Boathouse fire sinks Menemsha Harbor revenue

The roaring fire that consumed the U.S. Coast Guard boathouse in Menemsha Harbor made for the most trying summer many Chilmark residents have ever seen.

While town officials are still waiting for the report on the cause, they began dealing with the economic effects of the blaze, including the firefighting costs and loss of revenue the moment the flames ignited.

As part of a series of reports on Martha’s Vineyard harbors, The Times profiles Menemsha Harbor this week. Previously, The Times has examined Oak Bluffs Harbor, and Edgartown Harbor.

Chilmark closed the Menemsha Harbor to all boaters for a short time after the July 12 fire. The fire destroyed or damaged some of the dock space on the western side of the harbor. Even when the harbor was open to visiting boaters again, many charted courses away from Menemsha, to avoid the uncertainty.

“The word was out that we weren’t open,” Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll said this week. “We were, but we lost all kind of business. Two or three of those large yachts in the course of a month can be a large loss.”

Harbor revenue was down $181,585, or 12.2 percent for 2010, from $206,835 the year before, according to town officials.

Revenue for the month of July was off 23 percent, and for August, 37.5 percent.

Mr. Carroll and harbor master Dennis Jason, are working this month to document the losses.

“Part of the revenue lost as a result of the fire in July, we’re trying to pursue through our insurance company,” Mr. Carroll said. “I don’t expect to make up the whole thing.” The town’s insurance policy includes a provision for reimbursement of business lost as a result of a fire.

Chilmark voters appropriated $151,109 for the harbor master’s operating expenses in the current fiscal year. They also voted an additional $6,000 for maintenance of harbor moorings.

The town provides two moorings inside the harbor for visiting boaters, at a cost of $30 per day. Often, three vessels raft up on each mooring. Outside the harbor, along Menemsha beach, there are eight moorings that cost $20 for an overnight stay. The town makes the rules to promote turnover, with time limits on the length of stay.

The town reserves much of the dock space inside Menemsha Harbor for Chilmark residents and commercial fishermen. There are 16 slips and about 270 feet of dock space for transient boaters, according to the town’s waterways regulations. The cost for that dock space is $2.50 per foot, per day, with additional charges for electricity. Local fishermen use some of that space in the off-season.

The town maintained 153 moorings for annual rental to boaters, many of them residents of the town. State regulations require all mooring permits be allotted fairly. The town keeps waiting lists for the valued annual mooring permits, as it does for dock space. They are posted on its website. The cost of an annual mooring permit is $100.

Mr. Carroll said the downturn in harbor revenue is certainly a headache, but not a crisis for town finances. He said Chilmark enjoys a steady revenue stream from a small base of very highly valued property. The harbor revenue helps fund a wide range of harbor-related costs, including the harbor master’s operating costs, infrastructure to accommodate the fishing fleet, and harbor dredging.

“It’s to help defray and offset the cost of operating that harbor,” Mr. Carroll said. “It’s not really revenue to the town, it helps defray the expense. We’ve never been ahead of the game with the harbor.”

The value of the picturesque, historic waterfront for drawing visitors to Chilmark is difficult to assess, but it is not the town’s primary economic interest.

“We value our harbor tremendously for its aesthetic quality,” Mr. Carroll said. “However, our master plan, all of our documents, all of our public officials are dedicated to keeping it a fishing port.”