Chilmark committee endorses Crab Corner closure

Debate before 3-1 vote centered on safety and liability.

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The Chilmark harbor advisory committee voted Tuesday to recommend that Crab Corner stay closed pending definitive analysis of the source or sources of electricity that delivered shocks to people in contact with harbor water in recent months.

The committee also voted to recommend that town counsel be asked for his opinion on how state boating law applies to Crab Corner and the adjacent transient dock. Massachusetts law sets 150 feet as the distance boats need to stay away from swimming areas: “Motorboats may not be operated — within 150 feet of shorelines used as swimming areas — within 75 feet of floats or markers that designate swimming areas.” Board members want to know the town’s potential liability for propeller and electrical injury or death.

At its July 25 meeting that drew considerable public interest, Chilmark selectmen voted to ask the advisory board to make a recommendation on Crab Corner. Despite an electrical grounding repair done to correct a “very serious problem” between two harborside electrical panels and the transient dock — a fix made July 13 — Chilmark selectmen, who voted to close and fence off Crab Corner on July 11, did not opt to reopen the area after the corrective repair. Instead, the board chose to keep it closed with the intent of waiting until the recommendation of the harbor advisory committee was received. They said this was a precautionary measure against the stray voltage repeatedly encountered in the water at Crab Corner. “The wiring inspector sees nothing in the town’s installation that should cause any further shocking,” Jim Malkin, the selectmen’s harbor liaison, said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We’ve had five incidents, and we have had no further shocking or tickling or tingling since the additional wiring to the ground was reinforced. Having said that, the wiring inspector has said to the town that he cannot guarantee that there will be no further voltage in the water, because it’s a marina.”

Also at the board’s July 25 meeting, the selectmen instructed the inspector of wires to monitor voltage in the harbor for a two-week period.

“So far the readings are good,” Harbormaster Dennis Jason told the committee.

Committee members discussed the threat of boat-borne electricity, a hazard inherent to marinas, and deliberated over boat propeller perils and electrical dangers potentially stemming from shore power.

Committee member Andy Goldman said the grounding repair overseen by inspector of wires Cole Powers constituted sufficient due diligence to reopen Crab Corner. He argued that both in terms of their propellers and their potential capacity to seep electricity, nearby boats at the transient dock posed no more risk currently to people in the water at Crab Corner than they have in the past.

“I can’t see why we would be closing it,” he said. “If the inspector says that there’s no danger that they’ve discovered, and everything is done properly and the tests don’t disclose that there is stray electricity, I don’t see why it’s different from all other years. I don’t see anything different from all other years.”

“We’ve been told by several experts that there hasn’t been a problem,” committee member Edward “Spider” Andresen said. “Rick Penny [an electrician] said, ‘Oh, I can‘t detect any electricity.’ About two days later I was standing in [the harbormaster’s] shack when a woman walks in and said she and her daughter just climbed out of a boat. I think her words were [that she received] a good belt. And this is after we had been told there’s no problem there. I think there are other people that have declared it fine, free, and safe, and subsequently people got shocked.”

“One of the questions we should ask is after all the years of the marina being there — five years or something with the floating docks — what caused it, all of a sudden, to give people shocks,” Mr. Jason asked. “What was the initial problem that initiated it all?”

Wires decayed by saltwater may be responsible, Mr. Andresen said. Both he and Mr. Jason advocated for a complete overhaul of the electrical system from the west end of the transient dock to the harbormaster’s shack.

“I know it’s expensive, but it beats the hell out of a dead body floating face-down in Menemsha Harbor,” Mr. Andresen said.

“If you want to keep Crab Corner Crab Corner, I agree with Spider; you’re gonna have to really do it right — tear everything apart and start all over again,” Mr. Jason said.

Mr. Goldman put forward the idea of posting signs to warn people of the potential hazards posed by stray voltage and boat propellers as a way to reopen Crab Corner.

“Well, I know if I put a sign in my yard that says ‘no trespassing,’ and somebody comes in there and falls in a gopher hole and breaks their ankle, they can sue me,” committee chairman Everett Poole said.

“Anybody can sue anybody; whether they can win or not is of course another question,” Mr. Goldman said. He argued that the town can never know the condition of the wiring in all incoming boats, and that entering the water in their vicinity was an assumed risk and a problem that has always existed.

“There’s a limit to how far you can carry the idea that the town can immunize everybody from problems and issues,” he said.

“I’d like to hear a jury on that when they’re trying the case of a 10-year-old little girl that got electrocuted in Menemsha,” Mr. Poole responded.

“It sounds like the issue isn’t solved with the electricity,” committee member Jeff Maida said. He argued that allowing kids to use Crab Corner for the last month of summer wasn’t worth the risk. “You’re talking a month,” he said. “You’re not going to make people happy, but there’s too many unanswered questions about it.”

“You know, it’s not as though we’re asking the parents of the kids to move 50 miles inland to a better beach,” Mr. Jason said. “We have a beautiful beach 50 feet away on the Sound. I don’t feel as if it would be a hardship. I’d rather err on the side of caution. That’s where I’m coming from.”

Committee members Mr. Andresen, Mr. Maida, and Mr. Poole voted in favor of recommending closure, while Mr. Goldman dissented. Chilmark selectmen are scheduled to meet August 8, when they are likely to discuss testing done at Crab Corner and whether or not to keep the area closed.