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Chilmark selectmen will examine low-price rents for Basin shacks
Many members of Menemsha's tight-knit waterfront community turned up at Tuesday night's meeting of the Chilmark selectmen and a discussion of the rent structure for town-owned lots along the Menemsha Harbor. Chilmark's expressed goal is to preserve the working character of its harbor. That effort has included retaining ownership of property along the harbor edge and leasing lots at very little cost to individuals and businesses involved with commercial fishing.
Chilmark selectmen are considering raising the $10 annual rent for the lots along Menemsha Creek. Photo by Ezra Blair
The town leases seven smaller lots on the west side of 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 that has been the source of past friction, 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 that begins at the end of North Road by the Galley restaurant and ends at the Coast Guard dock.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."
At Tuesday's meeting, Frank Fenner, chairman of the board of selectmen, said that he wanted to update the rents, at least for the creek lots, which have not changed in many years. He said any potential changes would not go into effect until next year.
"In this day in age, just to write out the lease and the time that it takes in the town hall, the $10 probably doesn't cover the cost that it takes to process these," said Mr. Fenner. "In my mind, it's not like we are looking to make a huge amount of money out of this."
Warren Doty, selectman, said, "It's pretty low by 2006 standards."
The selectmen said that they would meet with the town parks and recreation department, which has responsibility for the bulkhead lots, to discuss possible changes to the rent structure.
In contrast to Chilmark's rates, Aquinnah provides a five-year lease and charges $450 annually. The Aquinnah leases are up for renewal this fall according to a town official.
The shared control has been the source of disputes and led to the creation of an inter-municipal agreement called "The Menemsha Creek Agreement."
The agreement, which ended a dispute over the use of the property, allows lots to be leased only to "bona fide" commercial fishermen who have fished for three years prior to application; requires lots to be used for active commercial fishing a minimum of six months each year; prohibits subletting; and gives selectmen from each town veto power over the issuance of any new lease based on a deviation from the conditions of the agreement.
Supporting the industry
The Chilmark selectmen said they had sent out bills for the creek lots, but had not signed the annual leases for the bulkhead lots. The selectmen said they wanted to do a thorough review of each of the leaseholders before renewing the leases.
"The lots that have operating businesses on them, we feel that those need real review," said Mr. Fenner. "It isn't a place where we are trying to make a big profit on the harbor, but we are trying to bring it up to a standard that helps support the harbor.
Mr. Doty added, "We want each of the businesses to meet with us and the park and recreation committee, and show us how they are serving the fishing fleet. We expect to get a plan from you before we sign your lease."
Riggs Parker, selectman, said that one of the goals is to ensure that the fishermen are going to have a market for their fish. "The fishermen need to know that they are going to be able to sell their catches," he said.
The selectmen said that they had not discussed how much they would consider raising the rents either for the creek lots or the bulkhead lots. They said that they needed to meet with the park and recreation department and the current leaseholders before making any decisions. They also stressed that the goal was not for the town to make money off of the fishing community.
The meeting was marked by a generally lighthearted tone. Several fishermen said that the town's restrictions on the Menemsha waterfront limit the value of the property.
"We don't get much services out of it really," said Pat Jenkinson, who leases two creek lots from the town. "We have to provide our own electricity..."
Mr. Fenner, who owns a small restaurant on the Menemsha waterfront, interjected, "It's a pretty good location."
Mr. Jenkinson replied, "Yeah, but if we're not there, who's going to have it? What are you going to do, take it over and put yachts in it? If you want to help the fishermen, why raise the rent?"
"All that area down there is restricted for fishermen," said Mr. Fenner. "Raising the rents is just something that we are considering."
In a conversation with The Times on Monday, Andy Goldman, chairman of the Chilmark parks and recreation department, said his board also wants to examine possible changes to the rent structure.
"This year we have decided to ask ourselves if we should take another look at it," he said.
Mr. Goldman stressed that the rents should not hinder the commercial fishing industry.
"By subsidizing these rents the town is using a tool to try and keep commercial fishing a viable industry," he said. "It is just one tool in the towns arsenal. The restrictions that we place on the lots are another tool."
He added, "The town isn't making money from these lots, but a lot of public good that comes from it. If we wanted to have a t-shirt shop, we could raise a lot more money for town. There are many uses that could produce more income, but our town in its wisdom, has reached a consensus about the notion of maintaining and preserving Menemsha as a fishing community, the way it has for all these years."
The discussion over rents comes against a backdrop of other efforts to maintain Menemsha's viability as a fishing community. The selectmen have recently expressed concerns over the availability of wholesale outlets for fishermen who choose to unload in Menemsha. They are currently considering providing a town lot to an off-Island fish dealer in order to help provide a market for local fishermen.