Chilmark voters will decide on Monday whether changing the structure and material used on two town docks will change the nature of the Menemsha harbor. The project has become the latest fault line in the town’s attempts to strike an elusive balance between a working harbor that supports a struggling commercial fishing fleet, valuable dock space which residents wait years to get, and a picturesque harbor that draws recreational boats, tourist dollars, and home buyers from around the world.
Edward “Spider” Andresen of Chilmark, former publisher of Saltwater Sportsman Magazine and fleet manager for singer Jimmy Buffet, has experience in marinas around the world. Mr. Andresen, the owner of Stormy Petrel, a 42-foot Duffy sportfishing boat he keeps in a slip in the harbor, advocates the modern convenience of a floating dock, though he acknowledges aesthetics are important.
“From a strictly practical standpoint, it’s cheaper, more reliable, and lasts longer,” Mr. Andresen said. “It’s the most practical and user-friendly way to tie up the boat.”
Marshall Carroll, chairman of the town finance committee, owns Menemsha Texaco, located on a leased town lot and the only source of fuel for boaters outside of the down-Island harbors. Mr. Carroll questions whether the look and feel of floating piers is too high a price to pay for the unique appeal of the popular harbor.
“This isn’t a rush, we can think about it and do a nice quality job, that keeps with the character,” Mr. Carroll said. “It’s not a quality of character that we’ve had in Menemsha, it’s a change of the character. This is strictly for transient boaters, and why do they come here? Because we are Menemsha.”
The warrant article before special town meeting voters on Monday, August 6, is a vaguely worded measure that refers to a specific engineering plan on file at town hall. Selectmen unanimously voted to present the plan to voters.
The town would rebuild the 50-foot fixed wooden fuel dock behind Menemsha Texaco where boaters tie up for fuel.
The plan also calls for replacement of the 242-foot fixed wooden pier known as the transient dock behind the breakwater, where boaters tie up for visits of less than two weeks.
That dock would be replaced with a two-part structure. The dock would be fixed for the first 62 feet, and connected to an additional 180 feet of floating docks. A ramp would make the structure accessible for disabled people.
The entire dock would be covered with a wood deck. Though selectmen discussed concrete floats during their meetings, the plans do not specify concrete, plastic, or other material for construction of the floating pier.
Earlier plans to add a concrete floating dock for temporary tie ups in the channel on the west side of the harbor are on hold, and not part of the plan selectmen are asking voters to approve at Monday’s special town meeting.
In a letter to the editor published in this week’s Times, selectmen Warren Doty, Jonathan Mayhew, and William Rossi described the project as a “well thought out, carefully planned proposal.”
The selectmen said, “We feel that the use of more floating docks in Menemsha is much more user friendly for our yachting public and will be a good thing for the harbor in the long run. The floating dock will allow us to install water and electric lines inside the floating dock and provide better utility service to our boaters.”
A floating dock system rises and falls with the tide, along with the boats tied to it. In a fixed pier system, boats rise and fall with the tide, requiring slack lines to account for the movement. At low tide, getting off a boat may require climbing up to the dock.
At the meetings where selectmen discussed the dock plans, harbormaster Denny Jason questioned the wood decking included in the proposal. According to minutes of the meeting, Mr. Jason said boaters who use the harbor favor concrete floats. He said they would provide a nearly fireproof, non-skid surface. He did not respond to a phone message requesting comment.
During a spirited impromptu discussion in Menemsha last week, of the sort that occurs regularly on a variety of issues, Mr. Andresen and Mr. Carroll acknowledged the merit of each other’s position.
“The commercial feel of the harbor, it’s an important and legitimate point that needs to be at least reckoned with,” Mr. Andresen said. “From a practical standpoint, concrete is better, but there are options.”
Mr. Carroll said town officials are being selective with their justification for changing the design of the pier system. He said the design contradicts the two main tenets of town’s master plan.
“It says ‘retain Menemsha as a fishing port,’” Mr. Carroll said, and “‘retain the visual character of the area.’ It seems they’re going against both of those. They use the master plan when they want to, and when they don’t want to, they don’t.”
Chilmark town officials are concerned about liability, and the cost of maintenance.
“It’s a question for the town of safety and convenience, making it something we won’t have to maintain annually for the next 40 years,” said Tim Carroll, executive secretary to the board of selectmen and Marshall Carroll’s brother. “We’re hoping to put a float system in to make it easier for boaters to get on and off their boats. Every year we have a number of boaters that fall from their boat, or slip on the dock.”
Tim Carroll said the town is moving forward quickly, because it faces a very narrow window for construction. State and federal agencies that regulate public waterways impose restrictions on marine construction and dredging, in order to avoid damaging the environment and fish populations. In a best case scenario, those restrictions would limit all construction to 14 weeks, the time between October 1 and January 15.
The Massachusetts Seaport Advisory Council is financing the project with a $629,000 grant. State taxpayers fund the Seaport Advisory Council, whose mission is to enhance and develop commercial maritime resources.
Tim Carroll said rejecting the plan could cost Chilmark taxpayers more in the long run. “We would have to replace it in three or four years using taxpayer money instead of the state money,” he said.
The special town meeting begins at 8 pm, Monday in the Chilmark Community Center.
The only other warrant article is a request for $75,000 to subsidize rents for Chilmark residents who are part of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority rental assistance program.