Chilmark selectmen back harbormaster’s bid to remove pilings

Board punts on dredging for fishing boat access, and advances new fire station study.


Updated Jan. 11 at 2 pm

At the Chilmark selectmen’s meeting Tuesday evening, harbormasters Brian “Chip” Vanderhoop and Dennis Jason squared off over a trio of pilings in the Menemsha Creek that are connected to a creek lot Mr. Vanderhoop leases. Mr. Jason called the pilings a “menace to navigation.” Mr. Vanderhoop was not on board with that description, and suggested he was the target of local bias.

Menemsha Creek friction between Mr. Jason of Chilmark and Mr. Vanderhoop of Aquinnah first came to light at a June 20 selectmen’s meeting last year, when the selectmen evaluated complaints from Mr. Vanderhoop’s neighboring lotholders regarding reconstruction of his dock. Mr. Vanderhoop leases Aquinnah Creek Lot F along Boathouse Road, where the uneven edges of Chilmark and Aquinnah meet. A corner of the dock on his lot, as well as the pilings in question, are in Chilmark, whereas the rest of the lot is in Aquinnah.

Mr. Vanderhoop told the selectmen that in his professional opinion as a harbormaster, he saw no merit in the assertion that the pilings threatened navigation. He questioned why under Lynn and Susan Murphy’s tenancy, the previous lessees for decades, the pilings had never been considered problematic.

“It seems all of a sudden, since I have it, now it’s a menace,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. “That’s borderline discrimination between a Chilmarker and an Aquinnah person. The lessee has changed, and now it’s a menace, but for 40 years it hasn’t been. Can you understand where I’m coming from?”

Mr. Vanderhoop said the utility of the pilings included convenient tie-up and safe harbor.

Advocating on behalf of Mr. Vanderhoop, Susan Murphy gave a lengthy monologue about the history of the lot, arguing that the dock and pilings had long been there, and were “used continuously,” and that Mr. Vanderhoop has the right to continue to use them, as well as the right to refurbish or replace them when need be. She circulated several vintage photographs to bolster her claims.

Chilmark resident Debbie Packer, a nearby dock owner, pressed the issue of the pilings in a Dec. 19 letter, where she described them as “unpermitted.” The pilings, in conjunction with Mr. Vanderhoop’s dock, will encumber “pre-existing permitted bulkheads, docks, and public water rights and access,” and if allowed to persist, will “change the Menemsha Basin forever,” she wrote.

Asked by Mr. Vanderhoop what sort of menace he thought the pilings presented, Mr. Jason, also a leaseholder on the creek, said, “The last time we dredged with a backhoe up there, they were in the way.” He later added that any barge used in that part of the creek to repair docks would rub up against them. He pointed out that he did not have a problem with Mr. Vanderhoop’s dock.

“I do have a problem with the three pilings,” he said.

The selectmen voted unanimously to authorize the removal of the pilings, with selectman James Malkin pointing out ahead of the vote they are situated in Chilmark waters and therefore under Mr. Jason’s jurisdiction.

Aquinnah officials weigh in

Asked for comment about the piling decision at the close of their special board meeting Wednesday, Aquinnah selectmen shared their thoughts, albeit with the caveat that their individual opinions may not represent the board’s position overall.

Selectmen chairman Jim Newman called out the situation plainly.

“They are in Chilmark waters — I knew they were going to pull ‘em,” he said.

Selectman Gary Haley basically echoed Mr. Newman. “It’s in their waters, so…” he said.

Applying sarcasm, Aquinnah town administrator Jeffrey Madison suggested Chilmark officials seem to associate a change in a creek lot lessee from a Chilmark resident to an Aquinnah resident with a change in maritime conditions.

“The only thing that has changed is that an Aquinnah resident owns that shack and has fixed it up,” he said. “So that’s just an interesting element of their decision to remove the spiles [an alternate term for pilings]…Prior to Chip owning it, the spiles were fine. You know I guess that their determination seems to intimate that the navigable channel has been diminished by Chip Vanderhoop taking possession of the shack lot there…They can say whatever they want, they can look at it however they want, but the fact is that’s the only thing that’s changed. It’s their waters. They can do what they want but let’s call the situation for what it is.”

Selectman Juli Vanderhoop shared Mr. Madison’s viewpoint.

“Jeffrey is right,” she said. She described the taking as “very unfortunate” and said that in her opinion the pilings should be grandfathered with the lot.

Shoaling a new boat

Menemsha fisherman Wes Brighton came before the selectmen to request harbor dredging to accommodate a new 65-foot fishing vessel he acquired that draws too much water to pass over sand shoals that have accumulated on the harbor bed. They become an impediment during certain tides, he said.

Harbormaster Dennis Jason hovered between apprehensive and unenthusiastic about the notion of dredging. Such activity could “change the hydrodynamics of what happens in the harbor,” he said, adding that there “might be consequences that we can’t change.”

Mr. Brighton argued that the shoaling is also a hindrance to sailboats and other deep-draft vessels like the seasonal motor yacht Relamar. He said his new vessel would have good permits and provide at least three well-paying local jobs — provided it can freely enter the harbor.

“Does the town go into a significant dredging project for what would be one boat at this particular point, based on Wes’ desire to do this laudable thing?” Mr. Malkin asked. He noted that recent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging had, as a side effect, sent a lot of sand along the Dutcher, fuel, and transient docks that resulted in 1,000 cubic yards of unanticipated maintenance dredging. He said he wasn’t sure how long that sand would continue to accumulate. It was unclear how that related to Mr. Brighton’s request, however.

“I think there’s more to it than simply going in and having John Packer or someone pull up this sandbar,” he said.

Speaking in support of Mr. Brighton, Martha’s Vineyard Fisherman’s Preservation Trust president John Keene offered to furnish the town with an expert from Woods Hole to investigate water dynamics in the harbor. He said that the part of the harbor Mr. Brighton is concerned with has been dredged before, and is filling back in again. “How shallow are you going to let it get before you say we have to do something?” he asked.

The selectmen voted unanimously to solicit a scientific evaluation of harbor conditions relative to the area in question, and to get a cost estimate for dredging it.

In other business, Chilmark Fire Department Assistant Chief Robert Coutinho and Lt. Jeremy Bradshaw came before the selectmen to advocate for one of a pair of proposals for a new fire station that would be located very near the site of the current station.

In order to paint a picture for the audience regarding the town’s station odyssey, selectmen chairman Bill Rossi said the town’s been looking for sites for years. “I think some people have been looking up to, like, 15 years,” he said, noting the odyssey may be coming to an end.

The plan the department recommended called for situating the actual station where the town hall parking lot is. That plan includes a station with more square footage than an alternative plan, which places the station over the footprint of the current station. The fire officers said that with either plan, the department cannot cohabitate with Tri-Town Ambulance, because there will be insufficient room for equipment and vehicles.

The selectmen agreed to authorize a consultant who had already done work on the proposals to come up with more detailed plans for the proposal the fire department prefers. They also authorized the consultant to calculate rough construction estimates for both proposals, including the demolition of the current station.

Updated to include comments from Aquinnah officials.


  1. I can see the harbormasters logic, less boats in harbor means less work for him. If he were to have the harbor dredged boating activity should increase, than again if he answered his phone it would also.

    If the town of chilmark doesn’t want the pilings in there water they should just say so. Instead of making claims about the pilings being unsafe they should just say they have been a problem for 40 years and now with the change of teneant is the time to clean up the disputed area.

  2. Reading past articles About Menemsha I find it interesting that the harbormasters safety concerns are about pilings that have been there 40 years and NOT with the Expired fire extinguishers, missing dock planks on several docks and the leaking electrical problem in crab corner.

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