Martha’s Vineyard Commission reviews Rymes Propane proposal

Rymes Propane and Oil began installing propane tanks for new customers such as Tropical Restaurant in Vineyard Haven this week, as part of the New Hampshire-based company's start-up of a propane delivery business on Martha's Vineyard. — Photo by Janet Hefler

A public hearing recently held by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) raised new questions about the permanency of a development of regional impact (DRI) designation on a property leased for temporary use, as well as what effect the designation might have on other businesses that lease parcels on the same property.

At the June 7 public hearing, the MVC reviewed a proposal by John Rymes of Rymes Propane Gas to operate a new propane delivery business off High Point Lane in Vineyard Haven. Since the operation involves fuel storage, it triggered a referral from the town of Tisbury for review as a DRI.

MVC commissioner Doug Sederholm of Chilmark ran the hearing, viewed by The Times on MVTV, as the chairman of the commission’s land use planning committee (LUPC). Although he closed the hearing to public testimony, Mr. Sederholm kept the written record open until June 21, in order to get a legal opinion from counsel regarding the commissioners’ DRI questions.

Rymes Propane Gas, a New Hampshire-based company, leased a 20,000 square-foot area of a parcel less than a half an acre in total. The land is part of a 10-acre property owned by Goodale Construction. The site has been subdivided and currently serves as a staging and storage area for several construction and industrial companies.

“I just want to make sure that I can come back and have the DRI designation removed at a later date,” landlord Peter Goodale of Goodale Construction told the commissioners during the public comment period. “I’m also concerned about what this might do to the other businesses on the property, whether they would have to come to you to make changes in their businesses.”

At the hearing’s start, Mr. Sederholm noted that Mr. Rymes had already been granted a permit by Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling and a license from the Tisbury selectmen. The permit from the fire chief was for storage of hazardous materials at the site. The selectmen approved a fuel storage license for Mr. Rymes following a public hearing on May 15, with the condition that he install security cameras at the facility, in addition to it being fenced in.

“They’re not in a position to grant anything until the MVC rules on this,” Mr. Sederholm pointed out. “Be this as it may, we’ll proceed.”

Testing the market

Mr. Rymes said that he and his brothers, who own the propane gas and heating company, became interested in doing business on Martha’s Vineyard after seeing the high propane rates charged by Island companies.

Those include Vineyard Propane, AmeriGas, and Island Propane, all located in the Martha’s Vineyard Airport business park. On January 12, Vineyard Propane’s parent company merged with AmeriGas, combining the two Island suppliers. They continue to operate separately.

Mr. Rymes said his company proposes to park a portable propane tank or tanker with a capacity of 14,100 gallons of liquid propane on a bed of asphalt. Other equipment on the site would include a delivery truck, a service truck with a crane, and empty propane tanks for new customers.

Mr. Rymes said that a 12,000 square-foot area of the site would be fenced in for the year-round operation, leaving room for possible future expansion. The new business is for propane delivery only and there will be no on-site fueling of individual propane tanks, he added. The company will have an office on upper State Road.

Mr. Rymes said the facility is intended to be temporary. “In order to serve people at rates we think we should charge, we need to have a business plan that can support it,” he explained. “We hope to come back to you in six months to two years to apply for a full-size facility, either here or in a different location.”

Mr. Rymes said he had ruled out the airport business park, because he had read in Island newspapers that the other propane companies have complained of their limited fuel storage capacity there, and that their requests to add storage tanks had not been approved.

DRI status for one or all?

During the public comment period, John Rancourt, senior vice president and general manager of Island Propane, told the commissioners he hoped they would approve Mr. Rymes’s project. “I have property right down the street and would love to have propane there, too,” he said.

“It’s nice to hear a competitor say, ‘We’d like to have competition,'” Mr. Sederholm responded.

No representatives from town boards or governmental agencies attended the hearing. After the brief public comment session, the commissioners took up discussion about how the proposed facility’s temporary use might affect a DRI decision.

Mr. Sederholm asked Mr. Rymes if there was a possibility the Tisbury location might be used for more than two years.

“We’re estimating two years; there is a chance we’ll fail,” Mr. Rymes said. “At this point we just want to crawl before we walk. We can’t give an exact amount of time.”

Mr. Goodale clarified that the terms of the lease are for three years, with options to renew for a period up to five years.

“This is leading us into another discussion, the question of whether we can do a temporary DRI or set something up in a way to remove a DRI when we’re done,” MVC chairman Chris Murphy of Chilmark said. “These are interesting questions we haven’t dealt with before.”

Mr. Murphy also questioned what effect a DRI designation might have on the other businesses on the same property. “My belief is that a DRI would cover the entire lot,” he said. “Under our normal procedure, anything that changes in the future on that lot would be a change in a DRI and require that it is brought back to the MVC. That might change the way the landlord looks at the property, because it could crimp someone else’s property in the future.”

Mr. Sederholm and commissioner Lenny Jason of Chilmark made arguments that the conditions of a DRI would apply only to the parcel leased by Rymes Propane. MVC senior planner Bill Veno said the staff had asked counsel about the correct language to use in a possible DRI decision, but had not explored the issue of how it would affect the entire property.

Mr. Sederholm said it was more a question of policy and one that counsel should answer.

What’s competitive?

In follow-up this week, The Times emailed Mr. Rymes to ask about his company’s prices on May 16, for comparison purposes. On that date The Times reported that an Island customer with a company-owned or leased tank who used 1,000 to 1,500 gallons of propane was paying $3.70 per gallon at Vineyard Propane, $3.60 per gallon at Island Propane, and $3.90 at AmeriGas, according to information obtained by phone calls to the three.

“Our price at that time would have been $3.099 per gallon for the same consumption per year,” Mr. Rymes replied by email. “We are also offering fixed price propane for Island customers and will be donating a penny per gallon of all propane sales to breast cancer awareness at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.” Rymes Propane also has a pink propane truck to promote the cause.

Mr. Rymes said another difference between his company and the others is in fees. “AmeriGas and Vineyard Propane both charge a fee of up to $17 per delivery,” he wrote in a second email. “We do not.”

In the meantime, while waiting for the MVC’s approval, Mr. Rymes said his company has been installing propane tanks on the Island all week.

“We have also saved some businesses nearly a dollar per gallon on their propane,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like the ice cream man in the community, people have been so happy to see me start the business.”