Backed into a corner

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We all have those childhood memories. The spot where we landed that first fish. The field where we slugged that first home run. Or the mud flats where we searched for tiny air holes and dug clams for the first time.

Some third graders at West Tisbury School were making those types of memories on a June field trip to Menemsha when some of them felt a strange sensation in the water. They were quickly pulled out, and injuries were averted.

Who would have thought that an incident during a school field trip at a place called Crab Corner would lead to a protracted investigation and discussion that has lasted most of the summer?

Town leaders initially seemed to downplay it, referring to it as a “tickle” of electricity near the transient dock, but they took it seriously enough to close down the area and do a thorough investigation. Repairs were made to the electrical service, but the town’s inspector of wires found that previous work had been done without pulling the proper permits. The issue of how that work was done without inspections has been breezed over, but deserves the attention of town leaders. How could that happen? What safeguards need to be put in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

Even with the repairs, selectmen have decided to err on the side of caution and keep the popular spot closed. But they’ve run up against something even more powerful than electricity — nostalgia.

Last week, a group of parents launched a petition drive to reopen “Crabby place,” as they called it, noting the memories created by generations of Islanders and visitors at that spot. They showed up at a selectmen’s meeting, in the middle of summer, to plead their case with the board.

All of which has put selectmen in a ticklish spot.
“My kids were upset when they were talking about it in 2013,” selectman Bill Rossi said of a previous time town leaders talked about closing the popular spot. “They’re like, ‘C’mon Dad, ya know, we went to Crab Corner, you can’t take that away.’”

Ultimately, the board decided in 2013 to keep the area open and to find a way for the boats and popular spot to coexist.

Selectmen appear to be listening again. They’ve agreed to have the water tested for voltage, and will consider the issue again at a meeting next week.

A permanent voltage monitor is a possible solution. “While the National Electrical Code does not yet require permanently installed voltage detectors, such devices would be preferred as they provide constant hazard detection,” Brett Brenner, president of Electrical Safety Foundation International, told The Times.

There’s a bit of a chicken and an egg debate that’s likely to come up as this issue moves forward. The harbormaster issued a memo saying that swimmers aren’t allowed within 150 feet of boats. Actually, the law is that boats aren’t allowed within 150 feet of a swimming area.

So which came first, the popular swimming spot (most kids actually wade there to hunt for crabs) or the transient dock?

As much as parents want Crab Corner open, there is a financial reality that must be taken into consideration, as well as the threat of children being struck by boats. All those expensive yachts that pull into Menemsha in the summer months and tie up to the transient docks bring in well over $200,000 per season, according to town records. So the town isn’t likely to take a financial hit by eliminating the docks to make way for youngsters to use Crab Corner again.

We’re not sure nostalgia is reason enough to reopen the area, given the possible risk of electric shock, as well as the danger posed by boats. But if selectmen do choose to keep the area open, it would be money well spent to use some of that annual revenue to hire a lifeguard who can keep a watchful eye on just that area. As beach committee member Margaret Maida noted at a meeting last week, a guard that had been hired to keep an eye on Crab Corner has morphed into an extra set of eyes at the larger Menemsha Beach.

If the town invests in another lifeguard, it should be with an eye toward allowing Crab Corner to safely reopen.