MVC fishing pier hearing reels in avid supporters

On a sunny day last August, the stretch of beach where the proposed public fishing pier would be built was quiet. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

A Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) public hearing for a proposed state-built fishing pier in Oak Bluffs netted a big haul of enthusiastic Island fishermen. Those who testified on October 7 in favor of the project called it a wonderful opportunity for the public.

The pier is planned for the shore between the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority wharf and the harbor entrance jetties. Opponents of the project, mostly residents of the North Bluff neighborhood, have pressed for the pier to be located on the south side of the Steamship pier, citing noise and parking issues.

At the conclusion of about two hours of public testimony, the MVC commissioners voted to keep the public hearing open for the receipt of written testimony until October 14, and absent any new issues, close it on October 21.

The hearing began on an unusual note. MVC chairman Christina Brown introduced Jo-Ann Taylor as staff coordinator assigned to the project.

Ms. Taylor replaced Paul Foley, MVC development of regional impact (DRI) analyst and planner, after pier supporters cited his testimony at a conservation commission hearing that predated the referral to the MVC. They told Mark London, MVC executive director, that Mr. Foley was far too personally involved to be objective.

Mindful of the earlier complaints, Ms. Brown said that “as is usual and is absolutely the case” when a staff member or a commissioner is a neighbor or an abutter to a project, Mr. Foley could not be participating in any staff review on the project for the commissioners.

“Like any member of the public, he is certainly welcome to express and share his concerns,” she said, and then turned the hearing over to Linda Sibley, chairman of the MVC’s land-use planning committee.

Project summary

In a project summary, Ms. Taylor said the town of Oak Bluffs and the state’s Department of Fishing and Game’s Office of Fishing and Boating Access (FBA) proposed the fishing pier. The Oak Bluffs conservation commission (ConCom) referred the project to the MVC for review as a DRI because it is a development in the ocean, she explained.

The proposed L-shaped, pile-supported, handicapped-accessible pier structure would extend 317 feet into Nantucket Sound north of the Steamship Authority’s (SSA) pier.

Following the summary of the project, Douglas Cameron, assistant director of FBA, said there were several factors that influenced the decision to locate the proposed fishing pier on the north side of the SSA pier. Since the pier must be handicapped-accessible, minimizing slope distances and elevations is important, and the north side site is at low point. It is also located close to public restrooms that will be made handicapped-accessible.

In response to questions about an alternative location for the fishing pier, Mr. Cameron said his office looked at an area 277 feet south of the SSA pier. Among factors that make it less favorable, the landside elevation is two feet higher and water depths two feet shallower. Because of the buffer required for eelgrass, a pier on the south side would have to be shorter.

Since Oak Bluffs already has plans to redo the seawall, boardwalk, and restrooms on the north side, Mr. Cameron said, “We have a unique opportunity here to try to create a nice group of projects.”

“I feel that the project provides a significant regional benefit in that the entire Island has access to the fishing pier,” he said.

Public weighs in

That view found wide agreement among the fishermen, many of whom took a night off from the Derby to attend.

“We are very much in favor of the fishing pier, and we manage the parks and rec department,” chairman of the Oak Bluffs parks commission member Nancy Phillips said. “So, we really would like to encourage recreation in the town, anything to get people away from the seven hours and thirty-eight minutes that is the average time each child spends in front of a digital screen today. It would be great to get everybody in the whole family out fishing.”

She and several others said that the pier’s handicapped-accessibility would make it a great asset for people who love to fish but have disabilities or are unable to walk on sandy, rocky terrain.

Oak Bluffs selectman Kathy Burton said she is personally in favor of the pier and has seen the benefits of one in the community of Naples, Florida, when she visits there. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the town and for the Island, and I love that it’s coordinated with the other projects,” Ms. Burton said. “I think it’s sort of a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

A few residents in the North Bluff area of Circuit Avenue Extension opposed the pier’s proposed location on the north side because of concerns about increased traffic, noise, parking, loitering, substance abuse, interference with swimming, and trash, which might attract skunks, birds and rats.

Geoff Patterson, a musician in Edgartown, countered that Memorial Wharf has none of those issues. “Because I’m up at that hour right after the bars get out and I’m a fisherman, I go right to the wharf to see what’s going on,” he said. “My experience over the 20 years I’ve been doing that, it’s not a hangout. Only fishermen want to go there.

“I’ve never seen a mess down there during the summer at night, I’ve never seen partying going on” Mr. Patterson said. “It’s a quiet, peaceful atmosphere.”

Mr. Foley, who took the lead for the opposition Thursday, arrived with a PowerPoint presentation. Mr. Foley, who rents in the area, said he swims on the north side of the SSA pier every day for about five months out of the year. In his presentation he took issue with Mr. Cameron’s testimony about topography and water depth on the north side.

He also questioned the state’s assessment of fishing resources, which included an assessment by Greg Skomal, a Division of Marine Fisheries sport fisheries biologist and former longtime Island resident and Derby committee member.

“Fish swim; it’s the sea; I’m sure they pass through here, but regardless, my personal observation, within 150 feet of shore, is I rarely ever see fish,” Mr. Foley said.

That remark triggered several rebuttals. Mr. Cameron observed that Mr. Foley’s “swimming probably prevents a lot of fish from sticking around while that’s going on.”

A few fishermen even broke their usual code of silence regarding good fishing spots to dispute Mr. Foley’s observation.

“I’m really so much in favor of the pier at its proposed location,” Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association board member Michelle Jones said. “I’m also a swimmer, on the north bluff. When I get out beyond the Steamship Authority dock, I see a lot of bonita out there. I see bait in the water when the tide’s coming out of the harbor. It’s an optimum fishing spot.”

Other fishermen highlighted the positive influence a pier would have on the next generation of fishermen.

“Some kids like myself did not have family members that fish,” former West Tisbury School administrator and MVSA secretary Bob Lane said. “This is an opportunity for those kids that have that fire ignited in them to get out there and begin what will become a lifetime obsession for them, and I’m definitely in favor of this pier.”

Testing the waters

The hearing took an unexpected twist when Mr. Cameron had to leave to catch a 9:30 pm ferry, and Michael Dutton, Oak Bluffs town administrator, was his ride. “We haven’t finished everything, and we can’t continue the public hearing without an applicant,” Ms. Sibley told the crowd of about 40 people.

“Would it expedite things if you asked people in the crowd, all those in favor raise your hand?” Robert Weiss, an Oak Bluffs charter captain asked.

“I think that’s an excellent suggestion,” Ms. Sibley said. Mr. London gave Mr. Cameron a ride to the ferry so that Mr. Dutton could remain, and the hearing could continue with an applicant present.

Ms. Sibley said that although the commissioners would have to consider the arguments, not just a show of hands, it seemed fair to take a vote.

“We never do that — I object,” Mr. Foley called out.

“That’s not true,” Ms. Sibley said. “We absolutely have, and you are not in charge of this hearing.”

MVC commissioner Ned Orleans of Tisbury suggested Ms. Sibley define what the vote was about for the audience. Commissioners Andrew Woodruff of West Tisbury and Douglas Sederholm of Edgartown questioned the vote’s purpose and relevance. Ms. Sibley reiterated that the straw poll would not be “determinative.”

“But if somebody wants it, we’re going to do it,” she said.

Although no count was taken, a show of hands of those for and against the proposal as presented confirmed an overwhelming majority of the audience in favor.

Public testimony continued until everyone in the audience who wanted to comment did so.

Written testimony may be submitted by email to no later than 5 pm on October 14.