Although the cause of the July 12 fire in Menemsha that destroyed the U.S. Coast Guard boathouse and several town piers remains undecided by investigators, Chilmark voters, at a special town meeting Monday will decide whether to spend just over $1.7 million to replace the West Dock car-way and to pay for emergency costs incurred by the town for fighting the blaze.
Voters will consider three spending articles related to the fire, one to borrow $1.5 million to replace the car-way that led by the boathouse to what is known as the West, or Fill, Dock, one for $27,000 for the costs of responding to the fire, and another for $200,000 to cover other emergency expenditures related to the fire. The articles suggest that a variety of alternate funding sources, including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as well as insurance proceeds, may ultimately offset some of these outlays.
The 10-article meeting begins at 7:30 pm at the Chilmark Community Center.
Voters will also consider an article asking for $300,000 to hire a contractor to repair and restore the farmhouse at historic Tea Lane Farm at the corner of Tea Lane and Middle Road. The article appears on the warrant at the request of the Tea Lane Farm committee, appointed by selectmen in April to develop a plan to renovate the existing three-quarter cape farmhouse built in 1755.
This request has been the topic of some heated debate recently, as various town officials have disagreed on whether the old farmhouse should be restored, torn down and rebuilt or sold to a private buyer.
Two members of the town’s historic commission appeared before the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) last Wednesday and asked members to support an amendment to the article that would effectively scrap the plan proposed by the Tea Lane Farm Committee.
The amendment would cut the funding request from $300,000 to $25,000, which would be used to hire an architect to prepare a new plan to renovate, or perhaps replace, the farmhouse. The CPC voted 6-1 to support the amendment.
Warren Doty, chairman of the selectmen and the Tea Lane Farm Committee, said this week that the amendment will be introduced on the floor of town meeting by a member of the town historic commission, CPC, or selectmen. He conceded that the amendment, if approved, would effectively moot all the work done by the Tea Lane Farm Committee over the past year. But, he said, the differing opinions over the future of the farmhouse led him to agree it is best to put the question to the public.
“In the spring, when the [Tea Lane Farm] committee first took this up, I was heavily invested in this project,”Mr. Doty said. “Now I need to take a step back and see what the people have to say. We want to listen to what they have to say and follow their lead.”
The first article on the warrant asks voters to appropriate $1.5 million to replace the West Dock car-way and pedestrian walkway, which, along with the Coast Guard boathouse and nearby floating slips, was destroyed in the Menemsha fire.
Executive secretary Tim Carroll said AGM Marine Contractors of Mashpee is nearly finished installing new floating concrete docks. The only thing left is to connect the docks to the land, he said, and the plan is to complete the new car-way and pedestrian walkway by May 1.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Mr. Carroll said. “The Coast Guard has the difficult task of rebuilding the boathouse. The town project, by way of comparison, is relatively simple. We need to build a road to get to the Fill Dock.”
Mr. Carroll said the plan is to recoup as much of the costs of the new car-way through state and federal grants. The language of the article would allow the project to be funded through recovery bonds issued through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).
“We are seeking the assistance of the state and federal governments and are looking into going after some Waterways Improvement money,” Mr. Carroll said. “Hopefully, a large amount of that money will be coming back to us.”
But that’s not assured. The cause of the fire, when the multi-agency investigation finishes, will be an important determinant of liability for the repairs.
A special agent for the Coast Guard Investigative Service told selectmen earlier this month that a joint investigation into the cause of the fire, involving the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, the state fire marshal, and state police, continues.
Meanwhile representatives for the Coast Guard have told selectmen that construction of a new boathouse will not begin until the summer of 2012, at the earliest. In a divided vote, selectmen agreed to provide temporary space on the town bulkhead along Dutcher Dock for the Coast Guard’s 47-foot motor lifeboat.
Mr. Doty, who has been critical of the pace of the fire investigation, said repairing the car-way is too important to wait on a conclusion as to the cause of the fire. “We have no promises from anybody when it comes to funding, but we need access to the West Dock,” he said. “So we have decided to move ahead with repairs and seek reimbursements later. If we wait on the Coast Guard, we could be waiting two years.”
Town treasurer Melanie Becker said there is no chance of the town recouping any of the costs for the dock repair from the state or federal government in fiscal 2011. If the first article passes Monday, she said, the town would issue a bond anticipation notice for one year, meaning it would only owe interest in fiscal year 2012, which will result in a small impact – about two cents – on the tax rate. If the town had to absorb the entire $1.5 million, the tax impact would range between eight cents in the first year to five cents in the tenth and final year of the bond, Ms. Becker added.
As for the separate article seeking $200,000 to fund emergency expenditures related to the fire, Mr. Carroll said there is a good chance that most of that cost may later be covered by insurance payments or assistance from state or federal agencies.
Voters will also consider an article to spend $25,000 to build a bathroom in the preschool room of the seven-room Chilmark Elementary School, which would call for selectmen to accept a $5,000 donation from the Friends of the Chilmark Preschool and $2,500 from the Chilmark Town Affairs Council. The school originally cost taxpayers nearly $4 million and opened in December 1999.
Voters will also consider an article to transfer $4,990 from the treasury to the reserve fund administered by the finance advisory committee, another to appropriate $10,000 to pay for the debt service related to the Middle Line Road affordable housing bond, and another to raise $3,421 to fund the town’s share of the Tri-Town Ambulance services for the last fiscal year.
Another article asks voters to spend $5,000 for the construction of a beach walkway at Lucy Vincent Beach.