Acting on a request from the state Division of Marine Fisheries, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) last month approved modifications to the Oak Bluffs public fishing pier that will include bait-cutting surfaces on the railing and a hand-operated water pump. But the MVC scaled back a request to place solar powered lights along the length of the pier, which has become a popular stroll.
The MVC review sparked some sharp exchanges among the commissioners. Several commission members disagreed on whether the improvements were significant enough to require a public hearing, and whether the addition of lights is necessary.
Funded and built by the state’s Office of Fishing and Boating Access (FBA), the pier is the largest public saltwater pier in the state. The MVC approved the pier as a development of regional impact over the objections of abutters on November 18, 2010. A grand opening attended by town and state officials was held on June 19, 2014.
In a recap of the project at the MVC’s September 18 meeting, staff coastal planner Jo-Ann Taylor reminded the commissioners that the DRI decision included two conditions relevant to the proposed modifications: that the pier would not be lighted, and that it would not be equipped with amenities such as running water and electricity, according to a televised recording of the meeting.
Public hearing or not?
The MVC’s first battle line was over the need for a public hearing.
“The land use planning committee [LUPC] did recommend that because the subject of lights on the pier was a concern during the original approval, and it seemed if we were going to change something of concern where we had written ‘there shall be none,’ there should be a public hearing,” LUPC chairman Linda Sibley of West Tisbury said.
West Tisbury member Erik Hammarlund and Chilmark member Doug Sederholm agreed. “I think it’s important we give the fishing community the opportunity to comment, and the neighbors,” Mr. Sederholm said.
“I completely disagree,” Tisbury member Josh Goldstein said. “I think this is a safety issue. These are tiny lights.
“Doesn’t this commission have better things to do? This is an outrageous waste of our time, and this is why people think the commission is such a waste.”
Chilmark member Joan Malkin said that although she understood Mr. Goldstein’s position, she thought a hearing was needed and it would be helpful for the commissioners and public to see a couple of sample solar lights installed at the pier in advance.
“I would like to expedite it, but it seems ridiculous but necessary to go through the process,” Ms. Malkin said.
Ross Kessler, Public Access Coordinator for the Division of Marine Fisheries, had installed some sample solar lights on a post in the MVC’s driveway before the meeting. On a suggestion by Kathy Newman of Aquinnah, commissioners went outside to look at the lights. On their return, MVC chairman Fred Hancock called for a vote on a motion that the proposed modifications would require a public hearing. It was defeated 7 to 6.
Lights for safety — or not?
After the public hearing vote, Mr. Hancock said the next question was whether the commissioners wanted to see some sample lights installed on the pier before making a decision.
Mr. Kessler suggested the downward-facing lights be placed low on the inside of the pier posts to illuminate the walkway, and spaced about 20 feet apart, with five along the end of the “L.” He said that DMF would like to take the lights down on November 30 and reinstall them on April 1, to avoid the wear and tear of winter weather.
Mr. Goldstein made a motion to approve the pier modifications as submitted by the applicant. Mr. Hammarlund took the lead when Mr. Hancock asked if there was further discussion.
“I think that putting lights on is ridiculous,” said Mr. Hammarlund, who practices law in Vineyard Haven. “Yes, of course, it is safer — well, it is and it isn’t — lights, when you make things safer, it tempts people to use them.
“You’re more likely to go out there on a slippery night if there are lights than you would if it’s dark,” he added, noting they were also “ugly.”
Ms. Newman said she agreed with Ms. Malkin and would like Mr. Kessler to install a few lights on the pier first to see what it would look like.
“We’re going to ask the state to put them up, and then if we say no, they’ll have to pay to take them down?” Mr. Goldstein questioned.
“We’d be very willing to put them up at the end in the L, so where people are fishing at night there would be some illumination to tie a knot or unhook a fish,” Mr. Kessler said.
“Can I ask how did the need for lights come up; is there a safety issue?” Ms. Newman continued.
“Jesus, yes,” commissioner Clarence “Trip” Barnes of Tisbury exclaimed.
“How many people have been hurt on the dock?” Mr. Hammarlund asked.
“We had a visit over here this spring before the ribbon-cutting, and some of our administrators came,” Mr. Kessler explained. “One of first things our director brought up was, why aren’t there any lights on the pier? We were a major funder to the pier, but we were not the engineers and didn’t deal with any of the permitting.”
Differences of opinion among fishermen about the need for lighting at the pier also came up.
“It may appear to be a no-brainer to put lights on for safety. However, I was approached by two different members of the fishing community in the past week, both of whom thought it was absurd to put lights out there,” Mr. Sederholm said. Mr. Hancock asked if they said why.
“For one thing, they said fishermen always have their own lights; that was their main reason,” Mr. Sederholm said, adding, “But of course there are other people who would use it, too.”
“Doug found a couple of fishermen who don’t like lights; I can tell you myself as a fishermen in the Derby, I wouldn’t mind having lights there,” Edgartown commissioner Jim Joyce said. “You’ll find fishermen on either side.”
Expressing concern that the commission would reach a stalemate, Ms. Malkin asked Mr. Kessler, “If the decision was to be only with lights on the L, would that make you happy or not?”
“Right now, yes,” Mr. Kessler said.
Ms. Malkin asked to amend Mr. Goldstein’s motion to approve the pump, bait stations, and lighting at the end of the L, from April 1 to Nov. 30. Mr. Goldstein agreed, “with reluctance.”
In a vote taken by roll call, nine commissioners voted yes. Mr. Hammarlund and Mr. Hancock voted no. Christina Brown of Edgartown, Mr. Sederholm, and Ms. Sibley abstained.
“God, that was painful,” Ms. Malkin exclaimed once the issue had been resolved.