Authors Posts by Barry Stringfellow

Barry Stringfellow

Barry Stringfellow
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Obama’s visit gives local scribes a behind-the-scenes look at covering the commander-in-chief.

Inside the big yellow bus during a long "hold," two reporters file stories while most of the pool soaks in the glorious summer day. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The arrival of a visiting president on Martha’s Vineyard is an exciting prospect for a reporter at a local Island weekly. It provides the opportunity to join some of the nation’s top journalists and photographers and to ride in the motorcade with the President of the United States — POTUS in reporter parlance. And there’s always the possibility, however remote, that a local reporter will get the chance to ask the most powerful man in the world a probing question — a question that could possibly give the president pause for reflection.

The Presidential press pool passes a long holding period at Flanders, where AFP photographer Nicholas Kamm passes the time photographing horses and veteran pooler Rick Friedman jokes with the AP's Jacquelyn Martin.
The Presidential press pool passes a long holding period at Flanders, where AFP photographer Nicholas Kamm passes the time photographing horses and veteran pooler Rick Friedman jokes with the AP’s Jacquelyn Martin.

But past experience covering President Obama as a member of the White House pool has been akin to press purgatory — long hours sitting in vans and buses, and maybe, just maybe, getting a telescopic view of the president’s facility with an 8 iron. This vacation, the president has been even more cloistered than usual, and a Sasquatch sighting on Farm Neck seems much more likely than any contact with the commander-in-chief.

With a mandate to get something out of the money The Times ponied up for the costs to get this local reporter in the White House pool, I decided to interview some of these top-shelf journos, to get a window into the life with the president when something actually happens, to get their impressions of our Island, and to find out what movies they show on Air Force One.

A summer day in the pool

The White House pool reporters were welcoming and collegial when a Times reporter and photographer joined their coterie. It was not long before a photographer from a major wire service shared a moving story about a picture she took last winter that went viral and eventually reunited a mentally ill man with his searching family. When The Times asked her to tell her heartwarming tale on the record so Islanders could share in it too, her tone took a decidedly sour turn. “Aw man, I thought we were just hanging out,” she said, uttering the last words she would speak to The Times for the rest of the 13-hour day on the bus.

Journalists, it turns out, do not like to be interviewed. This irony stems mainly from corporate policy. Given the amount of print journalists who are blogging for less than minimum wage, they can’t be blamed for protecting their livelihood.

The big yellow bus, aka "The Mothership," where the White House press pool spends a good part of the president's vacation.
The big yellow bus, aka “The Mothership,” where the White House press pool spends a good part of the president’s vacation.

But over the course of a long day spent in cramped vans and pacing around holding sites, some reporters and photographers, who asked to remain nameless, eventually shared stories about life on the Obama beat. While President Obama sometimes visits with pool reporters on long flights abroad, the conversations tend to be short and measured, as opposed to the gregarious President Clinton, who loved talking politics so much that one now-retired reporter feigned sleep when he saw the president coming to the back of the plane.

Neither the pool reporters nor the president get frequent flier miles on “Air Force One” and the movie “Air Force One” has not been shown on Air Force One. Additionally, the M&M’s and even the tiny tabasco bottles have “Air Force One” stamped on them, and make great gifts at the holidays.

On that day we spent five hours holding at the end of the entrance to the Vineyard Golf Club off the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. The Times took an informal poll to see if these journalists, who are some of the best in the world at unearthing the truth, still saw the Island as an “affluent, exclusive enclave,” as so many of them describe it, after spending some time here. The unanimous response was, “Yes.” They were informed that locals bristle at these descriptions, that the average wage on the Island is 70 percent of the state average, that there’s a critical shortage of affordable housing, and that many Islanders are barely making ends meet.

“Really? Where are they?” one reporter asked genuinely. People who see the Vineyard from the point of view of the president can’t be expected to see the full spectrum of Vineyard life, especially when they spend long days wedged in vans and pacing around holding sites.

Hurry up and wait

After the president finished his round of golf, the “Men in Black” convoy sped up Island, and the press promptly went into hold mode again — this time at the Flanders property, a 65-acre former estate of a prosperous whaling captain who was coincidentally also named Flanders. The photographers took photos of horses from every possible angle, while some Secret Service huntsmen looked longingly at the abundant deer and turkey frolicking in the verdant meadows.

After POTUS got cleaned up for dinner, the convoy, this time including a bomb squad truck manned by men with permanent scowls, sped back down Island. After a circuitous route to Oak Bluffs, the president, the first lady, aka FLOTUS, and a few select friends had dinner at The Sweet Life, where the Obamas have often dined.

While the president ate, the pool was escorted to Giordano’s via Kennebec Ave., which required an explanation of the long line at Back Door Donuts and the wonder of a warm apple fritter. The pool members, who have dined at restaurants all over the world, were unanimous in their praise for Gio’s cuisine, especially the meatball parmesan pizza and the lobster ravioli.

The day ended with the pool gathering with hundreds of locals outside The Sweet Life. Just before POTUS and FLOTUS emerged, the bomb squad truck, per security protocol, pulled in front of the crowd gathered on a spit of land between Pequot Ave. and Massasoit Ave. POTUS and FLOTUS left the restaurant to applause, flashing cell phone cameras and about 100 people chanting “Move that truck! Move that truck!”

The press was warned ahead of time that we had to dash to our vans as soon as POTUS got into his car, or risk missing the motorcade. Despite being impaled by a charging soundman brandishing his boom mike like a lance, this reporter managed to make it back to the van in time.

The day ended with the press getting one fleeting glimpse of POTUS and FLOTUS. From a journalistic standpoint, it was a dud. But maybe, just maybe, a reporter will think twice before describing the Vineyard as a playground for the rich and famous.

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The commander-in-chief racked up 72 holes of golf in his first four days on Island and the family spent some time at the beach.

President Obama is all smiles as golfing partner Ahmad Rashad congratulates him on sinking a putt at Farm Neck golf course. — The Boston Globe

President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughter Malia, along with first dogs Bo and Sunny, arrived by helicopter at Martha’s Vineyard Airport Saturday for the start of a two-week vacation. The Obamas’ youngest daughter, Sasha, was not on Air Force One, but a White House spokesperson said she would be joining the family later.

Waitresses wave out the window of Bangkok Cuisine at people trying to spot President Obama, who dined at The Sweet Life Cafe just next door.
Waitresses wave out the window of Bangkok Cuisine at people trying to spot President Obama, who dined at The Sweet Life Cafe just next door.

Mr. Obama and his family have vacationed on the Island every year since his 2008 election, with the exception of 2012, when he was campaigning for re-election. Past presidential vacation activities have included golf, bike trips with the family, golf, dinners with friends, and golf. A White House pool reporter from a major wire service told a reporter from the Times that when he is in Washington, the president plays golf at least once every weekend.

The public was not allowed to welcome the Obamas at the airport, but well-wishers were frequent along the motorcade route to the president’s rented Chilmark estate. The commander-in-chief quickly changed into his golf clothes and was on the first tee at Farm Neck golf course in Oak Bluffs within an hour of his arrival. The president’s foursome that day included former football star and broadcaster Ahmad Rashad, Cyrus Walker, a cousin of White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, and Ray Allen, the longtime Boston Celtics star who later took his talents to Miami. After the round, the president did not disclose his score, citing executive privilege.

On Sunday, the president played a second round of golf at Farm Neck. His foursome included Mr. Walker, Mr. Rashad, and financier friend Robert Wolf. After the round, the president stayed in for the night.

President Obama waves to the throng of onlookers after leaving The Sweet Life Cafe, where he dined with his wife Michelle, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder, Former Ambassador Ron Kirk and their spouses.
President Obama waves to the throng of onlookers after leaving The Sweet Life Cafe, where he dined with his wife Michelle, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder, Former Ambassador Ron Kirk and their spouses.

As with all presidential movements, security is everywhere. Earlier that day, Island fisherman in search of bonito by boat off the brickyard were shooed away by a crew from a Coast Guard cutter stationed off the Island’s north shore, just east of the Obama’s vacation house. Fortunately for the fishermen, bonito have been scarce this year, or the situation could have ended badly.

On Monday, the president began the day with a phone call to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko about the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine. Mr. Obama expressed his strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The President also spoke with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi about the latest developments in Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine, as well as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, according to White House reports.

In the surprise story of the day, the president did not play golf. Instead, he went to the beach with the First Lady and Malia. The first family went to one of the private beaches only accessible by Pohoganot Road, in Edgartown, where property owners include the Flynn family, for generations the largest landowners of Pohoganot Farm and surrounding property at Edgartown Great Pond, Andrew and Pamela Kohlberg, children of Jerome Kohlberg who owns the Vineyard Gazette, Robert Levine, and Richard L. Friedman, an investor who hosted President Bill Clinton when he vacationed on the Vineyard.

That evening the president attended a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee event hosted by Berklee College of Music President Roger Brown and his wife, Linda Mason at their home in Tisbury. Tickets to the fundraiser ranged from $15,000 to $32,400. President Obama entered the event to a singer belting out “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

Mr. Obama told the crowd of approximately 50 donors that he had called new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to offer his support and congratulations on his election. He reiterated that there is no American military solution to the problem and that Iraq must form an inclusive government. He said the day’s developments were a “promising step forward” in a “critical effort.”

Reuters photographer Kevin Lamarque lets paramedic Traci Monteith experiment with his camera during downtime in the Presidential press pool.
Reuters photographer Kevin Lamarque lets paramedic Traci Monteith experiment with his camera during downtime in the Presidential press pool.

The president began his day on Tuesday by declaring a major disaster in Washington state in response to recent wildfires. The president then played a four and a half round of golf at the very exclusive Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown. That evening, he and Michelle Obama dined at The Sweet Life restaurant in Oak Bluffs, one of his favorite stops on the Vineyard. The first couple were joined by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder, and former Ambassador Ron Kirk, and their respective spouses.

The Obamas’ presence electrified Circuit Ave. and a crowd of several hundred people gathered outside the restaurant as they ate. The Obamas were greeted by loud cheers as they left the restaurant. There was also a crowd chanting “Move that truck!” to the Secret Service bomb squad, which had blocked their view upon the president’s exit from the restaurant, per security protocol.

Rainy, stormy weather on Wednesday kept Mr. Obama indoors and apparently on the phone. The White House reported that he spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and discussed by phone the ongoing negotiations in Cairo to achieve a sustainable ceasefire agreement. The President reaffirmed United States support for Egypt’s mediation efforts and underscored the importance of achieving a sustainable outcome that ensures Israel’s security and addresses Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, according to a news release.

Mr. Obama chose not to attend an afternoon book signing by Hillary Clinton at the Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven. Ms. Clinton’s sharp criticism of the president’s foreign policy earlier this week in The Atlantic magazine made their expected attendance Wednesday night a topic of much conversation by political pundits. President Obama and his former Secretary of State are on the guest list for an 80th birthday party tonight thrown by Vernon Jordan, the longtime Clinton pal and Washington insider, at the Farm Neck Golf Club for his wife, Ann Jordan.

According to a White House press release, the president will travel back to Washington on Sunday, August 17. He is tentatively scheduled to return to the Island on Tuesday, August 19.

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An Oak Bluffs street sweeper makes an early morning pass along Kennebec Avenue Tuesday. — Michael Cummo

When members of the Oak Bluffs Downtown Streetscape Master Plan Committee (DSMPC) began their inaugural outreach campaign on July 23 and 24, the message from town taxpayers and tourists alike was that the town needs to clean up its act.

“An overriding theme was that cleaning and repairing the downtown should be a top priority,” committee member and Oak Bluffs selectman Gail Barmakian told The Times at the conclusion of the two-day public survey. “People were saying that we have to clean it up.”

Another committee member, Brian Packish, said, “Overall, town cleanliness was definitely a big issue.”

The issue is also trending on social media, where residents on the closed Facebook page “Islanders Talk” recently posted pictures of piles of litter sitting beside trash cans, of public restrooms with overflowing trashcans and even hypodermic needles on the restroom floor.

Last year, the problem was so bad that highway department supervisor Richard Combra Jr. made a plea for help to the board of selectmen at their August 6 meeting. “In my 13 years as superintendent, I’ve never seen so much littering,” he said. “It’s definitely worse than it used to be. It seems like it gets worse every year. It’s gotten out of out of hand.”

Mr. Combra asked the selectmen to consider a public awareness campaign to help battle the problem. “We live here because it’s a beautiful place,” he said. “We do our best to keep it that way, but we need more cooperation from the public.”

The selectmen unanimously agreed that the topic warranted further discussion. A year later, the problem persists. “I don’t think it’s gotten any worse since last year,” Mr. Combra said, surveying Circuit Ave early Tuesday morning. “But it needs to get a lot better.”

On Tuesday, The Times joined highway department workers for their morning rounds.

Every day is trash day

At 6:30 am Tuesday morning, Mr. Combra and his crew were on Circuit Ave., making their daily assault on the trash that always awaits them from the night before. Two crew members in screaming yellow highway department shirts were cleaning Healy Square, where plastic cups and paper plates and all manner of trash sat in and around the flower beds, even though trash cans were just a few feet away.

“It’s frustrating,” Mr. Combra said. “If this was late September you’d hardly see any of this. But when you think about how many people are walking around during the summer, it’s probably as many as Fenway Park. Maybe we need a few people just picking up around town.”

The nightlife that draws so many tourists to town also presents the biggest challenge to the highway department.

“We have the most take-out restaurants and the most nightlife on the Island,” Mr. Combra said. “It’s part of the character of the town and that’s great. But for some people it’s not a high priority to put their trash in a barrel.”

As Mr. Combra circled in his truck from Circuit Ave. to Kennebec Ave., he pointed out more trash from the night before, much of it within throwing distance of a town waste bin. He stopped at Giordanos, the popular pizza take-out window and family restaurant, where paper plates and napkins were left on tables from the night before. “They work hard to keep their sidewalks clean, and look,” he said of the Giordanos. “And this is much better than usual.”

The highway department’s job is even more difficult this summer because one of the two trash collecting trucks has been out of service for the last three peak weeks — the peak of the summer litter surge.

While litter is part of the problem, sidewalks that are old and grimy and freckled with black spots also add to the dingy appearance.

Mr. Combra subcontracts a power washing company to clean the Circuit Avenue sidewalks once a month in July and August. This morning, they had turned their jets on the sidewalk that borders Healy Square.

“It looks good right now, but in three or four days, it’ll be pretty much the way it was,” he said. Then he pointed to a soiled section of sidewalk in front of the Game Room. “That was power washed a few days ago, and you can hardly tell the difference. You can only do so much with 75-year-old concrete. Maybe this new downtown committee can help us get new sidewalks.”

Beach trash

“Mark Rivers, our recreation director, has done a great job with keeping the beaches clean,” Mr. Combra said. “The lifeguards have also been a big help.”

“I get a full trash bag off the Inkwell and Pay Beach every morning,” Mr. Rivers told The Times. “Trash was also a big problem in Niantic Park. People were filling them up with their own trash to save the five-dollar sticker, and there was trash everywhere. So I removed the barrels. At first some people weren’t too happy about it, but it worked.”

Mr. Rivers said he puts out bins to accommodate basketball league play and makes sweeps of the park twice a day. He said he was perplexed at the growing phenomena of people leaving trash next to the trash cans, and not in them.

Mr. Combra said his department is responsible for 60 waste bins around town during the summer. While he doesn’t think more barrels will improve the situation downtown, he would like to see a few on State Beach. “We have eight barrels near the Inkwell and as you can see, it really helps. I know they’re big on the carry-in carry-out policy at State Beach, but I don’t think it works that well. No matter how many barrels you have, they don’t work if people don’t use them.”

Merchants weigh in

Many Circuit Avenue merchants think Mr. Combra and the highway department are doing a commendable job, especially given their limited resources.

“It doesn’t seem as bad as last year,” Mark Hanover, owner of Linda Jean’s restaurant, said. “I’m here at 5:30 in the morning, so I see what the highway department has to deal with. It amazes me how many people throw stuff on the ground,” he said. “The thing that really amazes me is the piles of trash that are next to the cans which have plenty of room in them. I mean, come on people, really?”

“I think Richie is doing a great job, especially with his limited resources — I don’t know how he stays so calm,” said Renee Balter, former president of the Oak Bluffs Association (OBA). “A busy town has trash. The town does a good job with it. The tone starts with the condition of the buildings. What does it say when there’s a building at the entrance to the town that’s literally crumbling? It’s so sad. I remember when people used to line up around the corner to see movies. There’s a big audience within walking distance of downtown. People don’t come here on vacation to watch Netflix. This town can support a movie theater.”

“There’s no easy remedy,” said Christine Todd, current president of the OBA. “It takes business owners and citizens working together. I don’t think this should be a situation where there’s finger pointing. People who care need to be part of the solution, whether it’s picking up a piece of trash or showing up at selectmen’s meetings.”

“I think the downtown business owners have to step up,” Erik Albert, owner of the Oak Bluffs Inn, said. “If the flower box around a tree on Circuit Avenue is falling apart, that’s on the town. If it’s filled with cigarette butts and litter, the surrounding businesses have to step up. If the sidewalk is chipped, that’s on the town. If that same sidewalk is greasy and black with dirt, the adjacent business owner should be responsible. It’s about setting a tone. It’s all about pride in our town. And I think a lot of people have that.”

“As a business owner, I want the town to be as clean as we want it to be, but the problem is bigger than the capacity that exists to fix it,” said Laurie Welch, owner of Basics and Eastaway clothing stores, who has been doing business on Circuit Ave for 33 years. ”The highway department is outstretched. They need some extra help. If the downtown was an amusement park and the ticket office was at the Steamship, think how many janitorial personnel would be on duty. We need to come together in a really big way or it’s just going to say the way it is.

Ms. Welch is also optimistic that change is in the air. “I know some people said they don’t want change. They said that when Ed Coogan put in the trees on Circuit Ave. Now there’s a new wave of energy and it’s pivotal to embrace it and not beat them down,” she said of the budding momentum of the DSMPC. “If they have the energy, let’s support them and help them run with it.”

The new energy is on display at the DSMPC Facebook page. While it’s an open forum where people can unleash their complaints, it’s currently dominated by expressions of civic pride, pictures that celebrate the town’s beauty, and a pervasive tone of optimism. It’s been online for less than a month, and it has over 1,000 “likes.”

Downtown detritus has been a hot-button topic for decades. The most recent Oak Bluffs Master Plan, a 92-page document completed in 1998, states on page one, “The vast majority of residents surveyed placed priority attention on the beaches, air and water quality, [and on] cleaning up all areas of town.” The plan goes on to state that the top policy priority for the town should be “to manage downtown trash better.”

To remedy the problem, the plan suggests, “Town should supply more trash barrels on Circuit Ave, nice ones, ideally no more than 20 feet apart. Consider pledging business owners to clean sidewalks in front of their businesses and recommend Selectmen enforce existing by-law requiring businesses to keep sidewalks and alleyways free of trash.”

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The island of Chappaquiddick on the eastern end of Martha's Vineyard is without cable service. — File photo by Bill Brine

This week, members of the Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA) amped up efforts to obtain high-speed Internet, cable TV, and land lines for residents of the small island at the east end of Martha’s Vineyard. Their direct plea to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and President Barack Obama is being made in ads scheduled to be published in both Island newspapers.

The ad published in The Times features a cross-section of 31 familiar Chappy residents in a collection of 23 photos under the headline, “President Obama and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, help bring high speed Comcast communications to Chappaquiddick residents, businesses, and school kids.” The ad was paid for by the CIA. A similar ad is scheduled to appear in the Vineyard Gazette.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to reach Mr. Roberts while he’s on the Island, with his friend the president, and to put a friendly ad in the paper to help bring world-class Comcast service to Chappaquiddick,” Lionel Spiro, former CIA president said over his buzzing landline in an interview with The Times. “Our hope is Mr. Roberts will make inquiries to his people and perhaps someone on the president’s staff will see it as well.”

On Monday, the White House announced the formation of the United States Digital Service. “I want us to ask ourselves every day, how are we using technology to make a real difference in people’s lives,” the President said, according to a White House press release.

Long time coming

Service to Chappy became a major stumbling block during negotiations for a new 10-year contract between Comcast and the Island Cable Advisory Board (CAB), a committee representing the six towns on Martha’s Vineyard. Initially, Comcast said it had no interest in serving sparsely populated Chappaquiddick. In September 2012, Comcast agreed to include Chappy as part of a separate deal, and in January 2013, the six towns endorsed an Island-wide agreement with Comcast.

The first benchmark of the deal that Comcast struck with Chappy required that 270 letters of commitment be on file at Edgartown National Bank, escrow agent for the deal, by October 1, 2013. The letter did not require any financial obligations, but gave Comcast permission to survey each homeowner’s property to determine if additional charges would be added to the minimum installation fee of $2,139 the cable giant said it needed to make the deal feasible. It also required each homeowner to commit to two years of basic cable at  $24.60 a month. A core group of Chappy residents campaigned relentlessly and 294 letters were on file at the bank by the October 1 deadline.

The next deadline of the multi-step deal required at least 270 deposits to be on the books at Edgartown National Bank by July 21. On July 11, there were 92 deposits at the bank. But proponents were given a reprieve when Comcast moved the deposit deadline back to March 1, 2015.

“Representatives from Comcast and Edgartown have stayed in constant communication during this process and we continue to offer assistance and have voluntarily extended the deadline in the hopes of the project moving forward,” Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman said in an email to The Times on Monday. Comcast has also indicated that some families with children will qualify for high-speed Internet services at a reduced cost of $9.95 per month.

Long way to go

To help homeowners who can’t afford the high up-front cost, a group of Chappy residents established the nonprofit Chappaquiddick Community Fund (CCF). The Board of Directors of the CCF includes Dick Chasin, CIA president Roger Becker, Cynthia Hubbard, Woody Filley, Peter Getsinger, Travis Jacobs, and Mr. Spiro.

“The long-range purpose of the CCF is to provide financial help to face a variety of issues and needs that might arise within the Chappy community, such as emergency fuel assistance, emergency medical costs, and other such needs,” Mr. Spiro said in an email to The Times. “The application to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) also described the need to raise funds to help pay for the cost of cabling under town roads.”

Thus far, members of the Chappaquiddick community have committed $200,000 to make up any shortfall on the required 270 deposits, a total of $577,530, if needed.

As of this past Friday, the Edgartown National Bank reported 130 deposits on the books. According to Mr. Spiro, 16 households who have agreed to financial assistance from CCF haven’t sent in their deposit yet. He also said that Edgartown town administrator Pam Dolby has indicated she has another 10 to 15 deposits on hand. Adding in people who didn’t send in letters by October 1 and have since changed their minds, along with a significant number of new homeowners on Chappy, Mr. Spiro estimates that there are up to 193 funded commitments at present.

“This is not guaranteed,” he said. “However, there are about 80 more who sent letters last summer and whose intentions we do not know.”
The Times asked Mr. Goodman if the deal could move forward now that the deposits are guaranteed by the CCF. “While we’re open to the association contributing towards the construction cost, the agreement requires the commitment of 270 Chappaquiddick residents to have Comcast service for at least two years,” he replied in an email.

The CIA more recently said that there are two to three miles of road on Chappy that do not need to be cabled because residents along these stretches have indicated they do not want the service.

“We propose this as a way to reduce the initial investment, thereby meeting their return on investment needs,” Mr. Spiro said, adding, “We still stand ready to pay Comcast $2,139 for each house short of the required 270.”

Not everyone on Chappy is concerned about bringing Comcast services to Chappy. “One of the reasons people come to Chappy is the serenity and the wilderness,” seasonal resident Jay Hunter said in a recent interview with The Times. “It’s one of the reasons why we’re here, to get away from things you’re inundated with. My bookcase is full of books that actually get read. We go hiking and blueberry picking and fishing. My 26-year-old was just here with a buddy, and the TV or the computer weren’t on once. There were too many other things to do.”

Mr. Hunter also questioned the current strategy from a technological angle. “Communication is going to be wireless, that’s the direction technology is going,” he said. “This technology is going to be obsolete well before the deal is over.”

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Veteran Martha’s Vineyard oysterman Jack Blake combines innovation and perspiration to raise an increasingly valuable mollusk.

Jack Blake hand picks oysters that he's been raising since 2012 and immediately puts them on ice. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Katama Bay is still as a mill pond when Jack Blake boards his 23-foot skiff, early on a recent morning. The shrill cry of a hungry osprey breaks the peaceful silence. That, and the sound of Mr. Blake slapping at a swarm of no-see-ums. “Usually there’s a breeze here and they aren’t too bad,” he says. “Let’s get moving.”

The early morning stillness greets oysterman Jack Blake when he starts his day.
The early morning stillness greets oysterman Jack Blake when he starts his day.

For the next 10 hours, Mr. Blake will not stop moving. He will lift heavy loads of ice and oysters and the cages and the bags and the trays in which they grow. He will inspect hundreds of oysters, one by one, and knock off the jingle shells and barnacles that can slowly kill them. He will pack his oysters on ice, or put them back into the bay, as quickly as possible. Back on land, he will cool the day’s take — which averages 700 oysters — down to 33 degrees. Then he and Susan Blake, his wife and business partner, will load their refrigerated van and deliver Sweet Neck Farm oysters to restaurants around the Island. Sweet Neck Farm oysters are in such demand that the Blakes can’t spare any for their off-Island distributor, J.P.’s Shellfish from Eliot, Maine, until October. Then, the exported Sweet Neck Farm oysters will end up in restaurants from Florida to California.

Mr. Blake’s day begins at 3 am. He works at his computer, entering data from the day before and figuring out what cages or trays need tending that day. “I don’t like working at the computer that much,” he says. “It’s a helpful tool, but I just want to be on the water.” Mr. Blake loads up his truck at 5 am and tries to be on the water by 6, although that depends on what needs fixing. “There’s always maintenance, every day,” he says. “But that’s part of the fun. I like figuring things out.”

Oysters are gently tumbled to knock off jingle shells and barnacles in a machine designed and constructed by Jack Blake.
Oysters are gently tumbled to knock off jingle shells and barnacles in a machine designed and constructed by Jack Blake.

From March 15 to October 15, Mr. Blake works seven days a week, except when a hurricane rumbles up the coast. During the winter, he averages three days a week, which at times this past winter meant working on the bay in heavy snow. “The bay used to freeze solid before the breach,” he says, referring to the rupture of Norton Point Beach during a nor’easter in April 2007. “The day after the breach, Sue and I were out here and it was like being on the high seas. We both got seasick.”

A new trade

Mr. Blake moved to the Island from Marshfield two years after high school, in 1974. He worked as a cook at Lawry’s Fish Market during the summer and as a scalloper during the winter. Eventually he got into the construction trade in 1979. “I wanted to build my own house, so I figured this was a good way to learn,” he said.

Mr. Blake built his house and became a custom home builder. “I built all kinds of houses — capes, gambrels, even a six-sided house. But after a while, I needed a new challenge,” he says. He started quahog fishing full time, but eventually his conservation conscience began to kick in. “I got to the point where I pretty much fished out Caleb’s Pond, and I felt bad about it. Then I heard about a new aquaculture program run by Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group (MVSG) and I applied. It was intended to help the commercial fishermen who were going out of business, but one of the spots didn’t get filled.”
“Of the 15 guys that started in the program in 1995, Jack is one of the five who stuck with it,” MVSG director Rick Karney said in a phone interview with The Times.
Mr. Blake says his career as an oysterman has been an ongoing process of trial and error and improvisation. “There was a big learning curve. I didn’t make a dime the first three years. What works in Wellfleet won’t work here. You always have to fine-tune things, you’re always learning.”

Making the rounds

Katama oysterman Jack Blake was one of the first oyster famers on the Vineyard.
Katama oysterman Jack Blake was one of the first oyster famers on the Vineyard.

“Pretty good office huh,?” he says, indicating the expanse of Katama Bay as he motors to his first stop of the morning — his 650-square-foot raft, or as he calls it, “My home away from home.” The raft is moored next to his one-acre farm where 350 buoys mark each one of his cages. Mr. Blake built his raft, which has a tumbler that he also designed and built to knock off unwanted hitchhikers from his oysters. “That took 7,400 welds,” he says, pointing to the slowly rotating cylinder with oysters from cage 279. “I put it on gentle cycle. You don’t want them to be jarred or they leak some of their water.”

The tumbler, and all electronics on the raft, are powered by a small wind turbine that sits atop the canvas roof that also gives the oysters shade. Most of the oysters in the tumbler are from seed that he began raising in 2012.

“I just love being out here on my own,” Mr. Blake says, lifting a heavy bag of oysters out of a cage.

But his treasured solitude comes with an additional element of risk. The effects of the polio he contracted when he was two years old are still with him. “My legs are getting much weaker,” he says. “Because of the polio, my leg muscles never fully developed. Now, if I fall down, I can’t get up by myself. People always ask me how long I’ll do this. I used to say until I’m 85, but I’m not so sure,” says Mr. Blake, who turns 61 on August 11.

Sweet Neck Farm Oysters are in such high demand they're only sold to Island establishments during the summer.
Sweet Neck Farm Oysters are in such high demand they’re only sold to Island establishments during the summer.

After the oysters are iced or put back in their cages, Mr. Blake, sweat dripping from his brow and his white tee-shirt besmeared with Katama Bay silt, heads to the mouth of the bay to tend to his upwellers — a nursery for juvenile oysters. Mr. Blake designed and built his upwellers to utilize the swift current that runs between Katama Bay and the narrow mouth into Edgartown Harbor. “The upweller feeds the seed a steady stream of nutrients,” he says, admiring a tray of thumbnail-sized oysters. “It also keeps them spaced out and keeps them clean. Look at them, they’re beautiful.”

With funds from MVSG, Mr. Blake helped other Katama Bay oystermen build their own upwellers. “Jack trained other farmers how to build the upweller he designed,” Rick Karney said. “They built them communally at the town oyster barn. Jack’s been great about sharing all his knowledge.”

“There really isn’t competition,” Mr. Blake says. “Katama Bay oysters are some of the best because we all share information. A few guys started out competing like fishermen, but they’re beginning to understand. There’s plenty of places to sell.”

Mr. Blake says timing plays a crucial role in oyster farming. “You have to plant at the right time, you have to air dry at the right time, you have to know when they’re spawning and you have to harvest at the right time. It’s an art.”

Booming demand

Oyster farmers on the whole are also benefiting from propitious timing with the nationwide surge in the popularity of oysters and oyster bars. Oyster production on the east coast has doubled in the past five years, according to East Coast Shellfish Growers Association (ECSGA), and last year, cultured shellfish from farms between Virginia and Maine brought in $103 million, more than the groundfishing industry for the same area. In Massachusetts in 2012, 4.1 million bushels of oysters were sold, bringing in $9.5 million to Bay State farmers. In 2013, 4.3 million bushels of oysters worth $10.8 million were sold.  Closer to home, last year, between the 34,050 bushels of oysters harvested in Chilmark and the 163,500 bushels harvested in Edgartown, sales for Island oystermen totaled $1,963,500, according to town reports. Mr. Blake says he’s getting up to 90 cents per oyster this summer, well above last summer’s peak of 75 cents per oyster.

Battling vibrio

As with any farmers, oyster farmers have to deal with pests and pestilence. Vibrio, typically a warm water problem, has become an increasingly serious problem for Island farmers. Last September, an outbreak of Vibrio illness led to a month-long closure of oyster operations in Katama Bay. It was just one of numerous closures across the state, which has seen a steady rise in Vibrio cases since 2011, when 13 cases of the disease were reported. In 2012, 27 cases of Vibrio were reported, and 58 were reported in 2013. Twelve of those cases had some relationship to Katama Bay, according to state reports.

So far this year, two cases of vibrio have been confirmed by state Department of Health (DPH) officials. One of them was linked to a Katama Bay oyster harvested on July 2. State regulations, adopted from this year’s Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, require an immediate shutdown of a farming area when two cases of Vibrio are confirmed within a month. August 2 passed without another reported case, so for now, it’s business as usual for Katama oystermen. But the specter of a shutdown still looms, especially as water temperatures rise. “I know where the oyster came from,” Mr. Blake said. “The DPH inspector said he did everything right. Sometimes there’s nothing else you can do.” One mitigating factor in a Vibrio outbreak is that, unlike an agricultural pox, the oysters are not permanently damaged. When the water turns colder, the bacteria count will drop, making the oysters edible once again. Mr. Blake said that after last year’s shutdown, he was eventually able to sell all of his crop.

Happy as an oyster

“Oyster farming is a win-win,” Mr. Blake says, as he heads back to the Katama boat launch with the day’s harvest. “You put back what you take in, and the oysters take a lot of nitrogen out of the water. It’s the ideal business for the Island, and it’s a great way to make a living.”

Mr. Blake says there’s also an intuitive element to oyster farming. “I know what makes my oysters happy,” he says. “They need space. If you crowd them, and they get stressed out, and it shows. You can’t get too greedy.”  Mr. Blake also has an attachment to a few oysters from his 1999 crop. Of the 400 he put aside, three or four are left. “They’re my pets,” he says. “I think the record in the United States is 12 inches. I’m going to bring one out when it hits 13 [inches]. But nobody’s going to eat it.”

 

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A meeting between the town administrator and FEMA brass left a cloud of uncertainty over anticipated storm repairs.

Dredging is needed under little bridge at Sengekontacket. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The long-running campaign by Oak Bluffs officials to secure funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to repair damage caused by Hurricane Sandy remained in limbo this week. In a meeting Tuesday, FEMA officials informed town Oak Bluffs officials that the town’s applications still lack proper documentation, and that internal mistakes on FEMA’s part still need to be reconciled.

“It was a tough meeting,” Robert Grimley, FEMA disaster recovery manager for Region 1, said in a phone call with The Times on Tuesday. “I know Mr. Whritenour was frustrated, but we can’t make final decisions without the proper documentation.

“I think the positive is there’s some information, like maintenance records, that’s readily available that the applicant can retrieve. The applicant, to their defense, said they had provided all the documentation to the joint field office, but for whatever reason, we never received it or someone doesn’t have a copy of it. We just want to make sure before we approve it that we have all the paperwork in order. If it slipped by us, all five of those projects could be at risk down the road if we didn’t fix them now.”

The five projects for which the town has applied to FEMA for funding include the dredging at Little Bridge at Sengekontacket, East Chop Road and Seaview Ave. bulkhead, restoration of beaches and jetties at Pay Beach, Jetty Beach, and the Inkwell, the seawall at North Bluff, and East Chop Bluff.

“The meeting was a little disappointing,” town administrator Robert Whritenour said in a phone call with The Times on Wednesday. “They started off telling us that FEMA may have made some mistakes. They said consider this like an audit. The long and short of it, we had months of discussion with various project engineers which ended in FEMA sending their signed project worksheets which documented the town’s eligibility and the scope for each one of the five projects. To have them come back and say we’ve reviewed those and we think FEMA made some mistakes, means redoing all of the work that we’ve already done. The one good part that came out of it is they agreed to a weekly conference call so we could stay on top of this and there wouldn’t be anymore surprises.”

In addition to Mr. Whritenour, the town was also represented at the meeting by selectman Walter Vail and conservation commissioner Elizabeth Durkee.

“It was my expectation that the Sengekontacket dredging and the North Bluff project were going to receive final approval,” Mr. Whritenour said. “The next window for dredging is from September 1 to January 15. Hopefully we’ll be on track. Sengie is an ecological problem and the longer we wait, the more we jeopardize the health of the pond. I don’t see any major roadblocks, but I didn’t see any before either. North Bluff is even more frustrating. Their engineer questions extent of damage to the wall. It’s disappointing for this to come up at this late juncture. We were under the impression that was resolved.”

The channels at Big Bridge and Little Bridge connect Sengekontacket to Nantucket Sound, and provide the only flushing of the pond.

Deal or no deal

A critical misunderstanding occurred between the town and FEMA in October, 2013, when town officials apparently assumed that a FEMA sign-off on a project worksheet locked in federal funds. In his town administrator’s report on October 22, 2013, Mr. Whritenour wrote, “Oak Bluffs has received approval and signed contracts for more than $4.3 million in federal disaster assistance: $553,086 for Sengekontacket dredging; $664,588 for East Chop Road and Seaview Avenue bulkhead repair; $1,165,284 for beach and jetty restoration at the Inkwell, Pay Beach and Jetty Beach; and $1,960,845 for North Bluff seawall repair.”

“Unfortunately, the applicant believed that because they [FEMA] signed the project work sheet that it obligated the federal government to funding,” Mr. Grimley said. “What that really means is that the project specialist and the applicant are agreeing to the damages that they are measuring. It does not mean that the federal government is obligated to commit to that money.”

Speaking with The Times on Wednesday, Mr. Whritenour maintained there was no such confusion on the town’s part. “We attended training sessions, we know project worksheet approval is not a grant, but it is first key juncture,” he said. “They determine what the scope of project is. We did think they agreed to the scope.”

Help for Sengie
Mr. Grimley said he and other Region 1 FEMA officials are looking at every angle to secure funding for the town. “We’re working very hard to get them the funding,” he said. “Our lawyers are the best. They’re very creative when it comes to getting approvals and working within the laws and regulations.”

Mr. Grimley cited the Little Bridge dredging project as an example. “We’ll rewrite the project worksheet on that so instead of having it under beach replenishment, which is considered permanent work, we’ll put it under debris removal. It’s certainly eligible for that and it’s a lot easier to get approved.”

Mr. Grimley said that some FEMA decisions were imminent, although he did not specify which ones. “We’re very close to making a determination one way or another. If it’s not favorable, they have an opportunity to appeal to the regional administrator here in Boston, and if they’re still not satisfied they can make a second appeal to FEMA headquarters. We’d rather make the determination favorable right up front; that way we don’t go through more rigamarole.”

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The newly formed streetscape master plan committee seeks opinions and ideas in person and in cyberspace.

Anyone with ideas on improving the Oak Bluffs business district can weigh in at the DSMPC website OBdowntown.com. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

The recently formed Oak Bluffs Downtown Streetscape Master Plan Committee (DSMPC) held its inaugural outreach events on July 23 and 24, to elicit opinions from visitors and Islanders alike on how to revitalize downtown Oak Bluffs. Members of the eight-person committee manned tables outside the post office and next to the town information booth both days, giving out surveys and listening to all comers. On Wednesday evening there was a public visioning meeting at the Oak Bluffs library and on Thursday morning, members of the business community gathered at Union Chapel to share their views. Both meetings were moderated by consultants from the Horsley Witten group.

The new logo of the Oak Bluffs Downtown Streetscape Master Plan Committee.
The new logo of the Oak Bluffs Downtown Streetscape Master Plan Committee.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Gail Barmakian, DSMPC member and Oak Bluffs selectman, said in a phone interview with The Times. “We were trying to get a wide cross-section of people and I think we were very successful at that. It didn’t matter if they were visitors, seasonal residents, or Islanders, people have a passion for this town. But you have to draw them out. You can’t just say ‘fill this out.’ You have to engage.”

Ms. Barmakian said an overriding theme was that cleaning and repairing downtown should be a top priority. “People were saying that we have to clean it up,” she said. “Clean and repair but not change the character of the town. We had to preserve the unique character of the town.”

“We dished out roughly 350 surveys during the day,” DSMPC member Brian Packish said in a phone interview with The Times. “So far we’ve gotten about 200 back between the website and the ones we handed out.” Mr. Packish, a landscaper and chairman of the planning board, said the public visioning meeting on Wednesday night exceeded his expectations. “The meeting room was packed,” he said. “People were excited. A lot of them stayed and talked in the parking lot after the meeting.”

Mr. Packish said signage, or “wayfaring” in urban planning parlance, was a much discussed topic. “There’s definitely a need for better wayfaring,” he said. “When you rely heavily on tourism, the tourists need to know where to locate the bathrooms and how far they are from the Campground, and what direction to go.” Mr. Packish said signs for pedestrians that give the walking time to destinations was a popular idea.

Ms. Barmakian agreed. “Signage from both ferry terminals is really lacking,” she said. “It also places a burden on the police because they have to spend so much time giving directions.”

The well attended town visioning meeting produced a number of constructive ideas for improving the Oak Bluffs business district.
The well attended town visioning meeting produced a number of constructive ideas for improving the Oak Bluffs business district.

Mr. Packish said a park and ride for employees in the downtown area was a popular solution for the summertime parking woes, and that the dingy downtown appearance was a recurring theme. “Overall, town cleanliness was definitely a big issue,” he said. “A lot of people feel there need to be more trash barrels and more pickups.”

Duncan Ross, DSMPC member and the de facto representative for the Friends of Oak Bluffs, also said the Wednesday night meeting was particularly productive. “It was good for the people on the committee because we weren’t in any of the working groups,” he said. “We just walked around and listened to the ideas.”

A former selectman and retired teacher, Mr. Ross said that one of the better ideas he heard was to create parking for downtown employees on the streets that border Waban Park. “I thought that was a brilliant idea,” he said. “It’s a simple solution to a problem that has persisted for a long time.”

In a phone interview with The Times, John Tiernan, co-owner of the Dockside Inn, said he pitched a similar idea at the Thursday morning meeting he attended with other town business owners. “I suggested wrapping Waban park with head-in parking, like we have at Ocean Park,” he said. “You could give employees hanging tags, they could walk into town and know they’re not going to get a ticket. You could have maybe 200 parking spots there. You’d have 20 disgruntled homeowners, but 12 of them rent their house out during the summer anyway.” Mr. Tiernan added that parking around Waban Park could also increase flow to Pay Beach and the Inkwell which in turn could also create business for new vendors.

Overall, Mr. Tiernan said he was encouraged by the Thursday gathering. “It was a great first meeting,” he said. “It was an eclectic crowd. which is representative of what Oak Bluffs is. I’m happy there were people like Peter Martell and Kerry Scott, along with some of the newer business owners like me. Peter doesn’t pull any punches. He’s a longtime steward of the town and he cares a lot about Oak Bluffs.”

Mr. Tiernan said that adding proper sidewalks and replacing the sagging, aging telephone poles with underground lines were some of the improvements that he hoped to see on Circuit Ave. extension. “One of my proposals has met a bit of resistance, but I think Circuit Ave. extension is perfect for cobblestones,” he said. “When you go to the North End in Boston or Portsmouth [New Hampshire] you see cobblestones, and you know you’re in a seaport. Edgartown does this, why can’t we? We can’t do the same old, same old. People joke about New Bedford but the downtown area is much better than Oak Bluffs, hands down, and they have much better signage.”

Mr. Tiernan said that as a hotelier, he pays 11.7 percent tax on every room charge and he questions how it’s spent. “Six percent of that tax goes directly to the town, yet we can’t clean up Circuit Ave. or fill potholes on Circuit Ave. extension,” he said. “I have no idea where that money goes. If the town can’t clean up the sidewalks on Circuit Ave., how about hiring a private contractor to power wash them? I’d pitch in for that.”

Mr. Martell, owner of the Wesley Hotel, said he was less than enthused by the Thursday business owners meeting. “The dog and pony show [by Horsley Witten consultants] doesn’t mean a lot to me,” he said. “I don’t need to listen for 15 minutes about how great they are at making signs. Oak Bluffs has plenty of signs. My big thing is to improve the beaches. They’re a disgrace. I don’t know why they’re [town officials] dragging their heels. You can have all the signs you want, but when people get off the boat and look at our beaches, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Mr. Packish had a different take on the consultants’ contribution. “They really did a good job: they went door to door to every business in town, and their study was pretty comprehensive,” he said. The firm, along with Mr. Packish and DSMPC member Erik Albert, owner of the Oak Bluffs Inn, also run the committee’s active social media program, including the website OBdowntown.com and a Facebook page that already has over 800 likes. Surveys can still be completed on the website, until August 8.

“We want to hear from all Islanders, not just Oak Bluffs,” Mr. Packish said. “We’re open to good ideas.”

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TEDxMarthasVineyard will feature 13 speakers, each talking for 15 minutes, and three streamed videos spread out over a single afternoon.

Ken Wentworth, Katy Decker and Liz Witham are collaborating on the Vineyard's first TedX conference. — Courtesy Liz Witham

“Insanity, Genius, and the Creative Process” will be the topic of TEDxMarthasVineyard, on August 19, from 11 am to 6 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society. TEDxMarthas Vineyard is the first TED event to be held on the Island. The Martha’s Vineyard Times is the media sponsor of the event.

“We’re really proud to partner with TEDxMarthasVineyard as media sponsor for their inaugural conference,” Peter Oberfest, publisher of the Martha’s Vineyard Times said. “TED began 30 years ago to consider the convergence of technology, entertainment, and design (hence TED), and has grown into a sprawling international program, including affiliated TEDx conferences in communities all over the world. TED’s mission — ideas worth spreading — resonates with the best of community newspaper and digital content goals, to challenge conventional wisdom and to spark creativity within the Martha’s Vineyard community.”

The first TED conference in 1984 included demos of cutting-edge technology such as the compact disc, the e-book and 3D graphics from Lucasfilm. TED’s popularity exploded after TED Talks were first posted online in June 2006. At the end of the first year, TED Talks had two million views. By the end of 2009, the first year of the TEDx program, the total views surpassed 200 million and in November 2012, TED Talks had one billion collective views. There have been over 10,200 TEDx events in 162 countries since the program began in 2009.

Following the TED model, TEDxMarthasVineyard will have 13 speakers, each talking for 15 minutes, and three streamed videos spread out over a single afternoon. Alexandra Styron, an author and lifelong seasonal Island resident, will moderate TEDxMarthasVineyard. Katy Decker is directing the event, with support from fellow co-founders Maggie Bryan, Ken Wentworth, and Liz Witham.

“I’ve produced TEDx events in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico, and I thought it would be an amazing fit for the lsland,” Ms. Decker said. “We wanted to do an event that isn’t age or gender specific, and that would attract people from all walks of life.”

Ms. Decker said the speaker selection began with suggestions from some prominent Islanders.“There’s a lot of amazing people here on the Island, like Geraldine Brooks and David McCullough,” she said. “They already give so much back to the community, rather than ask them to speak, we asked who they would like to hear.”

Speakers at TEDxMarthasVineyard will include author and screenwriter Jon Ronson (Men Who Stare at Goats, The Psychopath Test); seasonal resident and film producer Gary Foster (Sleepless in Seattle, The Soloist); Bevil Conway, lecturer on neurobiology at Harvard Medical School; renowned sommelier Andre Mac, Ian Ridgeway, captain of tall ship Shenandoah, singer/songwriter/producer Devonte Hynes aka Blood Orange, and costume designer Janie Bryant (Mad Men). Ms. Bryant is nominated for an Emmy award, but has elected to speak at TEDxMarthasVineyard and to watch the proceedings on television from the Island. A full list of speakers, along with ticket and sponsorship information, can be found at the TEDxMarthasVineyard website.

TED has exacting standards for TEDx events, and work began on this event last August. “This is a very expensive event to produce, since we have to post the talks on-line and TED production standards are very high,” Ms. Decker said. “That along with travel expenses for the speakers has us running at a deficit right now. The proceeds from this year, if there are any, will go to funding next year’s event,” she said.

Tickets are $65 for the August 19 event. There will be events over four days, starting on August 17, where donors of $500, $1,000 and corporate sponsors will have the opportunity to join the speakers at more intimate gatherings, including cocktail parties, a lunch sail on the Shenandoah and dinner and wine tasting at Atria.

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Island homeowners must confront baffling insurance policies tied to fluctuating flood maps.

Water Street in Vineyard Haven lived up to its name during Hurricane Sandy. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

On Wednesday, Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill aimed at relieving homeowners beset with rising flood insurance premiums. The new law prohibits creditors from requiring homeowners to buy flood insurance policies that exceed the balance of their mortgage. Additionally, it bans mortgage lenders from requiring coverage for the contents of the home or including a deductible of less than $5,000.

Underscoring the confusion that continues to bedevil consumers and vendors, the law, which arrived on the governor’s desk as H 3783, an Act Relative to Flood Insurance, also stipulates that homeowners fully understand that minimum flood insurance protects only their outstanding mortgage interest, not the value of their home. H 3783 is just the latest in a flurry of federal and state legislation that has been passed in the past two years, to try to bring order to a flood insurance program awash in confusion and red ink.
“The deeper you look into this, the more complicated it gets,” U.S. Representative William Keating said in a phone interview with The Times. Mr. Keating represents the 9th Massachusetts district, which includes the Cape and Islands. Mr. Keating played a key role in the drafting and passing of the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act (HFIA), the most recent federal flood insurance legislation signed into law in March by President Obama.

HFIA repeals and modifies a number of provisions in the 2012 Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which was enacted after emergency bailouts from Congress were required to keep the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) program afloat after taking a $22 billion hit from Hurricane Katrina. Many congressmen were inundated with complaints from their constituents who felt they were paying the tab for wealthy owners of vacation homes.
“It was a hard job convincing people in Congress this wasn’t the case,” Mr. Keating said. “I was told directly by other congressmen that these are rich people with waterfront homes. I tried to tell them that these are mostly family homes, many of them passed down through generations, but that was the mindset.”

Mr. Keating owned a house in Edgartown for 10 years and said he is well aware of the financial challenges Islanders face, along with the misconception that it’s an exclusive enclave for the elite. “People in congress have used the Vineyard as an example of flood insurance helping the rich,” he said. “That perception was around even back in my State House days.”

Drowning in Biggert Waters
The impact of Biggert Waters was immediate in Massachusetts. Homeowners who’d never been in a hazard zone suddenly found themselves with crushing flood insurance bills. Insurance rate hike horror stories were legion.

“I had a client who was on the old flood insurance plan who was paying $500 a year,” said Deb Martin, an insurance consultant with Grassi Insurance in Wareham “After Biggert Waters, it shot up to $60,000 a year. This was with a house that was almost 100 years old and had never been flooded.”

Biggert Waters also eliminated grandfathering — no longer were buildings allowed to keep their original flood-risk rating even if the zone designation changed with new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)  flood zone maps. In addition to skyrocketing premiums, second homes were hit with a 25 percent annual tax increase. Grandfathering of insurance policies was also eliminated, so when a home was sold, flood insurance rates went to actuarial rate immediately. People who bought homes after July 2012 became ineligible for subsidies after October 1, 2012, the day the new law went into effect. Biggert Waters also mandated that FEMA redraw coastal flood maps, and to do it quickly. Flood risk determinations were made for the high water mark in a 100-year storm — a model where there is a 26 percent chance of flooding over the span of a 30-year mortgage.

HFIA spells relief
HFIA capped residential insurance rates for primary homes at 18 percent and restored grandfathering. “Grandfathering is a big thing for Massachusetts because a lot of our homes are older homes,” a member of Mr. Keating’s staff said on background. “Under Biggert Waters when a home was sold or transferred it went to actuarial rate immediately. The new bill repealed the trigger. It was really devastating, especially for our district.”

HFIA also delayed rate hikes for four years while FEMA re-evaluates the accuracy of its flood maps. HFIA also includes the Keating Provision, which “guarantees that community maps are drawn with methodology that is appropriate for their region, ensuring that flood insurance premiums will be fair and accurate,” according to a press release from Mr. Keating’s office.

The Keating provision was set in motion shortly after FEMA released preliminary flood maps last fall. “Once we got a close look at the new maps, we felt like they just didn’t look right,” another Keating staffer said. “We felt like we needed to do our own study.”

DIM vs SWAN

An independent review of FEMA flood maps, by Dr. Brian Howes of UMass Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology and John Ramsey of Applied Coastal Research and Engineering, concluded that FEMA had utilized the Direct Integration Method (DIM), a Pacific Coast wave model, as opposed to one based on the Atlantic coastline in New England. The study concluded that the SWAN model — Simulating Waves Nearshore — developed by the Dutch, was a more accurate wave model for the Atlantic Coast wave pattern.
Based on the new study, the town of Rockport successfully appealed the new FEMA flood maps in February. “I expect FEMA to rectify the incorrect Massachusetts maps based on their recent approval of Rockport’s appeal,” Mr. Keating said in a press release after the decision. Other towns in New England are also preparing appeals on the Rockport decision. However, at present, FEMA is still using the DIM methodology.
“There are many different acceptable models,” FEMA engineer Kerry Bogdan said in an interview with The Times. “That doesn’t mean what we did is wrong.”
“My view is they’re digging in,” Mr. Keating said. “The law requires FEMA to enhance coordination with communities before and during mapping and to report certain information to members of Congress for each state. There’re questions throughout the whole process regarding the accuracy of the maps. A lot has been placed on FEMA in that respect, but the methodology has to be corrected.”

Mr. Keating added that he’s had discussions with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on the matter and that the oversight committee to homeland security has been receptive to a hearing, which he expects to hold this fall.

Although FEMA was due to release revised preliminary maps for Martha’s Vineyard this month, Ms. Bogdan said the maps will be made public in late fall or early winter. After the maps are released, there is a 90-day comment period where towns or townspeople can challenge FEMA findings. Individuals can challenge the map by hiring an engineer to draft a certificate of elevation, the cost of which can range upwards of $1,000. “We try to time the release of the maps to the 90-day period close to town meeting,” she said. The maps do not become official until they are approved at town meeting. Until that time, the 2010 maps for the Vineyard will be the FEMA standard.

Congressman urges action
Mr. Keating stressed that the most effective action for Islanders will be collective action. “We’re urging communities to become part of the Community Rating System,” he said, referring to the FEMA program that rewards communities that take action to reduce flood damage to insurable properties. “You’re not just benefiting individuals, you’re benefitting the community.This can decrease premiums for people from 10 percent up to 45 percent. In many cases, towns are already doing what it takes to earn credits.”

None of the six Island towns are enlisted in the Community Rating System, according to the FEMA website.
A staff member from Mr. Keatings officesaid there are staff members available who can set up a conference call between town officials and FEMA about joining Community Rating System.
“The clock is ticking on the reform: three and a half years seems like a long way off, but it’s not,” Mr. Keating said, referring to the grace period that was part of HFIA. “The sooner we get more resolution the better it is for everyone. This affects the way people make plans and there are lot of other issues tied into this. We don’t want to be waiting till the 11th hour.”

Mr. Keating said Islanders can get help with flood insurance on a case-by-case basis from his staff by calling his Plymouth office at 508-746-9000.

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The Oak Bluffs Bluewater Classic (OBBC), a big-game fishing tournament and the de facto replacement of the Monster Shark Tournament, will make its inaugural run this week, from Wednesday through Saturday, July 24–26.
Damon Sacco of Bourne, owner and operator of Castafari Sport Fishing and organizer of the Hyannis Tuna Fest, is the organizer of the OBBC. He has been assisted by Christian Giardani of Falmouth, one of the organizers of the Falmouth Grand Prix fishing tournament, and Ted Rosbeck of Edgartown.

“The fishing is really starting to heat up, so we should see some great action,” Mr. Sacco said in a phone interview with The Times. “We just need the weather to cooperate.” Mr. Sacco said the bluewater fishing south of Martha’s Vineyard rivals the best big game fishing anywhere in the world. Contestants can fish two out of the three days, which will allow for overnight trips to the northeast canyons, prime waters for big game hunting.

The OBBC is sanctioned by the International Game Fishing Association (IGFA) and will operate on a points system. Species that will accrue points are bigeye tuna, yellowfin tuna, swordfish, wahoo, mahi-mahi, and marlin. Marlin will be catch and release only. Sharks will have no point value. Contestants will weigh in their fish from 5 to 8 pm, Thursday through Saturday, at the dock adjacent to Our Market. A marine biologist will be on hand at the weigh-in. There will be sponsor booths in Sunset park as well. Mad Martha’s Brewery is the main sponsor of the tournament.
On Saturday night, there will be an awards dinner at Dreamland, followed by a party with live music, that will open to the public at 10 pm.
Ten percent of the tournament proceeds will be donated to the Island autism group, according to Mr. Sacco. There will also be a charity raffle for the Massachusetts General Hospital colon cancer research fund.

The Oak Bluffs Bluewater Classic replaces the Monster Shark Tournament, which ended after the untimely death of organizer Steven James in a duck hunting accident in January. Mr. James ran the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament for 27 years, defending and modifying it over time in the face of growing opposition from Islanders and others.  In February, Oak Bluffs selectmen voted to reject the application for a new shark tournament and instead chose the multi-species tournament proposed by Mr. Sacco and his associates.
Mr. Sacco said he’s expecting 25 to 30 teams to enter this year — a modest turnout compared to the Monster Shark tournament, which peaked in 2004 with  245 participating entrants that paid an entry fee of more than $1,000 per boat. But Mr. Sacco is confident the OBBC will grow under his guidance. “We had 16 contestants in the first year of [Hyannis] Tuna Fest, in 2011,” he said. “This year we had 57.” Mr. Sacco said his goal is to reach 100 contestants in five years.

More information for the Oak Bluffs Bluewater Classic can be found at the tournament website, obbclassic.com