Tisbury selectmen weigh commercial versus transient mooring priorities

Approved: a mooring fee increase and an 18-month moratorium on new non-water-dependent vessels. The property tax rate didn’t change.

Tisbury selectmen voted to adopt a temporary moratorium for non-water-dependent vessels and approved a 10 percent increase on all mooring fees in Tisbury. Vineyard Haven, shown here. —Stacey Rupolo

Tisbury selectmen held three public hearings on Tuesday, Nov. 1, voting to approve a 10 percent increase in all mooring fees and a temporary moratorium for new non-water-dependent uses or vessels. Selectmen also voted to keep the tax classifications for property taxes the same — no commercial shift, and an 18 percent residential exemption.

Selectmen Tristan Israel and Larry Gomez, along with chairman Melinda Loberg, unanimously approved the increase to all mooring fees in Tisbury, including commercial moorings. It is the last of a five-year plan to incrementally increase them a total of 25 percent.

Town treasurer Jon Snyder presented to selectmen two proposals that would treat the harbor as a “town asset.” Mr. Snyder said that those renting commercial moorings are making a “significant profit.” Currently there are roughly 45 commercial moorings in the inner harbor.

“In speaking with the harbormaster and the harbor management committee, I’ve been encouraged to recommend that we do something to recapture some of that value, which is value earned off a town asset for private gain,” Mr. Snyder said.

A commercial mooring permit for any size boat is currently $346.50 for the year in the inner harbor. With the 10 percent increase, it will be raised to $381 for next year.

According to the proposal, the town, with a shortage of transient moorings, turned away roughly 25 mooring requests a week this summer. As proposed, the town would take 20 commercial moorings and use them as transient moorings, renting them at $50 a night over a 10-week summer season. The proposal estimated $70,000 in revenue (versus $7,620 at the commercial rate).

The second proposal recommends raising the rental mooring fees for Island residents and nonresidents in the summer. Boats under 30 feet for residents would be raised from $866.25 to $953, and from $1,386 to $1,524.50 for nonresidents. Boats over 30 feet would be raised from $1,155 to $1,270.50 for residents and from $1,617 to $1,778.50 for nonresidents. Lower rates would apply in the shoulder and winter seasons.

For commercial moorings, the second proposal made a preliminary recommendation of raising the current fee from $346.50 to $900 per mooring per year.

A number of residents expressed concern over the mooring fee increases, especially those who use commercial moorings. The discussion over harbor use began in earnest this summer when Tisbury artist and commercial fisherman Jeffrey Canha moored a floating art studio in Vineyard Haven Harbor.

“It’s quite odd that the stand-in harbormaster is receiving less than the prior harbormaster, and I’ve never seen more income coming from the harbor,” Mr. Canha said.

Phil Hale, Tisbury resident and owner of the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard, said that he has U.S. Army Corps of Engineers–permitted moorings, and warned selectmen that taking moorings away could end up in “a legal fight that none of us want.” Mr. Hale said he has 17 moorings behind the breakwater and that he rents eight of them, making $800 each. The rest he uses to fix and repair boats for his business. He said he has abided by all the regulations the town has imposed, pays over $1,000 a week in fees, and employs 26 people, who are mostly residents.

“The town needs to have a fundamental shift in how they view the harbor and not keep on trying to raise the fees to businesses that are contributing millions of dollars to the town,” Mr. Hale said. “The town needs to focus on why they’re losing money.”

An audience member said that he was part of the harbor management committee, and he did not support the proposed recommendations.

“I don’t remember ever talking about this at all, as far as taking moorings away from commercial businesses,” he said.

Ms. Loberg said that the ideas had not been vetted or publicly discussed, and that they were just recommendations.

“We’re just trying to manage the whole system better and try to find a balance,” Ms. Loberg said.

Temporary moratorium

Selectmen unanimously approved the adoption of an 18-month moratorium in the Tisbury waterways regulations for new non-water-dependent uses or vessels.

Mr. Gomez read the motion, which stated that Tisbury adopt a temporary moratorium to start Nov. 1, and ending 18 months later (approximately May 1, 2018) for any new non-water-dependent use or vessel in Tisbury waterways that are not currently addressed by the waterways regulations. This would provide the town time to develop comprehensive regulations to address non-water-dependent uses and vessels.

Ms. Loberg described the moratorium as a way to give the town time to develop what she called “zoning ideas” to better define the uses of the waterways. She said that members of harbor management, the planning board, the shellfish department, the conservation committee — all of the committees and boards that deal with the shoreline, waterways, and the interactions among them — along with town administrator Jay Grande, would work together to develop recommendations for the town. She said they might need to hire a consultant, and that there would be outreach to the community, “to make sure we are getting the wisdom of the town as we develop those things.”

The hearing had been continued from July and was open for written comment but not public comment. No written comment was submitted. A few residents raised questions regarding the committee after the vote.

“I think that this is going to morph into a large discussion of many issues,” Mr. Israel said, “which is why I’m suggesting on a lot of fronts that we get a consultant to help guide us through that discussion.”

Tax-rate classification

Selectmen held a fiscal year (FY) 2017 tax-rate classification hearing during their meeting on Tuesday. After hearing from Mr. Snyder and town assessor Ann Marie Cywinski, as well as several members of the public, selectmen voted unanimously to maintain the existing property tax formula for residential and commercial property.

In effect, year-round property owners will benefit from a portion of the tax levy being shifted from qualifying taxpayers domiciled in Tisbury to the tax bills of nonresident property owners.

Selectmen voted unanimously to maintain a 0 percent commercial shift in property taxes, and also to maintain an 18 percent residential exemption.

Prior to the two votes on property taxes, selectmen voted unanimously on a rule of necessity — both for the commercial shift and the residential exemption — which allowed them to vote as selectmen without a conflict of interest.

“The rule of necessity overlooks the potential or perceived conflicts that might exist because they’re so pervasive across the population,” Ms. Loberg said.

Phil Hale of the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard asked selectmen to oppose a commercial shift. He said that as a resident and a business owner, he pays a large amount of money in taxes and fees, and he didn’t need another tax burden.

Josh Goldstein, Tisbury resident and owner of the Mansion House, said he echoed what Mr. Hale said.

“We’re 11 percent of the tax base,” Mr. Goldstein said. “I think we pay a fair share, but we also donate a lot to the community, both locally, at the high school level, and beyond. We pay a lot of taxes already, and I don’t think we can afford much more.”

Residents had similar comments for the residential exemption, saying that it helped workers and residents who lived on the Island year-round.

Mary Ellen Larsen, a Tisbury resident and member of the Tisbury financial committee, asked that if 89 percent of the tax levy in Tisbury was residential, then what percentage came from year-round residents. Town treasurer Snyder estimated roughly half.

Ms. Larsen told selectmen that the Island has a large senior citizen population and that the residential exemption was very beneficial to them.

“Just like the commercial people need to keep the tax rates where they are, I understand that too,” Ms. Larsen said. “On behalf of fellow seniors, I ask that you do not eliminate or reduce the residential tax [exemption].”

Mr. Gomez said he had been comparing tax rates in other communities that were similar to the Vineyard, and that nationwide, tax rates on the Island were considered low.

“We do have a fairly cheap tax rate compared to the rest of the United States,” Mr. Gomez said. “So try to keep that in mind. We should be very fortunate to have this rate. Not that I agree with it, but it’s worth to look at that.”

In a conversation on Wednesday with The Times, Mr. Snyder explained that residential exemption was a lump sum that is based on the value of the average residential property in Tisbury, which is $829,206.

If a property owner was eligible, an 18 percent exemption would mean that approximately $149,257 was deducted from a person’s property value, and their property taxes would be based on that number. Basic information about the residential exemption is noted on the back of the tax bill, and more complete information is available from the assessors at town hall.

Mr. Snyder said that state law allows for a residential exemption because it is aimed at towns like Tisbury, where there are a significant number of houses that are second homes and as a result make the overall property values go up. This makes it harder for people who live and work here year-round to afford the cost of living on the Island.

Both the commercial shift and residential exemption seek to lift the tax burden from year-round residents.

“It’s a way to shift some of the tax burden from people who live and work here onto those who vacation here and own homes as second homes,” Mr. Snyder said.