Chilmark will appeal Coast Guard rejection of fire claim

A Coast Guard auxiliary crew on routine patrol captured this aerial view of the fire in its early stages, before the frame of the boathouse collapsed. — File photo by Chuck Stevens/Phil Cox

Chilmark selectmen agreed Tuesday, April 3, to appeal a decision by the U.S. Coast Guard to deny the town’s insurance claim, stemming from the July 2010 fire in Menemsha that destroyed part of the town pier and Coast Guard Station Menemsha boathouse.

On March 8, selectmen received a letter from Susan A. Steiner, an attorney for the U.S. Coast Guard Legal Service Command, informing them that the Coast Guard had denied their claim seeking $1.3 million in damages.

Ms. Steiner wrote that the fire did not start in the Coast Guard boathouse but instead on the town-owned drive-on pier, a conclusion that attracted criticism from the selectmen, who said it was untrue.

At their regular meeting Tuesday, chairman Frank Fenner again said he was frustrated by the denial of the claim and argued that the report detailing the fire investigation, which led to the Coast Guard decision to deny the town’s insurance claim, contained inaccurate information.

Selectman Warren Doty said the letter from Ms. Steiner outlined two options for appealing the denial of the claim. The town can either appeal the decision directly with the Coast Guard or appeal the decision in U.S. District Court, he said.

Mr. Doty suggested that selectmen meet with town counsel Ronald Rappaport at their next meeting on April 17, to discuss both options. “We want to dispute the denial of this claim and we should know the channels that are available, and maybe have our counsel look them up and come in and discuss them with us and have a reasonable discussion,” he said.

“It has to be done,” agreed selectman Jonathan Mayhew.

The 22-page report was completed December 30, 2010, but was not presented to the town until February 22, 2011. The report said the fire may have been the result of a discarded cigarette on the pier, faulty electrical wiring to the boathouse, or faulty electrical wiring to the town’s pier.

The report found insufficient evidence to determine a more precise ignition source, but definitively rejected a conclusion that the fire started in the Coast Guard boathouse.

Boathouse moves forward

Selectmen also received both good and bad news regarding the design of the new boathouse the Coast Guard is planning to replace the one that burned down. The plans call for a new boathouse with two floors, 34 feet, 11 inches at its highest point and 78 feet long.

By comparison, the old boathouse was 28 feet high and 63 feet long.

Selectmen have complained the new structure is too large and does not comply with town zoning bylaws that set a maximum building height of 24 feet and 18 feet in the coastal zone.

Town administrator Tim Carroll said he received a letter last week from Francis Brito, a civilian engineer and supervisor of the Facilities Design and Construction Center detachment in Seattle, Wash., stating that the Coast Guard is ready to release their request for proposals (RFP) for the new boathouse.

Ms. Carroll said the letter stated the RFP will give priority to contractors who are able to make the new boathouse shorter and lower to the ground; and also interact with local officials to help coordinate traffic and parking during construction. “They are trying to address our concerns that way,” he said.

That was the good news, Mr. Carroll said. The bad news, he said, was that Mr. Brito informed him that the Coast Guard received approval from the Massachusetts Historical Preservation office more than a month ago to move ahead with the boathouse project.

“They did a great job of informing us,” Mr. Doty said sarcastically.

“We should get ahold of Mass Historical and say this is very important to us,” Mr. Mayhew said.

Although Mr. Carroll said he would reach out to the state historical commission to express the selectmen’s concerns, the Coast Guard’s decision to release the RFP effectively closes the planning period for the project and makes any changes to the plans highly unlikely.

In other news, selectmen were visited by Navy reservist Matt Bradley, who recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan where he was assigned as a hospitalman second class with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Mr. Bradley presented the selectmen with a U.S. flag that was flown over the headquarters of Weapons Company 1st Battalion of the 25th Marines on Camp Leatherneck in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan during operation freedom.

An official certification that accompanied the flag stated the flag was flown on Dec. 7, 2011, the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Bradley, who is a special officer with the Chilmark Police Department, received a round of applause when he presented the gift.

“Thank you for your service,” Mr. Fenner said.