Private buyer waits in wings at Home Port Restaurant
With Chilmark voters poised to consider a town-funded purchase of the Home Port Restaurant property in Menemsha, a Chilmark inn owner this week confirmed that he is prepared to purchase the restaurant if voters reject the deal.
Bob Nixon, owner of the Menemsha Inn and the Beach Plum Inn in Chilmark, told The Times on Tuesday that he has a written agreement with Home Port owners Will and Madeline Holtham to purchase the property for "close" to the same price, if voters reject the deal at the special town meeting.
On July 29, Chilmark selectmen agreed to buy the Home Port restaurant building and property and two associated waterfront lots for $2 million, pending approval from two-thirds of the voters who attend a special town meeting scheduled for Monday, September 22.
Selectmen want to remove the building, retain parking, provide a comfort station, create additional town water access for kayaks and small boats, and create a public park space.
Mr. Nixon said his primary interest is in preserving the character of the town. A filmmaker who co-produced the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, the story of Diane Fossey, and divides his home between Washington, D.C., and Chilmark, he said he has the support of a group of backers who share his goal.
"If the town votes not to purchase it, I would plan to buy it and continue to run it pretty much as it is," said Mr. Nixon. "I think the Home Port is an integral part of Menemsha. The thought of it being town down and thrown in the dumpster is very disturbing to me."
Mr. Nixon said his offer to purchase the Home Port is part of a long-term effort to preserve the port. He said continuing the restaurant business will provide tax revenue to the town, jobs, and an outlet for commercial fishermen to sell their catch directly to the restaurant.
"That's my interest," said Mr. Nixon. "Everybody's talking local; there's nothing more local than the Home Port."
Mr. Nixon said he agrees with the view that the restaurant should not become the site of a private house. He said if the restaurant proves to be unsuccessful he would offer the first option on the property to the town.
Mr. Nixon said he has been talking with the Home Port owners for several years, with the intention of keeping the restaurant operating. He termed his proposal a backup, not a competing offer. "The citizens, it's up to them," he said. "Our offer is pending if the town says no."
In 2005, Chilmark voters said no when the price to buy the Home Port restaurant property was $3.9 million. That proposal included a waterfront parcel that is not included in the newest proposal. Two hundred nineteen voters required nearly two and a half hours of debate over the special town meeting's one-article warrant before spurning the Home Port offer. Ninety voters said yes, 119 said no. A two-thirds majority, or 146 yes votes, was needed to carry the question.
Selectmen Warren Doty and J. B. Riggs Parker approved the terms of the latest deal. Chairman Frank Fenner, a supporter of the acquisition, did not participate in the negotiations. Mr. Fenner owns the Galley, a restaurant across from the waterfront lots the town may acquire.
The proposal to purchase the property, and authorization to pay interest on the loan, are the first two articles on the September 22 special town meeting warrant.
Mr. Parker said Tuesday that he does not think Mr. Nixon's offer changes the political landscape. "It doesn't change anything," he said. "I think the town should acquire that land. It's important to do that. Even if somebody bought it and ran a restaurant, there's no assurance it would be there for any length of time. It's a question of how the town wants to look at Menemsha, and protect it for the future."
One issue expected to influence the debate is the shortage of parking in Menemsha. Traditionally, the Home Port has allowed visitors to use its parking lots in off-hours. Supporters of the park project point out that a parcel known as the "dock lot" has already been sold to a private buyer. That lot, which was used for restaurant parking, is not part of either offer. Though estimates vary about the number of spaces, the loss of those spots is likely to make the parking shortage more acute, according to supporters of the town's proposal. "It's important to think that the restaurant will be run with less parking than has been available historically," said Helen Schwiesow Parker, who is married to selectman Parker and is helping to organize a pledge drive to help offset the cost of the taxpayer-financed proposal.
"If we let that opportunity go by," said Ms. Parker, "the town will not have control. What I fear is further screening of this view, closing it out to the public even more."
Mr. Nixon disputes the idea that the question should be decided on the basis of traffic and parking issues.
"There's a lot of other ways to solve the traffic problem," said Mr. Nixon. "Ripping down the Home Port does not solve the traffic problem. The traffic concerns have to be addressed at a more holistic level."
Mr. Nixon says his offer is generating support. "A lot of voters have approached me, business owners," he said. "A lot of people told me that this was dead on arrival, that we voted no before, why is this coming back?"
Water view, tax picture
Chilmark selectmen authorized an illustration posted on the town's web site, showing what the property looks like now, and what it might look like as a waterfront park. Mr. Parker notes that the illustration was done by a volunteer at no taxpayer expense, and that the illustration is intended only to show one possibility for the park design. "Actual design of the park would be done after the acquisition and public hearings, with input from all town interests," he said.
A letter to the editor in today's Times (see Page 14), signed by 11 prominent Chilmark residents, offered support for the town's proposal, and promoted their arguments in favor of the waterfront park.
Among them is Clarissa Allen, who opposed the purchase of the Home Port when the issue was before town voters in 2005. "A lot could be done with the space," said Ms. Allen in a phone conversation with the Times on Monday. "It would be really tragic if it would be a single family residence. It would be great to have a restaurant there, but that seems complicated."
Also supporting the town's proposal is Jane Slater. "I appreciated the efforts of selectmen to come up with a plan," said Ms. Slater. "In Chilmark, $2 million is either a lot of money, or not much money. Some taxpayers feel we shouldn't spend the money. I feel like we should make some effort to save our open land, or create open land near the water."
Gregory Mayhew, a commercial fisherman based in Menemsha and a member of a prominent local family, spoke in opposition to the purchase of the Home Port when the question was last before voters. This time, he hasn't decided how he will vote, but is more open to the town's proposal.
"Certainly the price is a lot more in line," said Mr. Mayhew in a phone conversation from aboard his fishing boat on Wednesday. "I think it would be a possible good acquisition for the town. I'd like to hear the arguments for and against."
According to supporters of the town offer, the $2 million purchase price translates to an average annual tax increase of $50 per $1 million of assessed property value, over the 20-year life of the loan that would finance the purchase. The tax increase would amount to a maximum of $63 in the first year, and decrease each year to a maximum of $36 in the final year of payments.