she read into the record.

“The tribe attempted to utilize this fundamental resource as a means for economic development,” it read in part. “Unfortunately, the aspirations and projections of the profitability of such an endeavour were far beyond the realistic truth about a maintainable size and scope for our means . . . We the tribe recognize that we should have been able to do better . . .”

She said future use of the pond would involve a smaller-scale, educationally-focused project.

Though it amounts to a mea culpa from the tribe, the letter includes some delicately worded caveats near the end:

“Again, our respect and utilization of the Menemsha Pond predates all who have come after us . . . The realization and fact remains that the People of the Tribe, as the original stewards of this Island and specifically Aquinnah, are responsible for having kept Menemsha such a beautiful area.”

In June 2007 town assistant assessor Angela Cywinski deemed the pond sufficiently messy to recommend the tax abatement.

“I was standing out there in waders, waist deep in bags, you couldn’t move,” she said this week. Acting on information gathered by Ms. Cywinski, the assessors voted to revalue the shoreline property. Lost tax revenue totals $16,000 ­— all told the matter has cost the town $48,000.

Tribe and town leaders are scheduled to meet again on the issue next month. Mr. Newman advised that the tribe look to present a plan which reduces the six-acre area historically used for the oyster project to a half-acre space.