New Bedford Port Authority Sued Over North Terminal Expansion
The operator of a maritime services firm on New Bedford's upper harbor says that the city's North Terminal Extension Project would leave his business landlocked, and he has joined the president of a major fish house in suing the city and its port managers.
On Jan. 27, Marine Hydraulics manager Jerry Wheeler joined Nordic Fisheries president Roy Enokson in suing the New Bedford Port Authority and the City of New Bedford in Bristol County Superior Court. The plaintiffs seek an injunction against any actions that would violate the terms of their lease as well as monetary damages to be determined at trial.
The two claim that federally-backed plans by the defendants to construct a third-mile of new bulkhead along the west side of the Acushnet River have already damaged their businesses, and that more damages are on the way if the project is built as planned.
The multi-million dollar North Terminal project would ultimately create 11 new acres of terminal space and 1,825 linear feet of new bulkhead north of Hervey Tichon Ave. along the harbor north of the Rt. 6 bridge. The overall project area consists of ten parcels and 21 acres owned by the city, documents state. The parcels, all east of Herman Melville Boulevard, are now leased to a variety of businesses. The city's objective is to create more space for marine industries and expand the working waterfront. In 2018 the project won a $15.4 million BUILD grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, a fact repeatedly touted by U.S. Sen. Ed Markey during his campaign visits to the city. All major permitting has been secured, and the project is currently in the bid stage.
Wheeler told WBSM News that the project would eliminate a boat ramp that is central to the success of Marine Hydraulics, and would also eliminate a small marina operated by the company.
"They would landlock us," Wheeler told WBSM News. "We are a water-dependent business. Direct water access is critical to what we do. Eliminating that ramp would be devastating to our business."
Wheeler said that although the plaintiffs have the right of first refusal to use the new land and bulkhead, they have been given no information about the proposed cost structure, making it impossible to plan. He also alleges that his company and Nordic Fisheries made various investments and took actions based upon representations by the port authority, and that those representations didn't pan out, leaving them holding the bag. The plaintiffs further claim that the city and port authority violated the terms of a lease by letting an existing bulkhead deteriorate to the point where it could not be used.
Reached by telephone, New Bedford Port Authority Interim Director George Krikorian said he could not offer comment on a matter under litigation, and directed all inquiries to the Office of Mayor Jon Mitchell.
In a statement from his office, Mitchell minced no words, called the lawsuit an attempted land grab, and said the city would fight.
“Eastern Fisheries’ lawsuit is a veiled attempt to grab valuable land that belongs to the public for the purpose of enhancing the company’s already substantial profits," the mayor stated. "The City has worked hard in recent years to secure federal and state funding to modernize our port facilities, including at the North Terminal, so that we can help create job opportunities for our residents. We will vigorously fight Eastern’s effort to impede this progress for as long as it takes to vindicate the interests of our residents.”
Mitchell's office asserted that Nordic fisheries is owned by Eastern Fisheries, a vertically integrated global seafood supplier with the largest scallop fleet in the industry. However, Wheeler said that's not true, even though the entities do have a business relationship.
"Eastern fisheries has nothing to do with this lawsuit," Wheeler said.
He clarified that Eastern does make use of bulkhead space that is leased from the city by Nordic. Nordic Fisheries was founded by Enokson in 1968 with his purchase of a single scalloper. Enokson is now president of the New Bedford-based Eastern Fisheries. Nordic Fisheries purchased the assets of Marine Hydraulics from former owner David Chambers in 2015.
Marine Hydraulics at 265 Herman Melville Blvd. now employs 7-9 people, and it's run by Wheeler. In its machine shop, the company fabricates hydraulic machinery such as winches for the commercial fishing industry. In a separate warehouse, the company repairs, modifies, and overhauls fishing vessels. They also provide hauling, launching, and indoor and outdoor boat storage.
Wheeler additionally rents around 16 slips to independent fishermen at his protected marina, and says rental fees comprise about 20 percent of his company's annual revenue.
"You see those fishing boats?" Wheeler said. "Each of them represents a small business. Each of them is owned by somebody who works hard every day to feed their family. They have a good arrangement with us now, and we don't overcharge. There would be no place for them to go if this marina were eliminated."
Wheeler said dockage fees in New Bedford are on the rise, and that he believes the city's ambitious economic development plans for the harbor are geared toward accommodating major players rather than nurturing a small-business ecosystem.
"There's a lot of big money coming in, especially with offshore wind," Wheeler said. "They have major corporate money, and can pay big bucks to dock their vessels. They'll price a lot of people out."
Wheeler talked about the boat ramp that would be eliminated by the North Terminal project. He said the ramp was built by Chambers, the former owner of Marine Hydraulics, as part of the company's investment and business development plan.
"It gives us a competitive advantage," he said. "We'd suffer great harm without direct water access."
Nordic Fisheries: City Let Existing Bulkhead Deteriorate
Nordic Fisheries has its own beef. The lawsuit claims that the city and port authority let a bulkhead used by their vessels deteriorate, against the lease terms, to the point where it needed $10 million in repairs. Nordic Fisheries in September of 2018 bought out the remaining lease for $2.1 million but did not move forward with the repairs after failing to gain cooperation from the city to do the repairs under a favorable state program, the lawsuit states.
Nordic Fisheries is now in the process of abandoning their fish house at 22 Antonio Costa Ave., saying it is in danger of falling into the harbor. They are relocating elsewhere in New Bedford at a cost of $12 million, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit takes aim at former New Bedford Port Authority Executive Director Ed Washburn. The plaintiffs claim that Washburn in 2015 said he would support their effort to gain a 30-year federal permit to place two barges in the harbor. The plaintiffs invested $500,000 in the barge project, and then Anthes-Washburn in 2016 refused to sign the Chapter 91 license application, offering only a yearly mooring permit instead, the businessmen allege.
The plaintiffs believe that Washburn changed his mind because by 2016 the port authority had already decided to pursue the North Terminal project, the lawsuit states. The new fill and acreage would go where the barges are. Enokson and Wheeler claim in their complaint that they only learned of the project in 2017, and then from a third party.
Washburn, the former longtime director of the port authority, in January left his post for a business development job with Crowley Maritime, a major shipping and logistics firm. Washburn did not respond to a message left on his cellphone seeking comment. Washburn can no longer be contacted through the port authority.
The North Terminal project is part of a larger vision for the city's working waterfront. A 2016 harbor plan recommended "advanced port development" to attract industry and jobs in wind power, commercial fishing, and tourism. A planning document from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center envisions the North Terminal as a staging or operations area for the offshore wind industry.
Plans for the area gained traction in January when the Environmental Protection Agency returned its former "dewatering facility" to the city. The warehouse and terminal on Hervey Tichon Ave. had been used by the EPA for its dredging and PCB remediation project. Mitchell said at January's ceremony that if such a five-acre parcel with a 400-foot heavy-lift bulkhead and rail access were to be built today, it would cost anywhere from $30 million to $40 million. The old EPA facility is adjacent to Nordic Fisheries and Marine Hydraulics.
Meanwhile, plans for constructing the North Terminal Extension Project remain on hold. Two bids to build the project were recently rejected by the port authority. A bid for $41.2 million from Cashman Construction and one for $32.7 million from D.W. White were over-budget, Krikorian said. The interim port director said the specifications would be re-worked and that the project would go out to bid again.
Feb. 16: This story has been updated to reflect additional comment from Marine Hydraulics manager Jerry Wheeler.
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