Menemsha changes spark a hubbub
Yachtsmen take aim at selectman over dock rules
Two Chilmark homeowners, rankled by changes in regulations for Menemsha Harbor that affect their use of the town docks for large pleasure yachts, recently launched a free swinging and wide ranging campaign against J.B. Riggs Parker, calling for the resignation of the Chilmark selectman.
The inspiration of James Zisson, together with Edward (Spider) Andresen, billed as co-chairmen, the committee, Menemsha is for Everyone.com (MIFE), an organization for which they plan to seek not-for-profit status, has deluged town officials with e-mailed charges and demands, printed up bumper stickers, and run newspaper advertisements rallying "Chilmarkians" against the town's leadership and harbor management rules.
Peaceful Menemsha scene belies a struggle led by yachtsmen aggrieved by changes in harbor rules and enforcement practices. Photo by Susan Safford
Mr. Zisson's "Menemsha is for everyone" web site features a flag-bordered homepage, complete with the words, "Hands off our harbor, Hands off our boats." Describing its members as a "growing coalition of long-time up-Island residents and visitors who are concerned about what's been going on in Menemsha and Chilmark," the web site features a 13-point plan to put things back on track.
In an effort to attract followers who have other issues besides harbor grievances, the plan also targets poor cell phone service in Chilmark, traffic problems at Bettlebung Corner and Menemsha, and affordable housing as troubles that Mr. Parker and his fellow selectmen, Frank Fenner and Warren Doty, need to address.
To sweeten its appeal, Mr. Zisson and Mr. Andresen pledge that net profits from donations made toward printing and legal costs will go to support the Chilmark Volunteer Fire Department fund and the Tri-Town EMT/Ambulance Benevolent Fund, along with a $5,000 pledge from Mr. Zisson to match donations.
In an e-mail from the MIFE web site this week, Mr. Zisson announced the next weapon to be unleashed will be television broadcasts via wireless web cams showing Menemsha's boat slips and parking lot, along with a "Riggs Cam" to monitor how often Mr. Parker visits the harbormaster's shack.
Mr. Zisson said this week that his focus on Mr. Parker has to do with the latter's position as one of the three board members who serves as a liaison to the harbormaster and who was instrumental in drafting the new harbor regulations. Although he refers to Mr. Parker as the "harbor czar," Mr. Zisson insists he is not waging a personal vendetta against him.
However, bumper stickers seen around Menemsha and stuck on street signs elsewhere on the Island feature President George W. Bush's photo, along with the words, "Riggs, if the President of the United States can take public criticism, so can King Riggs! You're not handling this well." Still, Mr. Zisson said, "We're not trying to denigrate anybody with these bumper stickers, but we want to get people's attention and use humor as a weapon as a way to make people take themselves less seriously but to take the issues more seriously."
Mr. Zisson also must be counting on the ability of possible supporters to laugh at themselves. A newspaper ad that ran in the Vineyard Gazette last week pictured retired General Wesley Clark next to the admonishment, "Chilmarkians, put down that brie and chardonay [sic], and take your town back." General Clark has not yet been informed of his part in the Menemsha skirmish, Mr. Zisson said.
What's the beef?
Two of the harbor regulations that have Mr. Zisson and Mr. Andresen out of sorts were approved by the three selectmen in November. Both have to do with the size of boats allowed in Menemsha basin and their length of stay.
Menemsha Basin features several docks, with a mixture of commercial, transient, and resident slips. The commercial dock in Menemsha Creek, once available to transient boats up to 118 feet at the discretion of the harbormaster, is now limited to yachts up to 75 feet.
"The selectmen wanted to create a steady turnover flow in the harbor," harbormaster Dennis Jason explained this week. "By limiting the size of boats to 75 feet, we could bring in more people and turn over the dock space more often, which the townspeople thought would make it look more like Menemsha."
Mr. Zisson likened this concept to having a harbor architectural review board, or what he calls a "HarCom."
"Not only do the selectmen want to maintain the same visual look in terms of the structures around the harbor, but they obviously want to now control the kinds of boats they feel fit into their Kodak picture postcard moment of the Menemsha fishing village," he said.
Another regulation that particularly upsets Mr. Zisson and the larger yacht crowd is a change in the rule limiting transient dockage to 14 continuous days in slips, on the bulkhead or on moorings from July 1 through Labor Day. After 14 days, the boat must leave the harbor for at least a week.
"Any other place you would want to go in the middle of the summer for a week is probably booked," Mr. Zisson said. "The real purpose of the exercise is to make sure people don't stay more than two weeks, whether or not there is space available."
Although the two-week rule had been on the books since 1996, up until now, "it was kind of half-heartedly enforced and vague," explained harbormaster Dennis Jason.
Mr. Zisson also takes issue with the regulation that allows only transient boat owners and guests and private boaters to live aboard their boats while docked in Menemsha. "If you happen to be lucky enough to have a town slip and pay $4,000 a year for the summer for the privilege, you can't stay on your boat overnight because it's against the new regulations," he argues.
Labeling the new harbor regulations as discriminatory, the MIFE web site hints at taking legal action against the town. "I have looked at the legal issues on a preliminary basis and find there is no violation of Massachusetts law, nor does it raise any constitutional issues," said Chilmark town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport this week. "I intend to research this further and finalize it in written form to the selectmen."
A question of process
Another issue for Mr. Zisson is that the harbor subcommittee, including Mr. Jason, Mr. Parker, and former selectman Alex Preston, drafted the regulations without including boaters during their deliberations.
"What we thought was objectionable was the formation of a committee by the same person that drafted the rules that runs the harbor, and there's no good governance in the way the whole process worked. There's no checks and balances in that," Mr. Zisson said.
Scheduling the hearings and decisions on the regulations in October and November limited participation to year-round residents and left out summer boating families, Mr. Zisson said. He did submit a letter registering his opinions about the proposed changes to the selectmen.
"If something like 80 percent of Chilmark's total revenues, be they property taxes or user fees or beach stickers, come from people that are only here for two months of the year, then the town should really do a much better job to schedule its workshops on issues like harbor management, like affordable housing, like traffic management, for when those people are here, whether they vote or not," Mr. Zisson said.
"We had all kinds of hearings," said selectman Fenner. "We're running a town, and the business of town operations is twelve months a year."
The selectmen hold an annual open meeting specifically aimed at providing a forum for summer residents, and have one scheduled for Aug. 17 pm, at the Chilmark Community Center. "We'll be there," Mr. Zisson said.
The MIFE organizers
As director of wealth management at CitiGroup Global Markets in West Palm Beach, Mr. Zisson is a senior investment management consultant for high net-worth families, endowments, pension funds, and foundations. He first came to the Vineyard in 1967, working part-time in a summer record store and first sailed in 1975. He does not own a boat at present.
Working in Florida since 1983, Mr. Zisson said he "went native within the last year and a half," buying a historical property in Chilmark that once belonged to the Thomas Hart Benton family.
Mr. Andresen, a Chilmark resident since 1966, manages all of singer Jimmy Buffett's 12-yacht fleet, plus other non-related music business for Mr. Buffett. Under the new regulations restricting boat lengths, Mr. Buffett's 90-foot boat will no longer be allowed to tie up at the fill dock alongside the creek.
Mr. Zisson describes their coalition membership as being made up of commercial fishermen, charter captains, year-round residents, and summer visitors. However, several listed on the website as members of the "committee-in-formation" said they were surprised to find their names there.
Chilmark resident Susan Murphy said that her name and her husband Lynn's "appeared in the e-mail without our consent and without our knowledge." The same was true of fisherman Emmett Carroll, who said, "I think he [Mr. Zisson] just put everybody's name on the committee who knew him."
In his defense
When Mr. Parker was designated by the selectmen to oversee the harbor, he proposed improvements such as replacing the bulkhead, rewiring the dock, and implementing a new computer program for the harbormaster's office. He also carried out the selectmen's plans to enforce the harbor regulations with Mr. Jason.
"We thought it was time to tighten up, to make things clear," Mr. Parker said. "We also had begun to get larger vessels, which changed the scale of the harbor and turned it into more of a marina harbor than a commercial fishing village."
Along with the larger boats came navigational problems, Mr. Parker said. The selectmen's decision to limit boat size also was based on safety issues.
"You can't always plan on a large boat coming into Menemsha at slack tide, in high water, with no wind," Mr. Fenner pointed out. "Large boats are difficult to handle safely within the harbor bounds. We're also trying to give as many people with boats the option to come in here as possible."
Mr. Parker said he thought Mr. Zisson has singled him out because "the harbor changes came under my watch." Last October, when the harbor regulations were under review, Mr. Parker said the selectmen posted the proposed changes on the town's web site, held public hearings, and consulted with the harbor management committee before voting their final, unanimous approval.
Although Mr. Parker has been held responsible by MIFE for the changes, as selectman Warren Doty pointed out, "None of these regulations were put in place on a split vote. They all have been done with the unanimous decision of the board of selectmen."
Lenny Jason, a longtime observer of town politics as Chilmark's and Edgartown's building inspector, said Mr. Zisson's focus on Mr. Parker seems personal. "It's not based on any facts. The selectmen adopted the regulations and did it in an open meeting, plus had two hearings that I know of. It seems like a case where somebody falls asleep at the switch, realizes what happened, and then wants to do something about it," Mr. Jason said.
In agreeing on the harbor regulations, Mr. Parker said, "The selectmen are united in trying to follow Chilmark's master plan in Menemsha by making sure the harbor is balanced between boats owned by residents, transients, and commercial fishermen.
"Menemsha is a jewel to Chilmark and to the rest of the Island. Once you start losing it to pleasure boats, when you lose it to these giant mega-palaces, you'll never get it back," Mr. Parker concluded.
What MIFE wants
Mr. Zisson's coalition is calling for the selectmen to rescind the harbor regulations they passed in November. In addition, he said, "I think part of the solution is for Riggs to resign because of all this and because of a number of other things, and that Warren Doty should take over the harbor right away, because he has had everybody's full support."
Mr. Zisson maintains that he harbors no ill will against Mr. Parker who, for his part, seems to be taking the criticism in stride. "It goes with the territory of being a selectman," he said. A longtime Chilmark resident, Mr. Parker has also served as Vineyard member of the Steamship Authority, another controversial public position.