Menemsha fishermen lessees need insurance
Menemsha Harbor is cold and nearly deserted, but the clamor surrounding a recent decision of the board of selectmen is heating things up among the members of Chilmark's closely knit marine community.
Chilmark selectmen split 2-1 over a decision last week to require that leaseholders of town lots on Menemsha Harbor carry $1 million each in liability insurance, and name the town as an additionally insured party.
At a joint meeting with the park and recreation committee last Tuesday, selectman Frank Fenner and J.B. Riggs Parker, chairman of the selectmen, favored the lease requirement, saying it would protect the town. Warren Doty voted against it, saying the town had insurance, and it would add an unnecessary burden to fishermen.
As part of a long-standing effort to preserve the working character of its harbor, Chilmark leases lots on the harbor at very little cost to individuals and businesses involved with commercial fishing.
The town park and recreation committee oversees the leasing of nine town-owned lots along the town bulkhead. Rents vary depending on use and whether there is a building and whether there is a commercial business.
For example, the owners of Larsen's Fish Market, Menemsha Fish Market and Menemsha Texaco paid approximately $1,200 last year. Fisherman John Armstrong paid $288 for a lot with a building. Fishermen Karsten Larsen and Jonathan Mayhew each paid $72 for a basic lot on the bulkhead.
The town leases seven smaller lots on the west side of the harbor on the spit of land that divides Menemsha Basin from Menemsha Creek. Chilmark charges $10 a year for the 20-foot-wide creek lots.
In an unusual arrangement, the town of Aquinnah owns a triangular piece of land that juts across the creek and into Menemsha Harbor giving the town control over six leases, three on each side of the spit.
The land was deeded by the state to both towns in 1965 with the stipulation it be "reserved for and made available to commercial fishermen."
Chilmark currently leases its seven creek lots for an annual $10 fee. The leaseholders are Jonathan and Gregory Mayhew; Pat Jenkinson; Chris Murphy; Dennis Jason (the Chilmark habormaster); Carl Flanders; John Larsen; and John, Steven, Louis and Louis Larsen.
All politics is local, former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neal famously wrote. He could have had Menemsha in mind, where the people who make the decisions are intimately familiar with those their decisions will affect.
A vote that impinges on long-held prerogatives or ways of doing business is always sure to generate considerable flack. And that was the case this week.
In a Letter to the Editor that appears on page 8, lobsterman Pat Jenkinson wrote, "The two selectmen passed this without any input from us, as we weren't notified of this meeting. My guess is we aren't considered Chilmark people or taxpayers, so they just passed it."
Mr. Jenkinson called on Chilmarkers to turn out Tuesday, when the selectmen meet again, and appeal to them to reverse their decision.
Following the vote Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll drafted a letter to be sent to creek lot lessees informing them of the vote to require, as a term of the lease, a certificate of insurance and "that all buildings be kept in good repair and weather tight."
Mr. Carroll circulated the letter to selectmen for comment. Mr. Parker noted that the letter looked fine, "except that in the third line there is an extra 'to' that should be removed."
Mr. Doty wrote to the executive secretary, his selectmen colleagues, and others, "All, this letter is a big mistake. I spoke to Karsten Larsen this morning. He called Island Insurance and was told the policy would cost him $800. That is a huge waste of money. If 12 Menemsha fishermen all pay $800 to an insurance company that would be $9,600 taken out of Menemsha pockets and just sent off to corporate America. Why should we be sending good, hard-earned local dollars off-Island like that? Isn't there some way we can do better than this?"
"Agreed!" wrote Andy Goldman, chairman of the park and recreation committee, in response to Mr. Doty. "Big mistake. We don't know what part of town policy is attributable to Menemsha."
After learning that The Times had requested copies of the draft and emails, Mr. Doty wrote to The Times to elaborate on his position. "We are requiring our local fishermen to buy insurance for a problem we do not have," Mr. Doty said. "The town of Chilmark already has liability insurance that covers us for all potential incidents on town owned land in Menemsha. We have not had any incidents making any claims on our insurance for this location at any time in the last ten years.
"If the town decides that the fishermen are getting a good deal and the rent is too low for the lots that they lease, then we should do something that returns the increased rent money to the town. We should not declare a ruling that just sends extra money away into the air and gains us nothing." In a telephone conversation with The Times on Monday, Mr. Fenner, who owns the Galley Restaurant in Menemsha, said the reason people purchase insurance is to protect themselves, their homes or their businesses. "The town gives the fishermen a very good place to work from and sharing in some of the liability that could come from that, I thought is a good thing," he said.
Mr. Fenner said he understands the financial pressures on fishermen and does not want to add to their burden. He said it is his understanding that adding the town to existing liability coverage, for example on a fishing boat, would not be costly, perhaps less than $200. "There are a whole lot of other people in the town of Chilmark, and I thought that if it could be gotten for a reasonable price that it was a good thing," he said.
Mr. Fenner said he is still exploring the insurance costs and would reconsider his position if it appears the price would be far greater than what he thought.
In raising the issue of liability insurance, Mr. Fenner pointed to the town of Aquinnah, which provides a five-year lease at an annual rent of $450. The town also requires lessees to provide a certificate of insurance for $1 million in liability and indemnify the town.
Jeff Burgoyne, Aquinnah town coordinator, said the town lots are currently leased to Lynn Murphy, Camille Rose, Hugh Taylor, Hollis Smith, Wendy Swolinsky, and Buddy Vanderhoop.
Asked if the leases, which expire in 2011, are current, Mr. Burgoyne said, "Yes, leaseholders value them more than gold."
Reached by telephone, Ms. Rose said she pays $750 annually for liability insurance.
Chilmark is self-insured through the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association, the nonprofit insurance arm of the Massachusetts Municipal Association that insures nearly 400 cities, towns, and other public entities in the state.
Steve Schwab of Chilmark, an agent with the Martha's Vineyard Insurance Agency, told The Times that the cost of a commercial general liability policy would be dependent on use but could be expected to cost between $500 and $1,500.
Mr. Schwab said that many Island organizations and businesses require lessees to hold liability insurance. For example, the high school he said requires any users to have liability insurance. "It is very, very common, prudent and makes good sense too," he said.