Tisbury officials wrestle with Vineyard Haven harbor issues


The Tisbury selectmen encountered marine turbulence while navigating issues related to wooden boats, sailing ships, and the Steamship Authority (SSA) Tuesday.

Controversy over the use of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds for a wooden boat project and the location of the schooner Shenandoah’s mooring in Vineyard Haven Harbor generated the three-hour long meeting’s most strenuous discussions.

Phil Hale, clerk of the nonprofit Sail Martha’s Vineyard, objected to a town decision to deny $32,750 in CPA funds for a project that had been approved by voters at town meeting last spring.

Towns that adopt the CPA collect a three-percent surtax on property taxes, which is matched by the state (at about 65 percent this year, nearly half that next year), to fund projects related to historic preservation, open space, and affordable housing.

Sail Martha’s Vineyard applied to the town’s Community Preservation Committee (CPC) for funds to construct four flat-bottomed wooden boats, of traditional design, for use in free sailing programs for Island children.

Mr. Hale said Tisbury’s CPC unanimously approved the project for inclusion on the 2008 town meeting warrant. Once approved by voters last April, Sail Martha’s Vineyard had the boats built in July and paid the contractor on the assumption they would receive the CPA funds, Mr. Hale said.

In a chronology of events Mr. Hale provided to the selectmen, he wrote that when Sail Martha’s Vineyard did not receive the CPA funds from Tisbury by July 21, the organization’s director, Hope Callen, asked town accountant Suzanne Kennedy when payment could be expected. She learned that there was a problem.

After reviewing the CPA guidelines, Ms. Kennedy questioned Sail Martha’s Vineyard’s project and wrote to the Department of Revenue (DOR) in July for an opinion on whether it was an appropriate use of CPA funds. She received a letter from DOR, dated November 4, asserting that it was not.

Mr. Hale said no one at Sail Martha’s Vineyard knew about the DOR decision until December 11, when Paul Munafo, the CPC’s new chairman, called to say the funds would not be made available to Sail Martha’s Vineyard.

Selectman chairman Denys Wortman and selectman Tristan Israel said they recalled town counsel David Doneski expressing reservations about the boat project, and that they had discussions with Sail Martha’s Vineyard members about whether the project was appropriate for CPA funds.

Mr. Hale asked the selectmen and the town to come up with the money, as promised.

Mr. Israel suggested that Mr. Hale get 10 people to petition for an article requesting the funds on the town meeting warrant. Ms. Kennedy advised against that, because the town cannot raise taxpayer funds for a project by a private entity.

Mr. Israel then suggested using funds from the SSA passenger embarkation fee, which Ms. Kennedy also said was inappropriate. Embarkation fee revenue is generated for the SSA’s port communities through a 50-cent per passenger fee and is intended by state law to mitigate the impacts of ferry service in the town.

In conclusion, Mr. Hale told the selectmen that Sail Martha’s Vineyard has talked to legal counsel, who said the town’s action is unjustifiable.

SSA discussions

Because the selectmen wanted to discuss several issues involving the SSA, they invited Marc Hanover of Oak Bluffs, Vineyard SSA member, to Tuesday’s meeting in the Katharine Cornell Memorial Theatre.

Mr. Hanover began with an explanation of the SSA’s legal complaint filed on October 15 in Dukes County Superior Court against Ralph Packer, the owner of Tisbury Towing. Mr. Hanover said that Mr. Packer refuses to stop transporting rental cars on his barges. The SSA position is that this activity violates the provision in the SSA’s enabling legislation that allows the boatline to license competitors that would drain revenue from the boatline.

Mr. Israel noted that Mr. Packer’s towing company, its tugboats, and tank and deck barges, as well as the fuel depot on Vineyard Haven Harbor, are valuable assets for Tisbury. He asked Mr. Hanover to be sensitive to Mr. Packer’s role in the community, which Mr. Hanover assured the selectmen he is.

Mr. Hanover also discussed the SSA’s complaint to the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) regarding the location of Capt. Robert S. Douglas’s schooner Shenandoah’s mooring. The SSA has pressed the Corps to have the mooring moved, to allow ferries more room as they approach the boatline’s south slip.

Captain Douglas and his family, who own the Black Dog Tall Ships Shenandoah and Alabama, learned in a letter dated November 10 from the Corps, that the Shenandoah’s mooring permit may be suspended if the schooner’s owner cannot come up with a plan to adjust the current mooring or move it to increase the width of the channel the ferries use.

Mr. Hanover said that reports about the navigational hazard posed by the Shenandoah’s mooring position had come from several SSA captains and also from two U.S. Coast Guard personnel onboard one of the ferry trips. Two ferry trips were canceled because of Shenandoah’s position in the channel, he added.

Mr. Israel asked why the SSA can’t use the north slip on the few occasions when a southeast wind pushes the Shenandoah more directly into the ferry channel. Mr. Hanover said he thought they could.

Morgan Douglas, Captain Douglas’s son and the general manager of the Black Dog Tall Ships, told the selectmen at a meeting in December that complying with the SSA’s request to move the Shenandoah’s mooring 150 feet would require either relocating it out of the harbor altogether or displacing town moorings.

Since December, Mr. Hanover said he had met with Mr. Douglas and Tisbury harbormaster Jay Wilbur, both of whom told him they had moved the mooring 15 feet and would move it another 50 feet. However, at a subsequent meeting with the Army Corps, Mr. Hanover said Morgan did not put that offer on the table, and no progress had been made since.

Mr. Wortman asked Morgan Douglas how far he could move the mooring without jeopardizing the Shenandoah’s safety. “We think a move of 25 feet and shorting the chain 25 feet, for a net gain of 50 feet, could be done.” The mooring has already been moved 15 feet from the edge of the ferry channel.

Mr. Hanover said the SSA would be willing to accept 65 feet. Morgan Douglas responded that if the SSA provided evidence that 50 additional feet would make navigation safer, “Then the Corps should come and tell us that.”

“Before you make an alteration to something that’s been there for 44 years, I’d like to see some justification,” Captain Douglas added. “Show me the danger – I think we should ask for a reasonable response and for a reason they can’t use the north slip.”

The three selectmen urged all of the parties to work some more on a compromise. Mr. Israel asked Mr. Hanover and Mr. Wilbur to convey the Douglas interests’ conditional willingness to move the mooring a total of 65 feet to the SSA and the Army Corps. Selectman Jeff Kristal added that Morgan Douglas also should write a letter to the Corps offering the extra 50 feet.

Old business, refilled

And lest auld acquaintance be forgot, the subject of beer and wine foamed up again. Selectman Kristal noted that on Tuesday, town clerk Marion Mudge received a petition asking the selectmen to place an article on the April town meeting warrant regarding a home-rule petition. The petition includes the signatures of 11 voters, including Mr. Kristal, the selectman, his wife, and Captain Douglas, the mariner, and Henry Stephenson, the town planning board co-chairman, among others.

If approved by voters, the article will authorize the selectmen to file a request with the legislature to grant licenses for the sale of beer and wine in restaurants, inns, and other establishments. If legislation is passed, the issue would come back for a vote as a ballot question at the annual town election in 2010.