Many Darien boaters wait for a decade or more for a boat slip at the Darien Boat Club, but a plan to dredge the waterway leading into the Long Island Sound would provide space for another 100 boats, increasing the club’s capacity by 40%.
David Dever, the boat club’s commodore, told The Darien Times that the club began examining how to meet the rising demand back in 2008 and two years ago settled on the dredging plan.
“We went to the Department of Environmental Protection and said, ‘Does this idea work for you? Is this plausible, or are we going to get laughed out of the building’,” Dever said. The department, now called the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, or DEEP, encouraged the club to pursue its dredging application, expressing a desire for more recreational boating opportunities, Dever said.
The project is still in the early stage of the application process and needs DEEP approval before moving on to the relevant town bodies, which would likely include the Board of Selectmen, the Planning & Zoning Commission and the Environmental Protection Commission.
The Army Corps of Engineers attended a meeting at Town Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 10, after press time, to gain public input on the dredging project. If approved by the state, it could be upwards of two years before the dredging begins.
Dredging involves excavating sediment from the bottom of a waterway to make it more navigable. The process, however, has the potential for harmful side effects, such as the release of toxic chemicals into the water — chemicals that lied dormant in the sediment until it’s disturbed — and other damage to the environment, such as loss of aquatic life, increased turbidity, erosion and sedimentation. Dredging is regulated by the federal Clean Water Act, and because natural waterways belong to the public via common law, dredging requires a lengthy approval process.
Although it’s far from being set in stone, the project has sparked controversy among some environmentally-minded residents, as it would require the boat club to dredge a 61,000 square-foot area and remove roughly 19,500 cubic yards of material to provide the additional 400 feet of dock space.
Jennifer Errington, a former Darienite whose parents still live in town, established a petition on Change.org, a website where people can post petitions to gather support, seeking people to oppose the boat club’s dredging plan. As of Wednesday evening, 58 people had signed the petition, all current or former residents.
Errington’s father, Jim, told The Times that he has been a member of the Darien Boat Club for two decades. He said he is not opposed to the boat club, but he disagrees with their course of action.
“Everybody who enjoys this region should be aware of what’s going on, and not just a few club members,” said Errington, whose home overlooks the club. “The actual expansion is pretty aggressive… [It’s] basically going to turn the mouth of the river into a giant boat lot.”
Errington said he thinks part of the problem is the low cost of becoming a member, which invites anyone who lives in town to rent a slip for $100 a year, after paying the initial $150 membership fee and $100 insurance bond.
“They need to think about increasing prices in the way that happens to other commodities in America,” he said. “There’s no way that we think you can build your way out of this problem.”
Dever admitted that turnover is low at the club, which is why they instituted some rule changes recently to encourage people to give up slips if they weren’t using them. The new rule lets people return to the top of the waiting list if they give up a slip, so if they want the slip back, they are not forced to wait another 10 years.
He said some people have taken advantage of this, but “it’s tough to tell if every boat is used all the time.”
“I think all the boats get used during the summer,” Dever said. The club also instituted a launch service to take boaters out to moored crafts to help give more people access to boating activities. The moorings are also now full, Dever said, which is why the dredging project has gained momentum.
Increasing the prices comes up often at the club, Dever said, but the club is run by one full-time employee and several part-timers along with 11 volunteers, so keeping costs down is paramount.
“It is a club founded on the principal of trying to be a good deal for the average guy in Darien,” he said, adding that the Noroton Yacht Club increased its fees recently and did not see a decline in membership. “We’re not a club that tries to raise fees, we try to contain them.”
Yet dredging is not the solution, according to Errington, who emphasized the potential environmental impact the project could incur.
“This is one of the last bits of unspoiled scenery that the general public can enjoy,” he said. “Every weekend we get hundreds of walkers and cyclists.”
The online petition includes signatures by Clara Sartori, vice chairman of the Board of Education, and Walter Raleigh, husband of former Board of Ed Chairman Sallie Raleigh.
“I would like to see preservation of the natural environment at Pear Tree Point,” Sartori stated on the website. “On a practical note additional development in this harbor may increase the chance of flooding.”
Raleigh simply noted it was an “Unnecessary development.”
“We believe that the Darien Boat Club’s current application, which includes dredging previously undisturbed intertidal flats located in a rich estuarine habitat and dramatically increasing the marina capacity, is fundamentally wrong-footed and should be denied,” the petition begins.
Dever said that while some of these habitats will be destroyed during the dredging, they will be healed over time, as is evident in the ecosystem’s bounce-back from dredging at the club 10 years ago.
“We think the plan we’ve put out is not bad for the ecosystem,” Dever said. “It will involve a dredge, the mud has been tested. The creatures that are underneath also live very healthily in the space that is under the current boat club that was dredged 10 years ago. They would be moved, but they’ll come back. It won’t be a long-term adverse effect.”
Petitioners have also raised concerns about increased boat traffic and how it could be a safety issue and contribute to erosion by creating more frequent wakes, thus hurting the fragile spartina grass that are the heart of a healthy northeast wetland.
“This area is fully developed and does not need, nor can it handle, further development of any kind,” stated Andrew Firlik on Change.org. “Further developmental plans would require… [an] analysis of the potential for detrimental impacts on the neighborhood and the ecosystem. This is both an environmental and a public safety concern.”
These concerns are already on the boat club’s radar, according to Dever. “Obviously we’re very cognizant of safety factors in doing this,” he said, adding that the Darien Police Marine Division keeps its boat docked at the boat club, which provides an added level of safety.
As far as beachgoers are concerned, being affected by the additional boats should not be an issue because the extended dock would run away from the public beach.
“If you go to the beach, you expect to see some boating,” Dever said.
Darienite Jeanne Yurman said she signed the petition to “protect the scenery and wildlife habitat, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.
“Those few pockets of nature, like that [which] sits off of Pear Tree Point Road, is what makes this town so beautiful and so special,” she said.