Authors Posts by Barry Stringfellow

Barry Stringfellow

Barry Stringfellow

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The Oak Bluffs Fire House, before renovations began in November. —Photo by Michael Cummo

In a significant change to Oak Bluffs fire department protocol, all full-time emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics are now required to become certified firefighters. New job descriptions, developed by Chief John Rose in conjunction with the town personnel board, and unanimously approved by the board of selectmen at its last meeting, require all full-time EMTs and paramedics to obtain “Firefighter 1” certification within two years. The same policy will apply to new hires.

“Since both departments are combined, we thought this change made a lot of sense,” personnel board chairman Gretchen Coleman Thomas told The Times. “Most towns on the Cape have already done this and it’s worked out well.”

Mr. Rose said the impetus for the change was to ease the demands on volunteer firefighters. “We’ve been putting too much of the burden on volunteers,” he said. “A lot of our guys have second jobs and it can be hard for them to make drill on the weekends. It can also be tough for employers when people are called off the job to respond to a call.”

Mr. Rose said the volume of calls has increased considerably in recent years, especially during the summer.

Volunteers will still be called for major events. There are 50 active volunteer firefighters and 20 to 25 volunteer EMTs currently serving the town. The full-time staff will respond to routine calls, including automatic alarms that are rarely an emergency. “In the past year we responded to 256 automatic fire alarms,” Mr. Rose said. “A very small percentage of those were actually fire-related.”
The hybrid positions will come with a pay increase of roughly a dollar an hour for current employees. “By being proactive and spending a little bit now, we’ll save the taxpayers money in the long run,” Mr. Rose said. Roughly $30,000 has already been allocated in the town budget to fund the change.

The department currently has three openings for full-time emergency responders. Mr. Rose said applications have been received from on and off Island and he hopes to fill the positions by January, 2015. When the hiring is complete, the fire department will have 10 full-time firefighter/EMT/paramedics, one full-time administrative assistant and one part-time assistant.

At town meeting in April, voters approved a $337,756 budget for emergency medical services and $226,613 for the fire department.


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This map illustrates 24 watersheds on Martha's Vineyard,16 of which are major coastal pond watersheds. —Map Courtesy MVC

An overflow crowd of concerned Islanders filled every seat and most of the balcony stairs at the Katharine Cornell Theatre at Thursday night’s Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) meeting to hear Paul Niedzwiecki, executive director Cape Cod Commission (CCC), describe the serious ramifications of unchecked rising nitrogen levels in Cape and Island coastal ponds and water bodies and the options for stemming the flow. Doing nothing will negatively affect Island property values and environmental quality, he said of a problem that will cost millions, if not billions of dollars to correct.

Mr. Niedzwiecki was on the Vineyard at the MVC’s invitation to present the updated draft of the Section 208 Cape Cod Area-Wide Water Quality Management Plan (WQMP). The 300-plus-page draft, which was written over 14 months with input from CCC staff, consultants, and 170 stakeholders from across the Cape at a cost of $3.5 million, focused almost exclusively on rising nitrogen levels that increasingly imperil local waters and the quality of life on the Cape and Islands.

“Many of our estuaries are dead or dying,” Mr. Niedzwiecki said. “Shellfish no longer grow naturally in many of our bays and the only thing left is a few species of sea worms, the marine equivalent of cockroaches. We have to act.”

Mr. Niedzwiecki told the assembly that the Cape and the Vineyard face similar hurdles — both are coastal communities with nitrogen-based water quality issues, both have low density development patterns and rely heavily on inadequate Title 5 septic systems, both have seasonal surges that stretch treatment plants to capacity, and both are populated with frugal and fractious New Englanders, who have to approve costly long-term expenditures with a two-thirds vote at town meeting.

“I think that the Vineyard can benefit from the work we’ve done on the Cape,” he said. “Much of it is extraordinarily transferable.”

Watershed idea
The 2014 WQMP is based on watershed boundaries, not man-made town boundaries, an antipodal approach from the 1978 WQMP, which Mr. Neidzwiecki described as “ridiculously outdated.” There are 105 watersheds on the Cape. Mr. Neidzwiecki said creating consensus among watershed-sharing towns is a difficult task. “They joke that the only thing towns hate more than the Cape Cod Commission is each other,” Mr. Niedzwiecki said, to knowing laughter from the crowd. “There has been a lot of great local planning, but few towns have approved those plans. It’s very difficult to get a two-thirds vote at town meeting on plans that are big and expensive. There are always people who question the science and the engineering, and it’s easy for a plan to suffer the death of 1,000 cuts. The MEP (Massachusetts Estuaries Project) provides very good science. We have to break through this barrier.”

To that end, Mr. Niedzwiecki said there are tools on the CCC website, available to all, that synthesize data from the 6,000 pages of background, analysis, recommendations and supporting documents that went into the WQMP. These tools can help communities build consensus on a strategy by showing cost benefit analysis of different technologies, down to specific parcels of land. The website will keep people abreast of the latest developments in wastewater technology.

“We developed these tools so complex data sets became more accessible.” Mr. Niedzwecki said. “We hope this leads to more constructive discussions at town meeting, and that the work we’ve done makes it less expensive for you. The 208 [WQMP] program is our last opportunity to design a solution for ourselves.”

Mr. Niedzwiecki said that the special fertilizer overlay district that was drafted by the MVC and approved by all six Island towns last year shows promise for Island-wide consensus. He also described the measure as “low-hanging fruit,” given the enormity of the challenge that lies ahead.

The 2014 WQMP leaves no doubt that septic systems are the major factor in the wastewater quandary. According to the draft, the Cape accounts for less than four percent of the state population and about 20 percent of the septic systems. About 85 percent of Cape wastewater flows from homes and businesses with on-site septic systems that drain into the groundwater, and into coastal watersheds. Additionally, Title 5 septic standards are ineffective in reducing nitrogen levels since they are designed to reduce bacteria. This has been an historically heated issue between Cape interests and the EPA.

In 2010 and again in 2011, the Conservation Law Foundation and Buzzards Bay Coalition sued the EPA over Title 5 regulations, claiming the agency failed to meet its obligations under the Clean Water Act to update and to enforce water quality standards. On November 17, the legal wrangling ended with an agreement stating if the EPA agrees to stricter monitoring of a regional water quality, based on the 2014 WQMP, the lawsuits will be dropped. The deal still has to be approved by a federal judge.

New approaches
Mr. Niedzwiecki said two different teams of experts were formed to look at options for respective watersheds — one team looked at traditional methods, e.g. sewering, and the other at non-traditional strategies, e.g., eco-toilets. Since sewering is only cost-effective in high-density areas, its potential is limited on the Cape and Islands. According to the WQMP, only three percent of Cape homes are sewered. “I hope the [WQMP}
will encourage pilot programs in remote areas on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said. “We should not build what we don’t need, this applies to infrastructure and to bureaucracies. It will help to bring smaller, more manageable projects to town meeting.”

The overall cost estimate to bring nitrogen to acceptable levels in Cape waters is between six and eight billion dollars, according to Mr. Niedzwiecki. “I think it will be less with improving technology, and keep in mind it will be spread out over at least two generations. It’s a big number, but the longer we wait, the more expensive it will get.”

Ultimately, the new data show that investing in solutions to eutrophication makes good business sense. “This isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s an economic issue,” Mr. Niedzwiecki said. “New studies show for every one percent drop in water quality, there’s a .7 percent drop in property values.” Using this metric, the WQMP calculated that if the town of Barnstable had made a moderate effort to curb nitrogen discharge, average home sale prices would be $20,176 to $35,228 higher. “The [Cape Cod] chamber of commerce immediately saw the connection and has been a big help in educating the public,” he said. “Money is a great way to encourage collaboration.”

Moving forward, Mr. Niedzwiecki stressed that the CCC is ready to support the Vineyard in the battle against eutrophication. “Whatever information we have, we will give to the Vineyard,” he said. “We’d be happy to come over and help.”

Islanders respond
They have done an unbelievable amount of work that will be extremely valuable to us,” Oak Bluffs selectman and wastewater commissioner Gail Barmakian told The Times. “It’s wonderful that they’re so willing to share.”

Ms. Barmakian expressed optimism that Islanders can put the new data to use more expediently than their Cape counterparts. “I think the Island population tends to be more environmentally conscious,” she said. “Maybe I’m an optimist, but I don’t think it will be as difficult here as it is on the Cape to get towns to work together. Oak Bluffs has a great working relationship with Tisbury with the joint Lagoon Pond watershed committee.”

Ms. Barmakian said that the planning tools on the CCC website will be invaluable for town officials, and possibly watershed groups, when they create innovative wastewater management strategies. “The most important thing to remember is that all situations are different,” she said. “These tools will help measure the best solution for each town, in terms of effectiveness and cost. Some people think sewering is the answer, but it’s not. Sewering is the most expensive solution and it’s not just the upfront costs, it’s the ongoing costs.”

Melinda Loberg, chairman of the Tisbury wastewater committee and a selectman, was encouraged by the turnout. “One of the things that pleased me most was the attendance at the meeting,” she said. “It demonstrates that Islanders are aware and they care about this. When we go to town meetings we need that awareness. My strongest takeaway is that towns have to start planning financially to take this on.”

“Tisbury has some areas we think are densely populated enough to make sewering cost-effective, but we also have to look at alternatives.” Ms. Loberg said. Echoing Ms. Barmakian, she pointed to the joint Tisbury Oak Bluffs Lagoon Pond watershed committee as a nascent example of growing Island cooperation. “We’re working well together because we all care about the Lagoon. It’s very helpful to have the new data to determine who will pay for what,” she said.

Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall agreed with the watershed approach to the 2014 WQMP. “We need to solve our problems together,” he said. “Nitrogen doesn’t know any boundaries, algae doesn’t respect town lines. It’s going to be cheaper to do it together than each town to do it on their own.”

Mr. Bagnall said he was encouraged with the WQMP endorsement of shellfish as a viable, denitrification technique. He said a pilot program started two years ago in Sengekontacket with 500,000 oysters is bearing fruit. As of this September 15, the first batch of those oysters were legally harvestable. “The current estimate is that each oyster takes .4 of a gram of nitrogen out of the water,” Mr. Bagnall said. “So Islanders can do their part and eat a lot of oysters over the holidays.”

Linda Sibley, longtime West Tisbury MVC member, is well aware of the difficulty in building consensus beyond town lines. “The challenge for the planners is not only figure out solutions but how to bring people along,” she said. “Education is extremely important. People expect you to tell them why, persuade them there is a problem, and that there’s an engineering solution that’s worth the money. You have direct democracy in town meeting, and people identify with that in a way that you can’t relate to regional organization. Whatever the solutions are, they’re going to be so expensive. If we delay it only gets more expense. It’s something that we have to come to grips with.”

“Now is the time wastewater really has to come front and center,” MVC executive director Mark London said. “We’re really grateful for the homework [the CCC] has done for us. Sewering is not an option for most of the Island. We really need to look at alternatives.”

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From left: Joseph Sullivan, John Keenan, Antonia Kenny, John Scanlan, John Rose, Robert Whritenour, Tim Madden, Gregory Coogan, Walter Vail, Gail Barmakian and Kathy Burton officially broke ground on the new Oak Bluffs Fire Station Monday. —Photo by Michael Cummo

Soaking rains stopped just in time on Monday for the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Oak Bluffs fire/EMS station that town officials said represents a new chapter for the town, one of fiscal responsibility and a “can-do” spirit.

“The last time we did a dedication was the fishing pier, which was also soaking wet,” chairman of the selectmen Greg Coogan joked in his opening remarks. “Apparently that’s what starts off projects on the right foot.”

On a more serious note, Mr. Coogan said the new municipal building embodies a rejuvenated “can-do” spirit in Oak Bluffs. “We’ve seen a renewed sense of teamwork here in town, demonstrated by all of you,” he said. “This has become a town where everyone wants to be involved and we’re proud to be here.”

Selectman Gregory Coogan said the new Oak Bluffs Fire Station represents the town's can-do spirit. —Photo by Michael Cummo
Selectman Gregory Coogan said the new Oak Bluffs Fire Station represents the town’s can-do spirit. —Photo by Michael Cummo

Mr. Coogan went on to list a number of improvements currently underway on Oak Bluffs infrastructure, “I might add with a declining amount of debt at the same time,” he said.

“This new station is going to allow our firefighters and EMS to move into the 21st century,” Fire/EMS chief John Rose said. He also praised highway department superintendent Richard Combra and his staff for helping the department move to the modified town highway barn that will house the department during construction. “Richie and his crews have been with us every step of the way,” he said. “If they didn’t do this for us, it might not have been able to happen.”
Building committee chairman Walter Vail paid special tribute to town administrator Robert Whritenour. “Bob has been a tremendous addition to everything that’s going on in Oak Bluffs,” he said. “We have done an awful lot of work putting things together, but thanks to Bob we’ve done it all the right way.”
Project manager Joe Sullivan from Daedalus Projects said the station is on budget and still on time, despite a slight delay. “Hopefully with the shovels in the ground today, we’ll have this building up and running within the next 10 months,” he said.
General contractor John Scanlan said he expected a smooth relationship with the town, noting that he and Mr. Whritenour previously collaborated on several projects, including a new fire station in Falmouth. “Bob and I have good lines of communication,” he said. “The left hand will know what the right hand is doing.”
State representative Tim Madden took the opportunity to present Mr. Coogan with a cake for his birthday, jokingly adorned with the number 80.
Construction will begin in earnest on December 15. The 20,250-square-foot structure is slated for completion in the fall of 2015.
In April town elections, town voters approved a $8,288,000, debt exclusion to finance the new building by six votes (421-415).

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Citing issues that surfaced at an Island-wide meeting with state officials, the board amends official comment on 2014 ocean plan.

Yellow areas have been identified as possible locations for sand mining in Massachusetts waters. The areas outlined in purple are located in federal waters. – Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management

Massachusetts is the only state on the east coast that bans offshore sand mining. But the recently released  206-page 2014 Ocean Management Plan (OMP), compiled by the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM), proposes the formation of up to nine offshore sand mining pilot projects. Since the report was released, Oak Bluffs officials have been staunch advocates of offshore sand mining. In a letter to CZM dated October 22, Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour, on behalf of the board of selectmen, wrote, “It has become clear to us that without the availability of offshore sand resources, [Oak Bluffs] will be unable to preserve our coastal resources. The town strongly supports the use of sand mining in Massachusetts.”

At their regular meeting on Tuesday night, however, selectmen reconsidered their position. Responding to information presented at last week’s public meeting with CZM officials and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the board agreed that offshore sand mining was a more complex solution than previously thought, and that a more measured response to the CZM was in order.
“We all went to the commission meeting, and we heard a slightly different discussion than we anticipated,” chairman of the selectmen Greg Coogan said.

Warren Doty, a Chilmark selectman and the founding president of two fishermen’s organizations, was on hand to speak against sand mining. “Every time you collect sand, you’re disturbing the benthic environment, which is six inches of sand and mud and dirt at the bottom and is the base of the food chain,” he said. “In Nantucket Sound, the major fishery is conch (channel whelks). There are two million pounds of channel whelk landed in Martha’s Vineyard in 2014 and the price is over $2 a pound. Something in the neighborhood of $4 million is coming into this fishery. It is the most profitable fishery on the Island, and it’s very sensitive to changes in the sea bottom.”

Mr. Doty said sand mining in Vineyard sound would likewise jeopardize the winter flounder population.
“The issue is not just supporting sand mining itself,” selectman Gail Barmakian said. “We want all the sand we can possibly get, but not at the cost of our fisheries. We don’t live in a vacuum here. We have to do a cost-benefit analysis. They say Rhode Island is successfully balancing both sides of the issue, but there hasn’t been any track record with long-term data.”
“This is an exceptionally complex issue,” conservation commissioner Joan Hughes said. “We need to deal with hard science and good statistics and find out how we can solve problems for both. Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey have done this. There’s a lot of very good science out there.”

Shellfish constable David Grunden said that the state would rigorously monitor the pilot projects to minimize environmental damage and that ultimately the town has to take substantive action, especially given its northeastern exposure. “If Oak Bluffs didn’t have infrastructure that was so exposed, especially during northeasters, I would probably be on the other side of this, but I’m all in favor of it,” he said. “Our low-lying roads are in peril. It’s even worse when you factor in climate change and sea level rise. The town must insist that the state allow [sand mining] to protect the town infrastructure. It’s not going to be cheap, but there’s no cheap way to protect the town from the northeast exposure.”

Mr. Grunden showed the selectmen a map that indicated the closest potential sand mining site to Oak Bluffs was three miles offshore. Selectman Michael Santoro asked why sand could not be mined closer to shore, where it has been clearly building up for years. “It’s very difficult when you get involved in these projects because a lot of the common sense solutions are not acceptable,” Ms. Hughes said.  “We asked about this, but the Army Corps of Engineers refused.”
Mr. Grunden added that mining sand closer to shore can be counterproductive, as a mass of sand near the shore can help impede wave energy during storms. Moving that sand would remove that benefit.

Speaking as a selectman, Mr. Doty said the town of Chilmark is particularly opposed to mining between the north shore and Cuttyhunk. “The idea that we’ll stand on Menemsha beach and see a 150-foot barge take sand to Hyannis is not acceptable.” he said.
“I don’t think any of us want to see a big operation that could supply Hyannis,” Ms. Barmakian said.

The revised letter from the selectmen will be sent to the CMZ once the 60-day public comment period on (OMP) ends at 5 pm on Tuesday, November 25.
The ocean plan draft is available online at the EEA website, Comments can be emailed to

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The Oak Bluffs fire station. —Photo by Michael Cummo

Updated 11:20 a.m., 11/21/2014

Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour brought good news to the selectmen at their regular meeting on Tuesday evening. “I’m pleased to announce that all approvals and permits are in place for the new fire/EMS station,” he said. “There will be a public groundbreaking ceremony on Monday, November 24, at 2 pm. I encourage anyone who can make it to attend. We don’t do a lot of groundbreakings around here.”

Mr. Whritenour’s announcement followed several weeks of scrambling by public officials. That came to a head at last Thursday’s planning board meeting, where a standing room only crowd gathered to see if the 17 months of planning and permitting and the years of lobbying for the $8.3 million fire/EMS station would finally come to fruition. Two weeks prior, the project had been cast in uncertainty when town building inspector Mark Barbadoro discovered that the project lacked the necessary site plan review and was in non-compliance with town zoning bylaws.

Alarming oversight

The situation came to light on the morning of October 31, when Mr. Barbadoro asked planning board chairman Brian Packish for the board’s site plan review, in order to process the construction permits.

“I told him ‘It’s funny you should ask because we don’t have one,’” Mr. Packish told The Times in a phone call. “I’d been asking for a site plan review since early spring and the town administrator and the building inspector told me it didn’t need one. I met with project manager Joe Sullivan and he told me he’d been asking about the site plan review since January. How can you possibly read section 10.4 in the zoning bylaws and say a new fire station doesn’t need a site plan review?”

Mr. Barbadoro contacted town counsel Michael Goldsmith immediately after his conversation with Mr. Packish. In an email exchange obtained by The Times, he wrote, “Section 10.4.1 item 1 of the Zoning Bylaw requires that ‘construction… over 500 square feet requires Site Plan Review by the Planning Board.’ It has come to my attention that the fire station has not been reviewed by the planning board…My concern is that if we do not obtain a valid site plan decision then I will have no legal document to enforce and if something goes wrong the town would have difficulty in court as a result. I do not want to stand in the way of progress but I want to make sure that the town is protected. Please let me know if you are aware of any exception.”

Mr. Goldsmith replied in an email that he knew of no exceptions to the bylaw and wrote that  town administrator Robert Whritenour should be apprised of the situation, “ASAP.”

“As you know Jim Dunn provided us with his opinion that site plan review was not required for this project,” Mr. Whritenour stated in an email to Mr. Packish, later that morning. “Otherwise we would have been in front of your Board last spring. If Jim was wrong that’s fine, but obviously that creates a problem now as the project has already been bid. I would certainly appreciate some time on your agenda for a review of the plan on November 13.”

In a comment emailed to The Times following publication of this story, former building inspector Jim Dunn said a plan review would have taken place after final plans and permit application had been received by the building department. “The final package for the fire station was submitted to the building department in August, about a week before my last day on August 12,” Mr. Dunn said in an email to The Times Friday.  “The package was never opened or reviewed. No decisions, recommendations or opinions were ever made by me.”

Pulled out of the fire

Mr. Packish accommodated Mr. Whritenour’s request and put the site plan review at the top of last Thursday night’s agenda. Mr. Whritenour was the first to speak. “We apologize to the planning board,” he said. “We’ve been working on these plans for over a year now and we should have been in front of you guys six months ago, but we really were unaware. I think we’ve been struggling a lot with the whole site plan and review process. Thankfully, after working with Mark Barbadoro and Brian [Packish], I think we have a good handle on everything now.”

Mr. Whritenour turned the presentation over to John Keenan and Antonia Kenny, principals in the Falmouth architectural firm Keenan and Kenny Ltd. After an hour of questions and discussion, the board approved the fire/EMS station with four conditions, two of them — a reconfigured wall around the generator and eight additional white pines on the north border — addressed sound mitigation for abutters. A bicycle rack requested by board member Erik Albert was also accommodated. The board also requested that the exhaust fan in the vehicle bay be pointed skyward, instead of horizontally at the abutting properties. Ms. Kenny said engineers had advised against it, but she agreed to re-investigate.

The board’s unanimous, somewhat tempered, approval gave the final go-ahead for construction of the long-awaited 20,250-square-foot fire/EMS station.

Emerging energy
In a later conversation with The Times, Mr. Packish said the outcome of the site plan review was never really in doubt. “Our hands were pretty well tied,” he said. “Legally, the planning board has 60 days to vet a project. We had seven days. But the last thing you want to do is show the process being ineffective at this final hour.”

Mr. Packish said concerns remain about compromises made in the name of expedience, particularly with parking. “When you think about a Sunday radio check or a pancake breakfast, or an EMT class, 15 spaces isn’t going to do it. When there’s a fire, it’s pretty safe to say that with 12 bays for emergency vehicles, 15 parking spaces isn’t enough. I’ve never seen people carpool when they respond to an alarm and I haven’t seen many come skidding in on their bicycle either.”

Aside from the site plan snafu, the quick, coordinated response of town officials underscored what some officials describe as emerging level of competence and cooperation in town government. “The town is making tremendous strides getting the right people in the right jobs,” capital programs committee chairman Bill McGrath told The Times.The process works. The planning board was fabulous. I know they spent a good week talking to people on the building committee. I can tell you the next time we build another building in town we’ll be going before the planning board early in the process.”

“Everyone was, to a person, very pleased with the way the planning board accommodated and how well Brian ran things,” building committee member and selectman Walter Vail told The Times in a phone call on Tuesday. “We’ll have a better town with the planning board taking a more active role. No doubt we should have acted on this sooner. We’ve all learned something through this.”

Although Mr. Packish was skeptical that experienced town officials were unaware of the planning board’s intended role in the process, he said the turmoil of the past few weeks was ultimately productive for the town  “As a result of this, we have better cooperation between the planning board, the new building inspector, the ZBA and some of the other departments,” he said. “As this dialogue continues, the hope is we’re going to create a better process and do some things differently in Oak Bluffs.”

Mr. Packish said that moving forward, the planning board will place a high priority on outreach, with increased social media presence and boots-on-the-ground consensus building. “On the local level, the state level, and the national level, outreach is the key to getting things done and to creating change.

The most dangerous words in the English language are ‘we’ve always done it that way.’ We’ve heard that way too much in Oak Bluffs.”

Update: This story was updated to reflect comments by former building inspector Jim Dunn who said in an email to The Times Friday that “No decisions, recommendations or opinions were ever made by me.”

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Clogs from baby wipes and other non-dispersable materials are an increasing problem at the Edgartown wastewater plant.

Baby wipes and dental floss can be useful in the bathroom, but these and other non-woven products, many of which are labeled “flushable,” are causing big headaches at wastewater facilities worldwide. The predicament is even more acute on the Island, where limited sewage and aging septic systems are cited as a major cause of the rapidly declining health of Island water bodies.

David Thompson, Facilities Manager at the Edgartown Waste Water Treatment Facility (EWWT), told The Times that the EWWT, which has the Island’s only septic receiving station, has been beset by clogs directly attributable to non-dispersing products.

“People are flushing baby wipes, make-up wipes, dental floss, Swiffer mop heads, and it’s costing us big money,” he said.

“These non-dispersing products don’t sink to the bottom and decay. They float on the top and cause problems,” he said. “If you have this raft of stuff inside a pump, the float isn’t going to operate properly because it won’t know when to turn on. Or the pump will turn on and not get the signal to turn off and the pump will burn out.”

Mr. Thompson said that during periods of elevated flow, non-dispersing material also sticks in bends in sewer pipes, then fats and greases congeal on them, creating a mass that traps more wipes in a vicious cycle. “Take one of those wipes and you can probably tear it apart with your hands. Then twist it into a rope, and you can get a couple of people can’t tear it apart.”

The EWWT is the only septic receiving station on the Island, so the impact of Islanders flushing non-dispersing materials is particularly severe.

“One baby, five diaper changes a day, times 365, for two years, is enough to make a septic fail,” Mr. Thompson said. “When failing septics get pumped out, all those wipes end up in my receiving machine. Multiply that by a couple thousand and that’s what we’re dealing with. When it gets packed in, I can’t even drive a chisel or screwdriver into it,”

The problem is compounding because adult consumption of baby wipes has tripled in the past decade, according to manufacturer Kimberly-Clark.

Tissue issues

A recent Consumer Reports study showed that a sheet of regular toilet paper falls apart in about eight seconds in swirled water, whereas a “disposable” wipe remained unchanged after 30 minutes. The majority of baby wipes on the market that are labeled “flushable,” are non-dispersing, according to Mr. Thompson.

The city of Portland, Maine, tried to address the issue with a series of humorous public service announcements, “What the Flush?”

The problem made international headlines in London in 2013 when London sewer officials investigated a rash of complaints from customers unable to flush their toilets, and subsequently found a 15-ton “fatberg,” the size of a double decker bus, composed of nonwoven fabrics balled up with fats, oils, and grease. In Canada, the Associated Press reported in November 2013 that flushed wipes cost municipal sewage treatment plants about $250 million per year. According to an article in New York magazine, an employee in the city’s department of environmental protection estimates the cost of clearing lines clogged with non-woven products at $18 million a year, not including staff overtime and damaged equipment costs.

Mr. Thompson said he knows of only one company that sells dispersing baby wipes, Sellars Wipers and Sorbents, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“We have to get the word out,” Mr. Thompson said. “Just because a package reads ‘flushable’ it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. If people care about their plumbing, about their septic system, about their sewer bills or about the environment, they have to start making some changes.”

In the 2010 Flood Insurance Rate Map, the high to moderate risk areas are in maroon and red. The minimal risk areas are in yellow and in gray. These demarcations may change when the new map is released by FEMA. —Map courtesy of MVC

Martha’s Vineyard property owners who live near the coast could see their insurance rates rise or fall depending on the final version of a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) for Dukes county expected to be complete soon. One way homeowners can ensure that they receive the best and most accurate premium, experts told The Times, is to obtain what is known as an elevation certificate (EC).

While most communities on the Massachusetts shoreline have received their preliminary rate map, the FEMA website currently lists the Dukes County FIRM as “on hold.” This week, Kerry Bogdan, FEMA senior engineer, told The Times in an email, “While we are working hard to meet the projected schedule we last discussed, we are currently working to resolve an outstanding issue which could influence the projected timeline.”

Ms. Bogdan did not say what the outstanding issue is, but the delay presents an opportunity for Island homeowners to obtain an elevation certificate if they haven’t already done so.

FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) do not require homeowners to purchase flood insurance. FEMA simply identifies the high risk zones and NFIP provides government subsidized insurance.

The only time a property owner has to purchase insurance is when he/she takes out a loan with a lender that is using federal money or is insuring his/her assets through a federal insurance program. That said, flood insurance can be a wise investment, even for people not in high-risk flood zones, experts advise.

Zone defense
Homeowners who want the best possible flood insurance rate are advised to invest in an EC. It verifies the elevation of a structure relative to the the base flood elevation. Base flood elevation for a home is where the high water mark of a flood that has a one percent chance of being equaled or exceeded, also known as a 100 year event, reaches the “first living level” of the home. The EC is required to properly rate post-FIRM buildings, which are buildings constructed or substantially improved after December 31, 1974, or after the publication of the first FIRM for that particular community.

If a property owner wants to contest FEMA’s FIRM zone designation when the new FIRM comes out, the EC is their best asset to do so, and it is required in a request for a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA).

“A [LOMA] is an individual’s best way to fight a zone designation,” a staff member for Massachusetts 9th district congressman Bill Keating told The Times on background. “It’s not as difficult as it seems at first glance. We can get help from the right people at FEMA to help people through it. It’s not an inexpensive process, but it can save a lot of money in the long run, which is why it’s so important to get it right from the beginning.”

Preventing costly mistakes
An EC can also help property owners avoid construction or renovation decisions where a few feet, or in some cases, a few inches, can cost them dearly.

“I recently spoke with a woman who raised her house so it was in compliance with floodplain ordinances,” a flood insurance consultant who spoke to The Times on background to protect the privacy of clients said. “Unfortunately, she enclosed the elevated area and didn’t put flood vents in, so [the base flood elevation] was rated at minus three feet, which put her annual premiums at $4,400 or more. If she had had flood vents, she would have been rated at a plus five, which would have been roughly $480 per year.”

The consultant also spoke about a recent case where the owner of a newly constructed home didn’t properly complete work on the land surrounding his home. “He got a finished elevation certificate prior to laying the sod around his home. His floor was above base flood elevation, but his lowest adjacent grade — elevation of the lowest ground touching the structure’s foundation — was not above base flood elevation, by an inch. That inch will cost him thousands of dollars by keeping him in a flood zone.”

Big savings
According to, the National Flood Insurance Plan (NFIP) website, a homeowner with a house worth $250,000 can save more than $90,000 over 10 years by building three feet over base flood elevation.

Raising a structure is not the only way to achieve proper base flood elevation, according to the insurance consultant.

“If they’re in a hazard zone and they have a basement, filling in the basement, and creating a non-subterranean crawl space under the house with flood vents, can be very cost-effective,” he said. “Some people gasp at the idea, but if your basement floor is six feet below base flood elevation and your post-FIRM insurance costs are $4,000 per year, it can be a smart thing to do. It may cost you $15,000 to fill in the basement and move your utilities, but your insurance costs may be reduced by $3,600 per year. This return on investment would pay off in less than 5 years and you reduce the risk of enduring flood damage. It’s a win-win for homebuyer and seller.”

Changing a basement to a crawl space can also make that home more valuable and provide more equity that buyers may be able to qualify to purchase, since they won’t have to expend $150- $300 per month on flood insurance. The only way to know if changing the basement to a crawl space will yield savings is by having an EC completed and discussing the survey with a community code enforcement officer, the consultant said.

Although rising ocean levels and climate change lead many to assume that new FIRMs invariably raise insurances rates, in some cases, they can help lower insurance rates. “I just got off the phone with a gentleman from a Massachusetts shore area who’d had flood insurance for 40 years,” the consultant said. “He was rated in a V zone. When the new maps came out they designated him in a C zone. His insurance agent petitioned for refunds for this year and last year because the older maps didn’t have aerial photos which clearly identified where his building was in comparison to the flood plain. His premiums went from almost $3,000 to $450 dollars and he’s going to be grandfathered into the X zone rather than the V zone.  He’s very happy that the new maps came out.”

Preferred risk
Coastal areas vulnerable to flooding are numerous in Massachusetts and on Martha’s Vineyard. These areas are identified on the FIRM as a Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA). SFHAs of high to moderate hazard begin with the letter A and the letter V. Moderate low risk zones are labeled either B, C or X. If a homeowner is not in a SFHA, he or she can qualify for a preferred risk policy extension (PRP), which has substantially lower rates than SFHA policies.

Owners in an X zone who think they could be reassigned into an A or V zone when the new FIRM comes out, should act quickly or risk not qualifying for the PRP. Once the new FIRM is released, it’s too late. There’s another wrinkle coming down the road, the “newly mapped property table” designation, which will go into effect on April 1, 2015.

If a homeowner takes out a PRP on December 1, 2014, and the maps change in July 2015, when they renew on December 1, 2015, they will qualify for the “newly mapped property table,” which for the first year will be a preferred rate. On December 1, 2016, the policy will be renewed by grandfathering or on base flood elevation, which means providing an elevation certificate.

“If you took the policy out before the maps changed and you were in a low hazard zone, then you’re going to be grandfathered in the lower risk zone, rather than the A or V zone. That could easily mean a price difference in premiums of $1,000 to $2,000,” he said.
EC’s do not have to be done repeatedly. If a homeowner gets an EC this year and it says that the lowest adjacent grade is one inch above the base flood elevation, they are not in the flood zone.

“If the maps change next year and the base flood elevation in your area goes up two feet, your elevation certificate is still good,” the consultant said. “However, you would be in a special flood hazard area.”

An EC must be filled out by a qualified engineer or surveyor. It can cost anywhere from $500 to over $1,500. “I always encourage neighbors to pool their resources. Surveyors base their measurements on the property benchmarks. Why not involve the neighbors who share those benchmarks and defray your cost?”

According to FEMA, every home is in a flood zone. It’s the potential for flooding that varies. A homeowner needn’t live on a shoreline to benefit from a preferred risk policy, or the investment in an EC.

“I recently had a situation where a large water main broke and flooded a number of houses,” the insurance expert said. “Fire and homeowners insurance doesn’t cover a situation like that. Only flood insurance covers foundation damage. Since their house is the most valuable asset for many people, it makes sense to get flood insurance. And an elevation certificate ensures they get the correct insurance.”

More information about elevation certificates and FIRMs can be found at FEMA’s recently launched Flood Map Service Center  website.

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At a meeting on October 28, Matthew Dix (center), Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank foreman, appealed to dog owners to stay on the Land Bank trails. —Photo by Michael Cummo

About a dozen dogs and their owners recently gathered at Trade Wind Fields Preserve off County Road in Oak Bluffs to hear Matthew Dix,  Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank foreman, describe the ecological damage the 71.8-acre parcel has sustained from years of increased dog walking traffic off marked trails and what the Land Bank is attempting to do to curtail it.

As their canine counterparts cavorted in the parking lot at the meeting held October 28, it was the dog owners who did the growling. Mr. Dix had barely finished introducing himself when he was beset with complaints about the bright green DO NOT ENTER signs that he’d installed at various trailheads, the message sometimes reinforced with a felled pitch pine.

“Who’s saying there’s a problem?” Jack Krowski of Oak Bluffs said. “This puts a terrible taste in my mouth. I’ve been coming here for years. A lot of us come here for quiet enjoyment and there’s never been any problem. This is a form of bullying. I just bought a house near here, and I paid $4,000 [to the Land Bank]. Now you’re trying to take this away?”

“If I didn’t have this place I’d move off the Island, that’s how important it is to me,” Marianne Goldsmith said.

Mr. Dix, a 24-year employee of the Land Bank and veteran of many heated land use meetings, explained, “We’re not trying to take anything away from anybody. We’re trying to re-establish a set of trails that were here from the beginning.” Mr. Dix said the goal is to get people and their pooches to stick to the two miles of Land Bank trails that ring the property, and to deter people from crossing the unplanned trails that have evolved over time, several of which bisect the runway and the taxiway of the grass airstrip, and traverse through rare plants and rare insect habitat.

Rare earth

In this aerial view of Trade Winds Fields, the red lines indicate unauthorized trails. — Courtesy of the Martha's Vineyar
In this aerial view of Trade Winds Fields, the red lines indicate unauthorized trails. — Courtesy of the Martha’s Vineyar

Trade Wind is a sandplain grassland, a habitat that is dwindling on the Island as tree growth expands. “It’s a mosaic, it’s grass and shrub and heath land, a classic example of a sandplain,” Julie Russell, Land Bank ecologist, told The Times. “The wind and salt in the air, and the continued mowing over the years to keep it as an airstrip, have kept the pitch pines and oaks from taking over. I work with a lot of different properties and I can count on one hand the places where I can find some of these rare plants.”

Ms. Russell said the rare grasses include the rarest strain of sand plain blue-eyed grass, which is not actually a grass but part of the Iris family and classified as endangered by the National Heritage Endangered Species program (NHES). Other wildlife of concern is purple needle grass, considered threatened by the NHES, and the purple tiger beetle, which is listed as a species of special concern by the NHES. There were three patches of purple needle grass, until one was obliterated by an improvised trail.

Forging an old path

Mr. Dix took responsibility for the current conundrum. “It’s my fault for not stopping this 15 years ago when it really started to snowball,” he told The Times. “There weren’t many dogs here until around 1996, maybe 20 people a day. Now, Trade Wind is by far the most used Land Bank property on a year-round basis.”

The Land Bank paid $2.75 million for the Trade Wind property in 1989, deconstructing the plans of developers Ed Jigarjian and Joe Esco, who intended to build 32 condos, a clubhouse with indoor pool, tennis courts, and 12  2,500-square-feet homes. Over the years, Trade Wind has become so popular with dog owners it’s become known as “the dog park” in Island argot. According to Oak Bluffs land bank commissioner Priscilla Sylvia, even first responders refer to Trade Wind as “the dog park.”

Ms. Sylvia expressed similar concerns about the direction of Trade Wind. “The Land Bank purchased a globally rare sand plain that feeds directly into the Farm Neck well,” she told The Times. “I think that there is overuse by good meaning people. I’m hoping we can coexist. This is a very important piece of land. We need to protect it at all costs.”

Over the years, Mr. Dix has tried various signage to inform the public and to protect the property. Previous signs that gently asked people not to cross, with a detailed explanation, were ineffective. The recently installed “DO NOT ENTER” signs inflamed more than they informed. It was the reaction to these signs, which one dog owner referred to as “scolding,” that prompted Mr. Dix to initiate the current series of informational sessions.

“We’ve tried the middle ground with signage, but it’s clearly not working,” he said. “We considered a wide range of solutions, including fencing, but we don’t want to do that. We want the public to use it, we’re just asking to stay on the trail system.”

A common refrain Mr. Dix has heard is that a twomile loop is too long for elderly dog walkers. “I’m 76, sometimes it’s okay for me to walk the whole thing, sometimes I’m too tired and I have to cross over,” Ms. Goldsmith said. “I approve of much of what you’re doing. I don’t like your argument that  if you let us cross one place, then we’ll take advantage, like we’re all natural transgressors. Just give us two or three shortcuts.”

Sara Barnes suggested that Mr. Dix enlist dog walkers to help repair the sandplain. “We can help with the reseeding in the spring,” she said. “I know a lot of us would be willing to help. But please take those signs down, they’re really annoying.”

Lessons learned

A few days after the October 28 information session, less combative signs were installed that read, “Please stay on marked trail.”

Mr. Dix said the informational sessions have been productive in other ways.  “I like the idea of forming an advisory committee of dog walkers,” he said. “I learned there’s a willingness to compromise and it’s good to know some people are willing to help us plant grasses and self-police the place.”

The biggest takeaway, according to Mr. Dix, is that as Trade Wind has grown into an Island-wide dog park, a tightly knit family of dog owners has grown along with it. “We definitely underestimated the social value this place has for so many people,” he said.

Over the past 20 years, Trade Wind has become a defacto town square where dogs and humans socialize on a daily basis. It’s an informal group, but tight enough to have its own Facebook page, with posts about dogs for adoption, health updates on dogs and owners, disapproval for the new Land Bank signs, and considerably more disapproval for whomever tore one of them down.

A jar of dog biscuits is taped to a tree at each trailhead and kept stocked by anonymous biscuit fairies. Lawn furniture, recently and mysteriously donated, also sits at the trailhead. Mr. Dix inflamed the dog walking constituency when he removed the chairs the previous week. He admitted it was a mistake, and they were put back within 48 hours. This past Monday, the late afternoon regulars, many of whom are sharing Thanksgiving together, occupied the chairs while their dogs romped en masse.

“We really appreciate the Land Bank for letting us come here with our dogs,” Vasha Brunelle of Vineyard Haven said. “This is the highlight of the day for many of us.”

“This is one of the best dog parks anywhere,” Phil Pankiewicz of Vineyard Haven said, petting his dog, Daisy. “We’re willing to work with the Land Bank. But they have to realize, a lot of seniors walk out here and they can’t do a two mile loop. So let us keep two of the paths, that’s all.”

Mr. Pankiewicz recently suffered a heart attack when he was driving to Trade Wind with Daisy. He drove himself to the hospital and he was quickly airlifted to a hospital on the Cape, with Daisy waiting in the car. Someone from Trade Wind, he’s still not sure who, got the word to a neighbor who took care of Daisy until Mr. Pankiewicz returned to the Island.

“We look out for each other,” Nancy Blank of Oak Bluffs told The Times. “If we don’t see one of the regulars, we’ll check and see if they’re okay. We’ve helped each other through illnesses, housing crises, all kinds of things. We’re all brought together by our dogs, and we love this place.”

“We live for this place,” Mr. Pankiewicz said, as he headed into the gloaming of a cold November day, with Daisy following close behind.

Mr. Dix will host additional information sessions on Thursday, Nov. 13, at 4 pm and on Monday, Nov. 17, at 12 noon, at the Trade Wind parking lot on County Road. The Land Bank management plan for Trade Wind Fields is available at

The Oak Bluffs wastewater treatment plant processed 30.3 million gallons of sewage in 2013. —Photo by Michael Cummo

Updated 6:20 pm, Friday

At a recent meeting of the Oak Bluffs Wastewater Commission on October 15, members of the Oak Bluffs Association (OBA), several of them among the town’s largest users, expressed their unhappiness with the current rate structure. They also charged that the town had, over a six-year period, mistakenly drawn over $650,000 from the wastewater enterprise fund, money that should have been used to defray system costs, and as a result the largest users paid more than their fair share.

A closer examination of their complaints revealed that several years ago the confluence of dire financial times and the untimely death of town treasurer Paul Manzi contributed to an accounting oversight, in which a one time emergency transfer from the wastewater enterprise fund repeated for an additional four years.

A look across the state reveals that Oak Bluffs has one  of the highest sewage rates in Massachusetts. As the town considers additional sewering to address the rapidly declining health of water bodies, business owners who contend they’ve already shouldered an inordinate amount of the town sewering costs want to see changes in the department’s operation and rate structure.

Punitive rates
Oak Bluffs wastewater customers are billed on an ascending scale, meaning the price per gallon goes up as usage increases. OBA board director Terry McCarthy said the ascending scale places an undue burden on the larger businesses, especially restaurants and hotels, that already contribute considerable excise tax revenue to town coffers. “From a big user’s point of view, the ascending scale is punitive,” Mr. McCarthy, a former state representative who has harborside commercial interests, told The Times. “They say it’s to make people conserve, but I think that argument is a little specious. With a flat rate, you pay more if you use more, so that incentive is still there. This is particularly hard on restaurants and hotels. If you run a large hotel, what do you do? Make people take shorter showers?”

“The ascending rate structure is endorsed by Department of Environmental Protection because it encourages people to save water,” wastewater commissioner and selectman Gail Barmakian told The Times.  “Some very big users have saved considerable amounts of water, and saved themselves a lot of money, so it does work. Also, you have to consider that being hooked up to wastewater has allowed some businesses to expand and become more profitable. That’s a service to the town as well, but it gives them an advantage.”
About one third of Massachusetts communities bill on an ascending scale, according to the 2012 Tighe and Bond Massachusetts sewer rate survey.

Oak Bluffs property owners are charged a penny a gallon for the first 40,000 gallons used per annum and the rate goes up in 40,000 gallon increments until it tops out at 2.8 cents a gallon for 360,001 gallons and above. There is no difference between commercial and residential rates. Usage rates have not increased since the system went into operation on April 1, 2002.

According to the Tighe and Bond survey, the average yearly charge for sewage in Oak Bluffs was $1,020. The state average was $646. Only 12 percent of communities in the survey averaged $1,000 or more per year. Comparatively, the Edgartown annual average was $520, according to the survey. Tisbury, was not listed in the survey, but according to the town website, the department of public works charges a flat fee of 3.1 cents per gallon.

Sludge is costly
Lisa Merritt, an Oak Bluffs wastewater department administrator and lab technician who’s been with the department since its inception, told The Times there are many reasons why Oak Bluffs sewage rates rank among the highest in the state. “We have to ship our sludge off Island, which costs over $80,000 a year,” she said. “We run a sequencing batch reactor plant (SBR), which is expensive because it requires over 300 grinder pumps, working 24/7, and they need maintenance 24/7. An SBR plant has the smallest footprint and it’s the cheapest to build, but it’s also the least cost-effective in the long run.  Another reason is our effluent — the treated water — is pumped under Ocean Park, which is extremely expensive. Edgartown uses open pits.”

Burdensome betterments
In addition to usage fees, Oak Bluffs wastewater customers pay betterment fees, which cover the actual cost of installing the sewering and thereby “bettering” their property. Betterment fees were initially $10,000 for residences and $20,000 for businesses. In 2007, betterment fees were recalculated based on usage, again hitting the biggest users the hardest.

According to Peter Martell, owner of the 95-room Wesley Hotel, the largest hotel in Oak Bluffs, his betterment fee increased 1000 percent. “The original price for betterments was $10,000 for a residence and $20,000 for a business,” Mr. Martell told The Times. “The state didn’t like that formula for some reason. So my betterment bill went from $20,000 to $200,000 in one year.”

Ms. Merritt said the initial betterment fees were always noted as temporary. “You cannot give a final betterment figure until all of the final bills are tallied when a new wastewater system or any large project is complete,” she wrote in an email to The Times. “It was explained to everyone that the [initial] estimates had been recalculated using water usage and included the final numbers for the completion of building the new wastewater treatment plant. In the case of the Wesley Hotel, the betterment was $168,675.69,” Ms. Merritt wrote. “The new betterment figure started the 20-year repayment period over again in 2007, subtracting what was paid between 2002 and 2007 with a repayment interest rate of 2 percent.”

Room to flow
According to Mr. McCarthy, who was a member of the first Oak Bluffs wastewater committee, it was assumed the treatment plant would need to expand its footprint for additional sewering around the ponds, the harbor, and other critical areas. As a result, they purchased a five-acre lot directly across Pennsylvania Ave., known as the Leonardo property. But when it came time to make the payment in FY 2009, the town was broke.

“When the first year principal was due, [town administrator] Michael Dutton and [town treasurer] Paul Manzi went to wastewater begging us to help pay just this one time,” Mr. McCarthy said.

According to the minutes from the March 12, 2008 water commissioners meeting, “Paul Manzi also requested that the Wastewater Department pay the Leonardo property loan payment this year and for one year only because the Town is in a budget shortfall. The loan payment is approximately $136,000.”

At town meeting in April 2008 (FY 2009), the town approved an article to pay for the Leonardo property. “This year only, the wastewater department will be paying for the principal and interest for the purchase of the Leonardo property,” voters were told in the executive summary.

“We were told this was a one time deal to get the town out of a tight spot,” Mr. McCarthy said. “But subsequent to that in [FY] 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014, the payments continued and nobody was ever told. Never once did anybody, from the finance committee or the selectmen go to the wastewater commission and say, ‘By the way, we’re going to just tap these payments out of your account.’

“Since the money is controlled by the town, even though it’s our fund, it’s very frustrating. There was a total of $794,871 taken out of our account, of which only $136,500 was actually authorized by wastewater commissioners. Somebody made the decision to quietly and covertly make these payments in subsequent years, but no one was told these amounts were being appropriated from the Wastewater Retained Earnings Fund.”

After investigating Mr. McCarthy’s claims, town accountant Arthur Gallagher told The Times that Mr. McCarthy was essentially correct, except that the town, not the wastewater commission, covered the $117,125 mortgage payment in FY 2014.

Mr. Gallagher, who became town accountant in March 2012, said he could only speculate on why the wastewater enterprise fund was repeatedly tapped for the Leonardo property purchase. “What I think occurred is with the death of Mr. Manzi, no one in the Town’s administration knew the terms of the agreement and therefore continued to charge wastewater 100 percent of the pay down,” he wrote to The Times. “Additionally, the consultants hired to fill this void would not be charged with changing and or setting new policies. Not being present during [that] period, this is all supposition on my part.”

Mr. Gallagher said the town will pay off the rest of the loan. “Typically these payments would be split 50-50 with the town,” he said. “Wastewater made the paid first five payments and we’re paying the last five that will be reduced in budget moving forward.”

Water under the bridge
“We’re not pointing a finger at anyone,” OBA vice president Renee Balter said. “We discovered this problem and think it should be given some thought.” Ms. Balter also said that future town meeting appropriation articles should close the loophole that says, “or to take from any other source.”

Some business owners would like to see reduced rates to make up for the yeoman’s share they’ve paid over the years. “If they’ve been taking $100,000 plus every year it stands to reason they could give a reduced rate, or increased flow, to the high gallonage people,” Mr. McCarthy said.

Mr. Martell concurred. “The bottom line is our fees should be dropped,” he said. “I give them the benefit of the doubt, they can’t drop it much. The only way to do that is to expand the system, and the town needs to do that to save the ponds. Hopefully it’s not too late.”

Mr. McCarthy said that the current town sewering and treatment plant are greatly diminished versions of what he and some of the original wastewater commission advocated. “There was a contingent, which I was a part of, that wanted to sewer most of the town, and there was a strong contingent that wanted to kill the whole thing, because they thought sewering would encourage development and ruin the environment,” he said. “Now we’re trying to figure out ways to sewer areas near the Lagoon, Sunset Lake, Crystal Lake, and Sengekontacket, and we’re going to pay a helluva lot more for it than we would have back then. That’s water under the bridge. Moving forward we have to work with commissioners and selectmen to develop a long-range plan to increase treatment capacity, and we have to act quickly.”

Correction: A reference to the Edgartown wastewater plant in an earlier version of this story mischaracterized some of that plant’s operations and accounting systems. There is no additional drain charge. Bills are calculated by the current charge of $68 per drain. The Edgartown system is not almost entirely a gravity collection system. In fact, of the 1,100 accounts there are more than 400 grinder pumps. Edgartown did not avoid sludge shipping costs and spent $110,000 to ship and dispose of 675 tons of sludge off-Island in FY14. Lastly, while a filter press reduces transport costs, the processing and disposal of septic tank waste and the sludge generated from it are operating costs for the facility ($65,000 in FY14). Revenue from septic haulers does not go into the facility’s operating budget, but is returned to the town’s general fund.

Representatives from the Massachusetts Health Connector, Vineyard Health Care Access, and state representative Tim Madden held a joint press conference at the Dukes County administration building on Friday to hammer home one point — the time is now for uninsured Islanders to get insurance, and for insured Islanders to get a health insurance check-up. The next open enrollment period starts November 15, and everyone who is in Health Connector coverage, or was placed in temporary coverage over the last year needs to reapply if they still want to be covered by insurance through the Commonwealth.
“Our mission is to connect people to comprehensive and affordable health insurance,” said Ashley Hague, deputy executive director of Massachusetts Health Connector (MHC). “Our number one goal is to ensure our current members are able to transition without a gap in coverage.”
Ms. Hague stressed that everyone who has coverage through MHC, also known as “The Exchange” or “The Marketplace,” or who was placed in a temporary plan in the past year, needs to submit a new application. Open enrollment concludes February 15, 2015. Since 2006, by law, with some exceptions, all residents of Massachusetts were required to have health coverage that met state standards. For those residents not covered by an employer or commercial health plan, the state created an agency, the Massachusetts Health Connector, to act as a broker for qualifying insurance plans.

When the ACA, also known as Obamacare, went into effect on October 1, 2013, the Massachusetts health care plan was required to retool and offer ACA-compliant plans though ConnectorCare, a new website, which did not work.

Gov. Deval Patrick recently said the new website is being fixed at a total cost of $254 million, which is $80 million, or 46 percent, more than initially projected, according to a recent report in Commonwealth magazine.

Ms. Hague said the technological glitches that plagued the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority last year have been resolved, and the new website,, will have a simpler, shorter application that can be done in one sitting. The website also has a list of health insurance “navigators” and certified application counselors. Each state has a navigator program, which is required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Navigators work one-on-one with local residents to guide them through the stultifying requirements and shifting options in health insurance today.

Island navigators
Last May, Sarah Kuh, director of the Vineyard Health Care Access Program (VHCA), applied for a grant to fund VHCA navigator training and  and to subsequently qualify as a state navigator for Dukes County. In August, VHCA was selected as one of five new navigators in the state. There are 15 navigators statewide. Now, trained specialists at VHCA can advise the insured and the uninsured, small businesses owners, the self-employed, and seasonal workers. The multilingual staff can assist all Island residents, including members of the Wampanoag tribe. All four of the VHCA client services staff, Ms. Kuh, Mary Leddy, Maria Mouzinho, and Vani Pessoni, are Certified Massachusetts Navigators.
“I want to give a big shout-out to Sarah Kuh,” Representative Tim Madden said. “Her passion for the job, her commitment to the job, and her thoroughness on the job is incredible. A lot of people put in grant applications, but very few are awarded. Having someone on Island that people can actually sit with and help them through it, step-by step, makes a huge difference.”
“It’s very exciting to be included in the navigator program because we feel like we’ve been navigating for decades,” Ms. Kuh said. “It’s not just filling out a form. It’s understanding the implications that go along with it. We look at the different programs, their benefits, how to use the insurance, and what happens if you need to see a medical specialist or behavioral health professional. Hopefully the people in the community know they can come to us with any questions or problems: that is what we’re here for and we’re happy to help.” Ms. Kuh added that there are hundreds of Vineyarders who need to reapply to keep their insurance.

“While we encourage people to seek out assistance from navigators, we also encourage them to make appointments with them ahead of time,” Ms. Hague said. “We had situations where there were lines out the door, and while that’s a great thing, it’s probably not efficient for anybody.”

Mass outreach
Ms. Hague said in the coming months, the Health Connector program is launching an extensive outreach campaign. “We’ll be sending postcards and letters in the mail so we ask people to please read their mail from the Health Connector,” she said.

In addition to newspaper and radio advertisements, people will also be notified by phone, and some will be notified in person by outreach staff who are planning to make over 200,000 home visits. There are three groups the Health Connector is targeting with its outreach program. One group is the 100,000+ people in the Commonwealth Care or Medical Security plan.

“I am becoming more familiar with the Island and high percentage of seasonal employment here, so this plan is significant,” Ms. Hague said. “The plan was supposed to be closed last year but will be closed January 31, 2015. Subscribers in that group must submit a new application by January 23.”

Another group, individuals in temporary Medicaid, will have their coverage end in three phases. Coverage for the different sub-groups will end January 15, February 1, and February 15. Each group will be repeatedly notified of their respective deadline, Ms. Hague said. The third group being targeted is the 40,000 who successfully enrolled through the website and by phone last year.

“That group is probably the trickiest to help, because they already did this, and might not think they have to reapply,” Ms. Hague said. “But we need the most up-to-date information, address, age, and number of dependents, in order to get them the right benefits and to get the most generous benefits we can.”
Ms. Kuh said that for a single person to qualify for ACA subsidy, the income cutoff would be around $45,000 a year. “Sometimes people don’t know that they’re eligible for help and they’re paying way more for insurance than they can really afford,” she said.
“It’s really important for people to just check and see,” Ms. Hague said. “Even if you’re already insured through your employer, you might be able to take $50 a month off your commercial premium.” She added that people who weren’t eligible for Commonwealth Care last year may be eligible for subsidy under the ACA, which has a higher income cut-off.  Under the ACA, people earning below 400 percent of the federal poverty line may be eligible for assistance.

According the the Department of Health and Human services, the poverty line for an individual is $11,670, so an individual makingunder $46,680 is potentially eligible for health care subsidy. “Most of the people in our health care reform since 2007 are people working,” Ms. Hague said. “Just because you have access to employer sponsored insurance and you were previously crowded out from enrolling in a subsidized program through the state, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the case now, so just check and see.”
“There’s also Mass Health Premium Assistance,” Ms. Kuh said. “For a family or person making under 300 percent of the poverty level, Mass Health can pay their share of their employer insurance premium. “It’s not easy to get but when you can, it’s a huge financial help for families,” she said.
Appointments at VHCA can be made by phone at 508-696-0020, or on the website or at the office at 114 New York Ave. in Oak Bluffs. To kick off the open enrollment period on Saturday, November 15, the VHCA office will be open from 12 noon to 2 pm to answer questions and to make consultation appointments.