Unposted permits prompt one woman protest at Onset Bathhouse
One of 10 Wareham residents involved in a lawsuit against the town and the Buzzards Bay Coalition took a stand on Nov. 14 after stumbling upon fence construction at the Onset Bathhouse that did not have any posted permits on site.
Plaintiff Lisa Morales said she was out walking her dogs when she happened upon the construction where no permits from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection or town had been visibly displayed.
Morales and nine other residents filed a lawsuit in Plymouth Superior Court on Oct. 29. The suit alleges that the town illegally leased land in Onset to the Buzzards Bay Coalition, a New Bedford-based nonprofit looking to tear down the bathhouse to build a $5.3 million, two-story Onset Bay Center. This building would be used as a headquarters for the Coalition to host on-the-water programming intended to serve thousands of people each year.
Originally, the coalition planned to open the center in the summer of 2019, but residents involved in the lawsuit argue that a 99-year lease the town signed with the coalition in 2017 included land beyond the scope of the project.
Authorization for the lease and spending $215,000 to renovate the bathhouse were both given at Spring Town Meeting in 2016. Plaintiffs say this vote, too, was illegal.
“We’re in no way opposed to the center being built,” said Morales. “Our concern is for the public lands involved.”
A Supreme Judicial Court decision known as the Decree of 1916 protects 40 acres of land in Onset from development. The decree stems from a 1915 court case which said that said the "parks, streets, avenues, paths, and shore fronts" in Onset were "dedicated to the public forever."
According to Buzzard Bay Coalition Communications Director Alicia Porter, the Coalition has not yet been served with the lawsuit and therefore has not halted their plans at the bathhouse.
Michael Tierney, an Onset resident of 40 years, said he was nonetheless shocked to find the fence on his walk that afternoon.
While Tierney is in no way involved with the lawsuit, he said that the deal between the town and the Coalition feels “shady.”
“A 100-year lease is a serious thing,” Tierney said. “Once they do this, there’s no turning back.”
Morales stated that she approached the workers who were installing the fence to inquire about their permits. The workers in turn called the police.
When officers arrived, Morales asked them to get in touch with the town building inspector and called the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection herself.
Within an hour, Acting Police Chief John Walcek, Building Commissioner David Riquinha, Conservation Commissioner David Pichette and Project Manager Mike Robotham were all gathered on the beach.
While it was determined that the Coalition was in possession of all necessary permits to begin work on the bathhouse, Pichette stated that the organization had failed to post its permit from the Department of Environmental Protection on the site.
Robotham said that the permit would be placed before another stake was put in the ground.
“I want to be absolutely clear that this project has state, local and federal approval,” said Riquinha. “They have everything required.”
Regarding the lawsuit, an attorney representing the plaintiffs said he was currently in talks with the Coalition and the town.
“We are talking and we hope the discussions will be fruitful,” said Philip Schreffler of the Lowell-based firm Eno, Marin, & Donahue.