Reclassifying commercial moorings


At their Nov. 1 meeting, Tisbury selectmen aired an idea about how to manage moorings in the harbor. After saying he’d spoken with other interested parties in town, town treasurer Jon Snyder proposed taking 20 of the 45 commercial moorings in the inner harbor and reclassifying them as transient moorings. Commercial moorings are leased seasonally or annually by local businesses, while transient moorings are leased by the night by visitors to the harbor.

This was more a starting point for discussion than a vetted proposal, and Melinda Loberg, chairman of the selectmen, has been quick to point out that having such an idea move forward would involve public hearings and consideration by the selectmen.We think thoughtful discussion, accompanied by applicable facts and figures, is a great idea. The town and its harbor are completely intertwined, and the feel and texture of Vineyard Haven life, along with concerns about revenue, need to be woven together.

In this case, some terms need explaining. In Vineyard Haven Harbor, there are two kinds of moorings: commercial and transient. Commercial moorings are leased seasonally or annually by local residents, and cost $346.50 per year. Currently, there are 45 commercial moorings inside the breakwater in the harbor. Transient moorings are just what you might imagine: They serve people coming and going — typically summer tourists with large boats who need a place to moor their boat for several nights. Transient moorings are rented by visitors for one or several nights through the town harbormaster at the cost of $50 per night, and are used every night of the warmer months. The harbormaster routinely turned away 25 requests in a week this summer.

Do the math, and you can see where Mr. Snyder was coming from: As proposed, the town would take over 20 commercial moorings and use them as transient moorings, renting them at $50 a night over a 10-week summer season. The proposal produces a gain of more than $62,000 a year — $70,000 in revenue, versus $7,620 at the commercial rate.

Who are the commercial users? Commercial moorings are leased by the town to maritime businesses such as Coastwise/Black Dog, Gannon and Benjamin, and the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard, who use these moorings as staging areas, parking boats that need repair or servicing. Because navigable waterways cannot be privately owned, these businesses must rent the space they need to do what they do. And sometimes the commercial mooring tenants sublease moorings to their customers and turn a profit in the process.

Mr. Snyder, in the interest of adding revenue to town coffers, proposed reclassifying the 20 moorings from commercial to transient so that, essentially, these markups would instead be captured by the town, in the form of increased revenue, instead of by the local commercial clients. By reducing the number of commercial moorings in the inner harbor from 45 to 25, the town would halve the size of the staging area for local businesses in order to increase the area available to visitors.

Before you go thinking that it’s all bad if commercial mooring holders make a profit off their moorings, consider this: The question of how to regulate moorings has been a controversial subject all along the Massachusetts coast, according to a 2011 article by Jack Sullivan (“Mooring mess”) in Commonwealth magazine. Then-Gov. Deval Patrick said he was open to businesses making a profit from leasing moorings. Then-Inspector General Gregory Sullivan opposed the practice. Communities like Plymouth and Gloucester do not issue commercial mooring permits at all. According to the Commonwealth article, “The law and regulations are largely silent on the issue of commercial moorings. They don’t say whether moorings can be leased for a profit, although they do say that nothing in the regulations should be read to prohibit private entities from granting moorings to customers or members.”

Some have asked, Why not just increase the number of moorings and park more transient boats there? It’s a good question. There is no available space behind the breakwater, but there is room east of the town center along the causeway (Beach Road). When this idea was shared with Mr. Snyder, he expressed concern that the location was too open to the weather. But John Crocker, the interim harbormaster, who supports additional moorings, noted that transient moorings are leased primarily during the summer when nor’easters are less common, and in the case of a storm, those at existing moorings in the outer harbor are already encouraged to leave.

Further calculations by the town treasurer and the selectmen would be wise. There are several interests to balance: the businesses who depend on the moorings to operate, the visitors and their accommodation in Vineyard Haven, the town and its revenue requirements, and above all the fundamental character of the Vineyard Haven Harbor, which shouldn’t be at risk for failing to take the time needed to get it right.