History's ironic twists
At a meeting yesterday, convened to consider the complaints of the Steamship Authority that Capt. Robert S. Douglas's two schooners, Alabama and Shenandoah, are making it unsafe for ferry masters to find their way to the wharf in Vineyard Haven, those of us who have a long view of changes along the Vineyard Haven waterfront were confronted with an irony. In fact, a couple of them.
SSA general manager Wayne Lamson produced a 1980 letter from the Tisbury planning board, setting forth the ways in which the boatline should use the second ferry slip it had built a few years before. Mr. Lamson called the letter a permit, but in fact it was a kind of agreement, between town authorities who would have liked to assume some control over SSA behavior in the harbor and the Steamship Authority, secure in its freedom from lawful restriction. That freedom had been enshrined by the state legislature. The boatline was and is entitled to do as it chooses, if it chooses.
The focus of the argument between Captain Douglas, whose schooners have been moored at the head of the harbor for 43 years, and the Steamship Authority is the second slip - the southerly one. That slip is tough to get into when the wind blows from the south or southeast. The Steamship Authority says these conditions create a safety concern.
The irony is that in the mid-1970s, when the Steamship Authority acquired the Seaman's Bethel, the old Crowell Coal Company, and the old Tilton Lumber Company, thus assembling the whole stretch of waterfront on which the ticket office sits and where they stage autos for the ferries, the boatline had to submit its expansion plans to the brand-new Martha's Vineyard Commission. Although, most thoughtful Islanders urged the boatline to shift its operations to a site east of R. M. Packer Company, the MVC said yes to everything except the second, southernmost slip the boatline wanted to add. The SSA appealed that rejection in court and lost. Unwilling to take no for an answer from one of the communities it professed to serve, the boatline filed a bill in the state legislature that immunized the ferry from the pesky rules of local communities and their regional planning and regulatory agencies. In 1980, the boatline may have made an agreement with the town of Tisbury, but it didn't have to.
Then, when the boatline built the big new terminal building, it chose the site of the former Bethel building, rather than where the old terminal building was, on the north side of Union Street. That meant that autos and trucks disembarking at the north slip had to cross the line of pedestrians trudging to and from the pedestrian loading area between the two slips.
So, the irony is that the boatline shore facilities, which the town never wanted, and the boatline's terminal arrangements for pedestrians and autos have led the Authority to press the Coast Guard to interfere with Coastwise Packet's operations, on grounds that the latter's two schooners have made the boatline's use of the ferry wharf unsafe. How do you like that? After bulldozing its way to where it is today, the boatline blames us for inconveniencing it. Ironic, indeed.