Coast Guard Menemsha boathouse plan gets public airing

A Menemsha boathouse massing model the architect presented shows the new design superimposed over the old boathouse. — Photo courtesy of USCG

U.S. Coast Guard officials gave Chilmark selectmen, town officials, and the public an overview of their plans to build a new $10 million boathouse on Menemsha harbor, at a sometimes emotional selectmen’s meeting Tuesday.

The overriding concern town officials expressed continued to be the size of the new building. Coast Guard officials listened and said they would do what they could to assuage community concerns but emphasized the building was designed to meet specific mission needs.

The new boathouse will replace the Coast Guard facility that was destroyed in the devastating Menemsha fire on July 12, 2010. The draft plans show a boathouse with two floors, 34 feet, 11 inches at its highest point and 78 feet long.

By comparison, the old boathouse was 28 feet at its tallest, and 63 feet long. The larger plans have rankled some residents and officials, who question why the new building couldn’t be the same size or smaller than the original.

Tuesday, members of a Coast Guard design team from Seattle led the discussion at Chilmark town hall in front of a standing room only crowd. Local Coast Guard officials included Menemsha Station Chief Jason Olsen.

Architect C. Daniel Bass, of Baker/Whole Associates of Boston began with a PowerPoint presentation of the new plans, which he said were not all that different from the previous boathouse along the harbor.

“One of the points we would like to make is that element for element, things are going back pretty much into the same place as before,” Mr. Bass said. “The footprint of the original building, and the location, is virtually the same.”

On one side of the building there will be a double-height boat bay with 14-foot doors, which can accommodate a larger boat. A new boat ramp leads directly into the service bay.

“As you know currently the Coast Guard have to motor to the public ramp in Aquinnah and bring the boats along the public roads. So this takes that traffic off the road and make things a lot easier and safer,” Mr. Bass said.

Mr. Bass said that an effort was made for the building to blend into its surroundings; the building will still be painted white with red shingles and largely look the same as the old boathouse.

“The look and feel of the building is a traditional mix of Coast Guard and Cape and Islands architecture,” he said. “We understand the boathouse status as a major focal point on the harbor…we would like to think the proposal is fundamentally traditional in character.”

Mr. Bass said he was aware some townspeople felt the new boathouse was too large. But he said things have changed since the original boathouse was built in 1939, and a new, larger facility is warranted.

“There are some things about the Coast Guard mission they just need to have… and the Coast Guard will need to define how much they need at this facility to move forward,” Mr. Bass said.

Francis A. Brito, director of projects for the U.S. Coast Guard, asked audience members to describe their concerns. He wrote them down on a large pad by magic marker.

“The Coast Guard does value the relationship we have with you,” he said. “We will take your comments back, but keep in mind we are designing the boathouse for the next 50 years, and so much has changed.

“I know it makes some people unhappy,” he added. “You are a very appreciative community but a demanding community, and that’s understandable. You are a proud community, and you are proud of your resources.”

Several members of the public asked about the design, but almost all of the criticism and tough questions came from the selectmen, all three of whom were in attendance, and other town officials.

Selectman Warren Doty asked if the height of the boathouse could be lowered, asking if the boats could lower than antennas when they drive in so they could fit through the doors.

Chief Olsen said that the new boat was 13.5 feet high with a fixed-height radar dome.

Mr. Doty then questioned the length of the structure. He suggested that the trailer attached to the truck that transports the boat be detached and the vehicle be parked outside, which would allow the building to be the same length as it used to be.

Mr. Brita said the extra space is needed for boat maintenance and storage, regardless of whether the trailer is detached from the truck. “We have configuration requirements that this space is needed to satisfy,” he said.

Chairman Frank Fenner asked if some of the Coast Guard functions could be shifted to the main station up the hill, not on the side of the harbor that is at the center of a popular tourist and fishing destination.

“When we build new facilities we try to make it more efficient,” Mr. Brita said. ” We could put more functions elsewhere but it’s a tradeoff.”

“The tradeoff right now is you are building a huge building on our harbor, and that is what we have to live with,” Mr. Fenner responded.

Mr. Fenner asked if the open boat bay could be reconfigured to have a second floor which could be used for storage and office space, which would then allow the overall height of the building to be lowered.

Mr. Brita explained that the boathouse is still in the early design stages, and changes are still possible. He said the design team will look for ways to cut down the length and height without compromising the operational standard.

Mark London, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said some of the new boathouse features, such as the doors on either side and windows, would make the building standout to the public.

“Lopping off a few inches here and there won’t be as noticeable compared to the detailing, which strikes me as very important… I don’t think you can really match the details of the original building, but that would be a very useful strategy to make it fit in,” he said.

Chris Murphy, a retired commercial fisherman and chairman of the MVC, said he supported the Coast Guard but was vehemently opposed to the plans for a larger boathouse.

“When that building burned down, everyone said you have to put it back where it was. But that’s kind of cooled down now, and now we are looking at that space and saying, it looks pretty good just the way it is,” he said.

Chief Olsen disagreed. “We definitely understand people’s concerns, but we definitely need this building to be on the waterfront,” Chief Olsen said.

Longtime town moderator and former Coast Guardsman Everett Poole questioned the need for features like the second-floor windows. “You can do away with these half-windows and lower the building, it’s too damn high, and perhaps shorten the building too,” he said.

Toward the close of the discussion, Mr. Doty returned to the topic of the height of the new boathouse. “The overall height is 34 feet, and under normal circumstances a 34-foot building would not be allowed within our bylaws,” Mr. Doty said. “It is something we take very seriously and something we regulate ourselves.

“If you were not the Coast Guard, you would never get a permit for a 34-foot building,” he added.

Mr. Bass said the design team would take people’s comments and concerns and try to incorporate them into the design. There will be further public hearings as the plans change and evolve, he said.

In comments following the meeting, Chief Olsen said the current practice of transporting boats to the launch in Lobsterville simply isn’t viable, and the new boathouse will allow them to take boats in and out of the water in a much safer and efficient manner.

“Right now we have to drive our trailer all the way to Aquinnah and then drag the 25-foot boat across the creek to bring it back. During the summer it’s a challenge because we have to use the tides because it’s so shallow,” he said.

He said the larger boathouse will allow them to bring in all the boats and fully close the doors.

He said space is already at a premium at the main station house on the hill. As a result, several barracks rooms have been converted into office space, forcing several crew members to find housing on the open market.

The station has also been forced to place a mobile home trailer in the parking lot to store engineering supplies.

The chief said he thought the plans can still be changed to address some concerns about size and massing.

“We won’t be able to make everyone happy, but I am optimistic that we can still make adjustments so the majority will be satisfied,” he said.

Tim Carroll, Chilmark executive secretary, said the town has posted the draft plans on the town website and created a spot for comments.

Those comments will be monitored and forwarded to the Coast Guard, Mr. Carroll said.

Mr. Carroll said the main page includes a “public input” button.