Collision at sea

Plans for Marblehead’s Gerry Island reflecting its maritime past have run afoul of environmental advocates fearing for its future

Peter Noyes and his dog visit Gerry Island, where he wants to build a boat storage area. Peter Noyes and his dog visit Gerry Island, where he wants to build a boat storage area. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / August 4, 2011

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From a distance, the spit of land juts out of the water like a quintessential small New England island. Like nearly everything in Marblehead, Gerry Island has stories, legends, and fables that date back nearly 400 years.

In 1635, residents erected the town’s first neighborhood at Little Harbor, across from the 1.6-acre grassy island, which has fertile fishing grounds and helped bolster a bay that buffered storms. Sitting less than 100 yards from shore, its sloping banks have hosted the likes of a budding US vice president, countless children who still swim out to the island - and these days, four goats.

The goats were brought out to the island in late May by Peter Noyes, who leased the land this spring from Redstone Realty LLC in Marblehead. At the time, Noyes proposed rebuilding the island’s retaining walls and putting down a gravel pad for vehicles.

But even before Noyes gave his pet goats free rein on the island - and a seemingly unlimited supply of poison ivy to munch - his plans to build a boat-maintenance and storage area were decidedly unpopular with local residents. He is also in hot water with local officials.

In June, the town’s Conservation Commission rejected his pitch to repair the sea walls and put down the pad on the island, which is accessible at low tide. Prior to that decision, Noyes drove his truck out to the island. Following that sojourn, the town fined him $900 for leaving the vehicle on the island, allegedly leaking oil there, and also for not removing floats he had brought there.

Redstone Realty, which owns the private island, was not fined. Redstone representatives could not be reached for comment.

Noyes has denied any wrongdoing and has not paid the fines, which have accrued to more than $9,000. He has appealed the town commission’s decision to the state Department of Environmental Protection, and the fines to Superior Court.

In its decision, the Conservation Commission ruled that the sea wall and gravel pad would violate the state’s Wetlands Protection Act. The commission cited a provision that prevents new sea walls from being built on coastal strips of land that were structure-free as of August 1978.

The commission also ruled the project would cause erosion to the island, and expressed concern about how the proposal would affect the nearby lobster hatchery, and the other natural resources “under the ocean.’’ In addition, the commission also questioned how water would flow from the island during a storm.

In his appeal to the DEP, Noyes said his project would not cause additional erosion, or generate pollutants that could reach the ocean.

“They don’t want to see me out there with my boats or buildings or anything else,’’ Noyes said on a recent morning as he walked out to the island, which is zoned for marine use, has a legal right of way, and was first used by fishermen 376 years ago to dry fish, such as cod.

In recent months, some neighbors have helped form Friends of Little Harbor, a group that opposes Noyes’s proposal, and says any boat maintenance on the island could pollute the harbor.

Over the last few months the proposal has turned contentious, and Noyes said he has been the subject of personal attacks. Some opponents have tried to portray him as a polluter, he said, a charge that he denies.

Last year, the Rockmore Co., which is owned by Noyes, was fined $300,000 in federal court over charges it had released sewage into the coastal waters from its ferry boat. Noyes, however, was not personally charged in the complaint.

The island’s goats are kept in a small fenced-off area, where he’s also pitched a tent, and were greeted by Noyes on the recent visit.

Noyes contends that the Conservation Commission has been pressured by nearby property owners to reject his plans for the island.

“Once you have it all cleaned up, I would contend that I would have the ability to do whatever’s allowed in the current zoning. The bottom line is, is it or is it not private property, and does anyone have any respect for private property?’’

Walter Haug, chairman of the Conservation Commission, said the board’s decision was fair and not influenced by neighbors.

“We are objective and consistent. We don’t look at your financial status. We are the first line of defense in protecting the wetlands in this community,’’ said Haug, who added that the island can be used for passive recreation, such as fishing or spending the night in a tent.

While the island has been in private hands since 1635 - and took its current name from its third owner, Thomas Gerry, whose son Elbridge went on to become the country’s fifth vice president - it has been used for mostly recreational and residential purposes since 1890.

That year, a rambling mansion was built at the northern end of the island. In 1915, a smaller, stucco house was constructed at the opposite end. Both burned during high tides, according to Karen Mac Innis, curator of the Marblehead Museum & Historical Society. Mac Innis spent her summers on the island in the smaller house from 1952 to 1965. Since that house burned down in 1974, there have been no homes on the island.

The lack of businesses or homes on Gerry Island pleases many town residents, including Frank McElory.

“It is an island which has been used by the public for the last 150 years - if not longer - as sort of a refuge,’’ said McElory, who is a Friends of Little Harbor member. “It’s a remarkable place, and having a boatyard out there doesn’t make a lot of sense.’’

McElory and Curt Young, a wetlands consultant for the Friends of Little Harbor, say that any boatyard on the island could potentially be destroyed during a bad storm and could pollute the harbor.

“There’s a high risk for environmental damage,’’ said Young. “Imagine if you had 12 boats out there and they got washed off of there, and ended up in somebody’s living room?’’

Noyes insists that the area has a great need for boat storage, and points to the history of the homes on the island as precedent for long-standing structures there.

John de Vries, who lives in Marblehead, also said there is a need for additional boat storage yards, and he believes the town should let Noyes build on the property. “If he’s not allowed to use it for marine purposes, they have effectively taken it away from him,’’ he said.

Stephen Ouellette, Noyes’s attorney, said coastal property owners are increasingly facing the prospect of defending their rights to use their own land.

“I think people are quick to try to exert an ownership right over any property they can force back to nature. And to landowners, it’s a real problem,’’ said Ouellette.

While no hearing has been set in Superior Court to address the fines, DEP spokesman Joe Ferson said the state would conduct a site visit this month, and make a ruling on the appeal by Noyes, seeking approval to repair the sea walls and build a gravel pad, within a month.

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