Abandoned boat in Tisbury is landlocked by legalities

The 40-foot sloop Riot, in its deteriorated state, is landlocked in storage on town property near Tisbury's department of public works. — Photo by Janet Hefler

More than seven years ago, the 40-foot sloop Riot was left tied to a town mooring in Vineyard Haven harbor. Since then, legal constraints, compounded by the owner’s unwillngness to declare the boat abandoned, have left Tisbury town officials dead in the water in their efforts to get rid of it.

The once beautiful sloop has been stored outside on town property off a dirt road behind Tisbury’s department of public works building since 2005. Although Riot is still intact for the most part, time and exposure to the elements have taken their toll. After years of neglect, the boat’s fiberglass exterior is marred by broken ports, graffiti, and faded paint. Its interior is a tumble of trash and debris.

On December 13, town administrator John Bugbee discussed with selectmen what he called “Tisbury’s longest running abandoned boat.”

“It’s been there for the longest time; it’s the most frustrating of all the [abandoned] boats; everyone’s tired of looking at it,” Mr. Bugbee said. “We’ve exhausted numerous legal and non-legal options, and we continue to try to find ways to get rid of that boat, quite frankly.”

A loss of contact with the owner, Jamie Lynch, compounded the limbo, Mr. Bugbee said. Although Mr. Lynch used to live on Martha’s Vineyard, he moved to an unknown off-Island location several years ago, Mr. Bugbee said, and the town only recently tracked him down at an address in Massachusetts.

A question of ownership

“The problem we have legally is that in order for the town to take control of the boat, we have to have it deemed abandoned — and the owner is not willing to deem it abandoned,” Mr. Bugbee told the selectmen. “And there is no legal route we can take to force him to abandon his boat. As long as he continues to send letters that say ‘I do not want to get rid of the boat,’ we cannot take ownership of the boat.”

Mr. Bugbee said the town does have alternatives, based on advice from town counsel David Doneski, an attorney with the firm Kopelman and Paige in Boston.

“Plan B is to have the town clerk write Mr. Lynch a letter stating that we have his boat, he owes this much money to pay for storage, and he has this much time to remove the boat, and if he does not respond, then there are options we can utilize to get rid of the boat,” Mr. Bugbee said.

“If he does respond, and he doesn’t remove the boat, we can take him to small claims court, take the $7,000, which is the maximum we can get in small claims, and have the boat delivered to wherever he lives and get rid of the boat that way,” he added.

Mr. Bugbee told the selectmen that through some searching, Mr. Lynch’s phone number has been obtained and he has been contacted.

“I’m confident that we will have some resolution to this, sooner rather than later, when the letters start coming about the boat, if he plans to reclaim the boat,” Mr. Bugbee concluded. “Otherwise, he can give ownership to us and we’ll take care of it.”

New law offers little help

In a telephone conversation following the selectmen’s meeting, Mr. Bugbee said he took up the boat issue in September, at the request of Tisbury harbormaster Jay Wilbur and has picked up the pace since then to help try to resolve it.

“The quagmire is that to take ownership of a boat legally is very difficult, if not impossible,” Mr. Bugbee said. “Unless someone is willing to offer up their boat, it’s not easy to take it from them. It can be done, but it’s costly for everyone, the town and boat owner included.”

Although abandoned boats are nothing new to Tisbury, Mr. Bugbee’s discussion about Riot brought to light the problems that towns nationwide — on ocean coasts, lakes or rivers — have with removing abandoned or derelict vessels from public waterways, piers and wharves. These problems tend to worsen during difficult economic times.

Last August Gov. Deval Patrick signed a new law to simplify the removal of abandoned boats, as well as seaplanes and rafts, according to a State House News Service article dated August 18, 2011.

Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford) sponsored the original proposal that led to the new law. He said that although the Department of Conservation and Recreation had the responsibility to remove abandoned vessels, it often lacked funding to clear public waterways.

Under previous law, municipalities had to take owners of derelict boats, if they could be identified, to court, which was a lengthy and costly process. For example, from 2007 through 2010, New Bedford removed 18 abandoned vessels on public waterways at a cost of $17,000 to $20,000 each, assistant harbormaster Thomas Vital told the State House News Service.

The new law permits harbormasters or private property owners to claim a boat after certifying it has been abandoned for at least 90 days, according to the State House News Service article.

The person who claims the boat becomes its titleholder and may remove, destroy, or sell the vessel, but only if the state environmental police do not find its owner after a search using serial number and license plates, or, if the owner is found and confirms that he or she does not want it, the article said.

The law also establishes a $10,000 penalty for anyone who “willfully abandons a vessel” and a $1,000 fine for anyone who attempts to obtain title to a vessel “through fraudulent means,” the article said.

Unfortunately, since the new law hinges on an owner giving his or her boat up, it offers little help to Tisbury in the case of Riot.

From anchored to landlocked

To focus more resources on the boat issue, Mr. Bugbee said he recently delegated the project to assistant town administrator Aase Jones.

“We’ve made more progress in past few weeks than in the past year, so I’m cautiously optimistic at this point that we may be able to get the boat off town property and return it to the owner, with some money paid to the town for storing it, or have the owner consider giving ownership to the town so we can remove the boat and recoup some of the costs of storing it,” Mr. Bugbee said.

Despite his optimism, harbormaster Jay Wilbur said in a recent phone call with The Times that he remains a bit skeptical, which is not surprising since his department has been saddled with Riot since the fall of 2004.

“The owner never paid winter storage, and in the spring, he was nowhere to be found and not responding to correspondence,” Mr. Wilbur said. “When summer came, I towed it outside the harbor and anchored it, hoping that would get his attention.”

It didn’t. Mr. Wilbur said he heard nothing from Mr. Lynch and became uneasy about leaving Riot where it was, since an anchored boat requires even more attention. In the summer of 2005 he contracted Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard (MVSY) to haul it out and take it to the area behind the DPW.

“It’s unfortunate such a boat has been left to degrade in value,” Mr. Wilbur said. “This one actually is a little different than most we run across, in that at least when we hauled it out, it was in reasonable condition.”

That was only the beginning of the boat’s long landlocked saga, according to copies of correspondence and a summary letter Ms. Jones sent to Mr. Doneski on December 15.

Tisbury assistant harbormaster John Crocker wrote Mr. Doneski on February 8, 2008, asking for his legal advice on a plan of action for the harbormaster’s department (HMD) to take to dispose of Riot and another abandoned boat, Intuition, as requested by the selectmen. At that time, Mr. Crocker said the boat’s value was estimated at between $50,000 to $100,000.

Mr. Lynch met with the HMD to discuss his situation and paid his mooring fees in August 2005, Mr. Crocker said. A year later, his sister paid the town for the hauling bill from MVSY. Since the HMD had stored Riot for two and a half years, Mr. Crocker said the department would like to be compensated $6,460, in keeping with MVSY’s storage rates.

Mr. Doneski responded with a six-page letter dated February 29, 2008, in which he outlined the town’s available options and his recommendations.

Based on his advice, the town initiated the process to declare the boat abandoned and sent Mr. Lynch a letter of notice on March 28 that his boat would be auctioned off unless he paid $6,460 in storage fees.

In a letter dated April 12, Mr. Lynch’s attorney, Norman Ross of Gloucester, responded that his client had just returned to work due to health issues and would “soon make a deposit on the storage fees.”

“This unfortunately did not happen, which essentially stopped the process in its tracks, and no action has been taken since that time,” Ms. Jones wrote to Mr. Doneski.

“In a renewed effort to get the vessel removed or declared abandoned, we have recently been able to reach and communicate with Mr. Lynch about the need to get the vessel removed and asked him to take charge of that,” she added. “He has responded (via phone) to Mr. Crocker, that he is now in a better frame of mind, having gone through some serious personal difficulties, and is considering his next move.”

Ms. Jones told The Times last week that she had tried to contact Mr. Ross by phone and email several times but with no success. The Times also called Mr. Ross’s phone number, which was not in service, and emailed him, also with no response.

Ms. Jones was unwilling to provide Mr. Lynch’s telephone number to The Times, saying that she did not feel she was at liberty to provide his cell phone number to the newspaper without his permission and that she had been unable to reach him to make the request.

Ms. Jones said she hopes the issue will be resolved outside the courtroom, at the least cost to all involved. “I’d be very happy if we could make this have a good ending,” she said. “It’s very sad. That boat was someone’s dream. I’ve never met this man, but I feel compassion for his situation.”