Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, February 11, 2021
Fight over the loading platform at the Fish Pier
Town to hire engineering firm to assess its condition
The Harbor Committee backpedaled on tearing down the loading platform on the Fish Pier after the lobster buyer who uses it, Jim Eaton, sued the town over the decision. The committee voted 4-0 with one abstention at its monthly meeting on February 9. Ryan Larrabee abstained because he said he hadn’t previously voted to remove the structure.
The Stonington Select Board in December upheld the Harbor Committee’s original decision to get rid of the loading platform.
Immediately after the February 9 Harbor Committee meeting, the Stonington Select Board met with its lawyer in executive session to discuss Eaton’s lawsuit. The outcome was to hire an engineering firm to do an assessment and opinion on the platform’s condition, Town Manager Kathleen Billings said in an email.
Billings said the select board decided to hire an engineer because of conflicting information and multiple votes from past Harbor Committee meetings about the use, condition and safety of the platform. The vote after the executive session was 3-1, with Selectman Donna Brewer voting no. Selectman John Steed was absent.
Eaton’s use of the loading platform has been controversial because of crowding at the Fish Pier and disagreement over its condition. Marsden Brewer, who runs an aquaculture operation, told the select board in December that Fish Pier capacity could be increased by 20 percent if the structure were taken down. At the same meeting, Donna Brewer said Eaton’s tractor-trailer “takes up a lot of space.”
Billings said the select board hoped the engineering review could be done by its March 1 meeting.
Jim Eaton, a Brooksville resident, said in his January 15 lawsuit that his Sunshine Seafood business would be “substantially disrupted” without the use of the loading platform. He said he expected it to be there when he paid $11,940 in permits and licenses on November 3, 2020.
“All I want is to be treated fair,” Eaton said in a phone interview. He said the platform roof needs to be replaced, and he’s willing to pay for it. Otherwise, it’s safe, he said.
As many as 20 other people use the platform over the course of a year, he said, including a starfish harvester. He said he does use it more than others.
Eaton also said he hadn’t been personally notified of the meetings that decided to tear down the platform. Billings in her email pointed out that notices of the regularly scheduled meetings were posted at various sites and on the town website. In addition, Sunshine Seafood had been directly notified of them, she said.
At the February 9 Harbor Committee meeting, Chairman Hilton Turner moved to rescind the previous vote to get rid of the platform. He argued that Sunshine Seafood and the other big dealer—Damon Family Lobster Co.—effectively subsidize others who use the Fish Pier. Four other lobster buyers have permits to use the pier. Of those, two were recently granted permits.
“If we drive the buyers away, we’ll have to raise fees,” Turner said. “We have to be careful how far we push because we need the business.”
Justin Boyce seconded Turner’s motion to avoid the hassle [of a lawsuit], he said.
The select board has estimated Eaton’s lawsuit would cost the town as much as $40,000 in legal fees.
Sunshine Seafood has run a lobster wholesale business on the Fish Pier since 2010. The platform has been used as a buying station and for loading and unloading fishing vessels since the early 1980s.
Ryan Larrabee said at the Harbor Committee meeting that the ordinance governing the Fish Pier allows for first-come, first-serve use of space. “That’s the way it lays in the ordinance,” he said. That ordinance is being updated. Currently, the select board is reviewing the Harbor Committee’s draft with the intention of presenting a new ordinance at Town Meeting.
Harbor Committee member Isaac Dworsky said he wondered if the addition of two more buyers in the past few months would create an issue.
“They have to share,” Turner said. “If they don’t, that’s when the harbormaster has to put his foot down.”
Harbormaster Bob Blake, also in attendance, said he’d go along with whatever the Harbor Committee decided to do.