For the second week in a row, the Steamship Authority got a chilly reception in the town where its headquarters are located.
At a meeting of the Falmouth select board Monday night, board members criticized SSA general manager Robert Davis for coming to them so late in the process of designing a Woods Hole terminal building, with nothing concrete to show them, and for hiding behind the SSA Enabling Act that allows the ferry service to bypass certain zoning regulations like height restrictions.
Members of the board were stunned when Davis told them a recently completed third slip at the Woods Hole terminal is no longer under use restrictions because it doesn’t impinge upon the Naushon Trust adjacent to the terminal property. Davis told the board that five ferries are making daily trips between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard for the second summer in a row to meet the demand. He said the third slip is part of those plans, and would also be used at other times, depending on tides and the boats involved for safety.
That set off Doug Jones, a member of the Falmouth select board, commenting on SSA not paying anything for waterfront land that could generate $20 million in property taxes, proposing a building over 35 feet — the town’s height restriction — and using its new Chapter 91 license (a state license for waterfront properties) to provide expanded ferry service. “The license now says you can use [the third slip] fully. We’re asking you not to. We’ve asked you to promise not to, and the answer is: Well, we now can. Even though you probably shouldn’t, you can,” Jones said. “This is what really worries the town of Falmouth, is the number of times the Steamship Authority uses the Enabling Act to say, We can do what we want. We’re not going to do what we should. We’re going to do what we want. That’s where it gets very scary for those of us who live in Falmouth and see that Woods Hole Road being so overly traveled by vehicles, by cars, by trucks, and knowing there’s nothing we can do because we can’t rely on the Steamship Authority to do what they should. We just know the Steamship Authority will do what they want.”
Davis and the SSA were criticized for downplaying the number of people opposed to the Woods Hole terminal. At a meeting last week, Robert Jones, chairman of the SSA board, said the SSA is reviewing 130 emails in opposition to determine how to move forward with a design.
A petition, with comments, has been signed by more than 1,300 people, many of them from the Vineyard, Woods Hole resident Nathaniel Trumbull told the select board.
Davis said the SSA is looking to incorporate those comments as well, but is facing a deadline or the possibility of delaying the building project a year.
As he has previously, Davis outlined some of the challenges facing architects, which include building a terminal that is flood-proof and also accessible. Moving some functions to a separate utility building on the site could result in a four-story building there, Davis said.
Board member Susan Moran asked Davis to come back when he’s prepared to show the board something they can offer feedback on.
Doug Jones was also critical of the SSA failing to come before the select board previously for feedback, and, instead, meeting with the Woods Hole Community Association and the Woods Hole Business Association. “They’re not the elected officials of Falmouth,” Jones said.
Davis was joined at the meeting by Kathryn Wilson, Falmouth’s new representative to the SSA board. Wilson thanked members of the select board for showing up at last week’s meeting of the SSA board at Falmouth High School, and said while it was contentious, she was hopeful that it would move the process along in a positive way.
While Davis said truck traffic through Falmouth could eventually be eased by providing freight service out of New Bedford, he added that no company has offered a bid to provide that service. Woods Hole residents have criticized the noise created by trucks staging as early as 5 am.
“We recognize that we have to be working, not only with Falmouth, but with all of our [port] communities because of planning and what the long-term traffic implications are going to be,” Davis said. “We feel like we’re responding to what the demand has been for the goods and services to the Islands, for both Islands.”