Chilmark selectmen will appeal Coast Guard decision on fire claim

Menemsha at sunset. — File photo by Susan Safford

Chilmark selectmen on Tuesday agreed to appeal the U.S. Coast Guard’s decision to deny their insurance claim stemming from the Menemsha fire of July 2010. Selectmen also heard an update on plans to lease the Tea Lane farmstead to a resident farmer and received an update from the American Tower Corporation on the new digital antenna system (DAS) now under construction.

DAS relies on a series of radio access nodes connected to small antennas on telephone poles to distribute cellular telephone signals. Although the range is less than conventional tower systems, DAS appeals to communities where a conventional tower is unwelcome. It is expected to enhance cell phone coverage in Chilmark and Aquinnah.

Don Clark, deployment manager for American Tower Corporation, said the company has done all “make ready” work on the utility poles in collaboration with NSTAR, Comcast and Verizon. The fiber network has been attached to almost 700 poles and all 15 nodes have been installed, he said.

The main hub has also been completed at the town landfill, he said. “We believe with this design that we are going to meet coverage objectives,” Mr. Clark said

So far only one cell provider, AT&T, has committed to installing their equipment, although the company has made overtures to other providers, like Verizon.

Selectmen also discussed a recent meeting with town counsel Ronald Rappaport regarding the Coast Guard’s decision to deny their claim seeking damages incurred from the Menemsha fire two years ago.

Selectman Warren Doty said Mr. Rappaport recommended that officials pursue an internal appeal with the Coast Guard before filing an appeal in U.S. District Court. The town has six months to file the internal appeal, and will have more time to appeal in court if the internal appeal is not successful.

Chairman Frank Fenner noted that several private boat owners have also filed insurance claims with the Coast Guard seeking damages. Selectmen agreed to ask Mr. Rappaport whether the town should join with those private boat owners when filing the internal appeal.

“I think it would be better to have multiple letters,” Mr. Fenner said.

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

Mr. Fenner on Tuesday again expressed his frustration by the denial of the claim, and he said the report detailing the fire investigation, which led to the Coast Guard decision to deny the town’s insurance claim, contained inaccurate information.

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.

Mr. Fenner was an eyewitness to the fire, and he has claimed that the statement he gave to fire investigators was not accurately reflected in the final report.

“My big concern is these kinds of things have a way of coming back 20 years from now… if they are doing an insurance review or something they may say: yes, well this fire started on town property 20 years ago… I just want to do everything we can to make sure it’s clear,” he said.

Mr. Doty said he wasn’t sure what disputing the veracity of the report would accomplish. “I know Frank feels the report has interviews that weren’t accurately transcribed, but I don’t know what to do about that,” he said.

In related business, selectmen announced that the town has received $629,026 from the Massachusetts Seaport Advisory Council to rebuild the town dock destroyed in the fire. Selectmen said the money will be used to complete stage three of the rebuilding project, and unveiled plans to build a new 230-foot transient yacht dock, a new 50-foot fuel dock near the Menemsha Texaco and a 185-foot temporary tie-up dock.

Mr. Doty said the plans for the new fuel dock have generated the most interest from boaters. Selectmen agreed to hold a public hearing on the plans in the future, and also announce the plans at the annual town meeting next week.

Executive secretary Tim Carroll said the town will aggressively seek approval to build the pilings for the new dock before the summer season.

Mr. Doty also gave an update on plans to place a resident farmer in the Tea Lane farmstead. He said the Tea Lane farm committee, of which he is a member, has interviewed 13 candidates and narrowed the field down to six.

Finally, selectmen also agreed to sign an agreement with the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) to purchase gas from the transit authority’s operations center at the airport business park at a discounted rate.

The VTA discount program allows participating organizations to buy unleaded gas well below the commercial pump price.

The agreement with the VTA would allow town police vehicles to fill up at the discount rate, as well as the vehicles from the Tri-Town Ambulance, which is comprised of Chilmark, Aquinnah, and West Tisbury.

Selectman Warren Doty said that police vehicles would only use the VTA pumps when they are driving by the airport business park, such as when they are returning from the Dukes County jail or courthouse.

Selectman Jonathon Mayhew said he was concerned that the VTA program had an unfair advantage over private gas stations. “I am just a little leery that the private sector will get hurt,” he said.

But Mr. Doty argued that the program would save the town money. “Gas prices on Martha’s Vineyard are unfair to begin with…,” he said. “This is a chance for us to make a saving.”

Mr. Doty said the town currently buys around 95 percent of its gas from Menemsha Texaco. The owner of that gas station, Marshall Carroll, said he did not have a problem with the town signing an agreement with the VTA.

Selectmen voted 2-1 to sign the agreement, with Mr. Mayhew dissenting. They also unanimously agreed to add a provision to the agreement stipulating that the town will buy no more than one-third of all its fuel at the VTA pumps.