Oak Bluffs moves forward with harbor improvements

The jetties that protect Oak Bluffs harbor have deteriorated, leaving the harbor vulnerable to northeast storms. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Concerned about the economic value of Oak Bluffs Harbor to the resort town as a whole and the revenue it brings to town government, the Oak Bluffs harbor management advisory committee is moving forward with significant projects to improve the port.

The committee is exploring whether the system of jetties that protect the harbor entrance channel should be replaced or rebuilt with a new design. Town officials are also moving forward with a plan to install and operate a town-owned fueling facility for boats.

Long-scheduled dredging of the harbor channel is expected to begin this week.

The harbor is the town’s largest source of local revenue, bringing in $865,809 to town coffers last year. The revenue comes from slip and mooring fees, as well as lease of space to ferries, charter boats, and other marine businesses.

Waterfront businesses also depend on large crowds of mariners who fill restaurants and shop at local stores during the summer season.

Filling up

Town officials opened bids on design of the fuel facility last week. Design and construction will not be complete this summer, but town officials hope to have it up and running by the start of the 2013 boating season.

“Fuel service is something boaters expect in a fully functioning harbor,” said John Breckenridge, chairman of the harbor management advisory committee.

Currently fuel is available from a private vendor on Church’s Pier, but harbormaster Todd Alexander said he fields complaints about the availability of fuel.

In 2009, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) approved a plan to install a temporary fuel facility near the harbormaster’s office, with a condition that the town must return to the MVC if it wants to build a permanent facility.

“Poor service and reliability, coupled with pending law suits between private parties leasing Church’s Pier, prompted the town to pursue this option,” the committee wrote in a recent report to selectmen. “The expiration of current leases on Church’s Pier, coupled with past service issues, have led our committee and Todd to move forward with the town-owned fueling facility.”

The plan approved by the MVC would feature two fuel tanks with a total capacity of 3,000 gallons. The tanks would be installed partly below, and partly above grade, and screened from view by fencing. The tanks could be moved away from the harbor in the event of an approaching hurricane or other threat of natural disaster.

Mr. Alexander said the town may seek an amendment to the plan to include larger tanks, so fuel deliveries would be less intrusive for nearby residents.

The committee said it will work this year to review design plans, develop a business plan, and prepare an article for next year’s annual town meeting.

Rocky road

The project to replace or rebuild the harbor jetties will be take much longer and face more difficult hurdles.

“If it’s feasible, if the permitting could happen, and if there’s some source of money, it could happen,” Mr. Alexander said. “But there’s a lot of ifs.”

In its report to selectmen, the harbor management committee said the jetties were built to protect the harbor from storms and rough seas, but over the years they have deteriorated.

“The jetties are in a failed condition,” the committee wrote. “Stones have been displaced, settling has occurred, and they no longer protect the harbor from northeast storm surges that frequently occur. These conditions have been amplified by sea level rise. We are no longer in a position to jeopardize the potential business losses to the harbor and the town.”

Mr. Alexander said the harbor has become vulnerable to northeast storms, with rolling waves and rough seas tossing boats around in the small enclosure. Fortunately, he said, most northeast storms happen in spring or fall, and the harbor is well protected from winds and waves coming from other directions. But occasionally a northeast storm affects boaters in the prime season.

“In the summer, it’s very uncomfortable,” Mr. Alexander said. “People have to leave, or they don’t come. Even the (northeast storms) that are bearable send in a swell. When they’re really bad, it goes over the road.”

Permitting for any design change in the jetties could take years, and it would be very expensive, Mr. Alexander said. The committee wants planning to begin before the jetties deteriorate further.

“It’s been sitting in the background for too long,” Mr. Breckenridge said. “It’s not as though it’s failing tomorrow, but it’s something that needs to get addressed in a vary timely fashion. I wouldn’t try to classify this as a crisis, but it does need to be front and center.”

Members of the committee recently met with representatives from CLE Engineering, and conservation commission chairman Joan Hughes. The committee wants CLE to include the harbor jetties and potential design alternatives in its work. CLE is conducting studies and exploring solutions to repair the crumbling seawalls and eroding coastal banks along the entire Oak Bluffs waterfront.

Sound solution

Another issue affecting the harbor will have a much shorter term solution. The Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to begin dredging the harbor channel this week, and put the waterway on its schedule for regular maintenance.

The dredge Currituck, which travels the East Coast working on a number of harbor entrances and channels each year, will clear the channel of shifting sand to a depth of 10 feet at mean low water.

Mr. Alexander said larger boats now have to dodge one spot that is eight feet deep, and another that is nine feet deep.

The Currituck, a “hopper dredge,” uses large vacuum lines to pump sand and sediment into the vessel’s hold, then travels out to sea and dumps the dredged material by opening the forward part of its hold like a clamshell.

Mr. Alexander said the vessel will not hinder navigation to and from the harbor.