The future of the threatened population of turtles in Marion hung in the balance during an hour-long discussion April 22 between “Turtle Guy” Don Lewis and the Marion Conservation Commission over a proposed “turtle garden” in the wetlands across from 2 Jenney Street.
Likely for a thousand years, the site had been the mating and nesting habitat of the Diamondback terrapin and Eastern box turtle until the construction of The Cove subdivision back in 1997. Since then, turtles have continued to return, now laying non-viable eggs in an unviable environment, dropping the terrapin population down to just 50 or so adults in Marion.
Lewis, on behalf of Jenney Street area residents that comprise The Cove in Marion Trust, spoke in favor of a 2,000 square-foot “sandbox,” as he described in layman’s terms, for the terrapins to lay their eggs, in addition to the seasonal mowing of a vast area of meadow to encourage the courtship and reproduction of the Eastern box turtles.
“Once they’re ashore, because there’s no more nesting habitat, they do what any wild critter does,” said Lewis. “They cross streets; they come up on the lawns…. They just scatter where they can find anything for a nest.” The focus, he said, is to provide the turtles with a safe area to lay their eggs. Lewis said some turtles even dig through the asphalt in an attempt to lay its eggs, cracking and bloodying their own feet.
With endorsements from several government agencies, including the Mass Department of Environmental Protection, the plan proposes to cordon off the area with a post and rope fence, establish the sandbox area, and mow surrounding vegetation down in a circular motion, just low enough for the Eastern box turtles to spot each other so they can … you know…
During the first three to four years, any eggs laid outside the protected area will be moved to safety, and the turtles will eventually adapt to the shift in nesting location.
“We’ve executed turtle gardens in Wareham … Eastham … Wellfleet … and it’s a highly successful stratagem for increasing the survivorship of the Diamondback terrapin,” Lewis said.
The concept was not without some opposition and skepticism.
Conservation Commission Chairman Norman Hills did not like the mowing idea and doubted that the terrapins needed 2,000 square feet.
“It wasn’t plucked out of thin air,” Lewis retorted. “That’s the approximate amount of the previous nesting area that had been converted for use (destroyed).”
Hills said, looking at the 2,000 square feet for the terrapins and the acreage for the Eastern box turtles, “I wonder if they need really that much if they’ll find the area.”
ConCom member Jeffrey Doubrava brought up letters of protest from cove area residents complaining about past town mowing of wetlands at the site.
“It would be nice to see a nice area established for the species. And it doesn’t seem as though it’s going to have a negative effect,” said Lewis. “I don’t care what the history was. It doesn’t seem as though it’s going to have a negative effect either on the habitat or any humans involved.”
Lewis said the group was hoping to begin the work immediately, in time for the arrival of the first turtles in June. Mating season is June through mid-July, Lewis said, and the incubation period for turtle eggs is approximately 90-120 days, depending on factors such as warmth and sunlight.
“Hopefully we can get this all in place by then, or we’re going to lose a year,” said Lewis. “And losing a year is fine for us. But for the turtles, it sucks.”
The work would take about three days to complete, David Davignon from N. Douglas Schneider & Associates stated. The seasonal mowing of the area would not only encourage the box turtles to find each other, but it would also provide adequate sunshine for the terrapin sandbox, said Lewis.
What would happen if we do not allow the mowing, wondered ConCom member Cynthia Trinidad.
“I’m not going to say it’ll be the end of the world,” said Lewis, “But it’ll be disruptive.” The Eastern box turtles need to see each other, he said.
A & J Boat Corp. owner Richard Gardiner worried about the impact the turtle habitat might have on his business. He worried an increased turtle population would prompt government agencies to close his business if turtles meandered onto his property. Hills assured Gardiner that would not happen, and Lewis concurred.
Kevin Mariner of 644 Point Road asked, “Why? (pause) Why now? Why there?” Mariner said he moors his boat near the area and was concerned over his own use of the site. “Ninety [to 120] days…. That’s an excessive period of time for me not to be able to use my boat.”
Not true, several told him. His boating would not be affected by the project.
“My mistake!” said Mariner. “That solves one of my problems.” He continued on, calling the terrapin habitat a “pretty big sandbox in my world.”
“Why?” He paused again. “Why? Why here? We have over two miles of pristine coastline in Hammett’s Cove.” He went on about how he knows the area like the back of his hand, and he knows everything about the spot. “Why right there?”
Because it is the turtles’ natural habitat, Trinidad told him. “And they’re still nesting there.” Do you see them now? Does it stop you from boating now, she asked him No worries, then.
The discussion kept returning to, why there? Doubrava recommended transplanting eggs 300 yards up the street to a more convenient spot to re-train them.
“We have never transplanted turtles beyond their local area,” said Lewis. “Their brains are really specific to spot…. I feel uncomfortable doing it. I like to keep turtles in the same space where they are.”
Lewis closed by telling the commission that only one in 250 hatchlings survives into adulthood.
Wow, the commission responded.
“They’ve been around a lot longer than I have,” said Lewis. “And this is the spot they chose. They probably chose it for a good reason.”
The commission approved the project, except the area to be mowed was restricted to about one-third of the size proposed.
Also during the meeting, Saltworks finally received approval to move ahead with its project, but not without facing a wall of opposition one last time over how a temporary Quonset hut was described as a “seasonal building” on the plan instead of a temporary “tent.”
Davignon and Saltworks owner Dan Crete argued that the commission could simply state in the Order of Conditions its intent to not allow the structure to remain, and asked what the big deal was.
Doubrava said that would not do it for him and was adamant that the wording be changed before approval. Other commission members agreed with him.
“I really think you’re overthinking this whole thing,” said Davignon. Crete said he was “dumbfounded” by the notion.
“I don’t get it,” Crete said. “We’re taking it down. You guys understand we’re taking it down. Your determination can say that it’s certainly coming down. There’s no gray area here.”
He lamented over the thousands of dollars he has spent just tweaking details of the plan to please town boards.
“We have jumped over hoops. We’ve bent over backwards, been run through the wringer for seven months now,” Crete said. “I have to tell you, I’m at my wit’s end.”
Doubrava and Davignon continued to debate the semantics.
“This argument is really silly,” Davignon raised his voice before Hills told him to “simmer down.”
Hills called it a misunderstanding, a lesson learned, and the commission wrote its Order of Conditions to be “excruciatingly precise,” as Hills put it.
The entire meeting exceeded three hours.
The next scheduled meeting of the Marion Conservation Commission is scheduled for May 13 at 7:00 pm at the Marion Town House.
By Jean Perry