Shared-use lease for shellfish program questioned

Aquinnah select board supports Vern Welch’s agreement with the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group.

The Aquinnah select board approved Vern Welch's shared-use request. — Eunki Seonwoo

Updated 10/31

The Aquinnah select board unanimously approved a shared-use agreement for Vern Welch’s Menemsha dock lease with the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group during a Thursday afternoon meeting. After the vote, The Times questioned whether board chair Juli Vanderhoop should have disclosed her relationship with the shellfish group before voting.

Vanderhoop is listed as vice president of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. When asked why she had not disclosed that affiliation for the vote on the shared-use agreement involving the organization, Vanderhoop appeared confused and turned to town administrator Jeffrey Madison and asked, “Would I have to disclose that I am on the board?” 

“No. My opinion would be that you do not. It’s not your enterprise,” Madison said. “The shellfish group … it’s not directly affected by Vern’s situation. I don’t think there’s any problem.”

When The Times pressed the issue, Madison replied, “I don’t think that there’s any problem there.”

The shellfish group seeks and receives funding from Island towns. For example, in 2021 each of the town’s funded a share of $271,000 needed to replace water lines at the John T. Hughes Hatchery and Research Station.

The Times reached out to shellfish group executive director Emma Green-Beach to ask about the organization and the arrangement. 

“The board has ultimate say over the activities we take part in, and especially how we spend funds. The board sets the mission, and on a daily basis, it’s my job to fulfill that mission,” Green-Beach said. “We have not worked out any details with Mr. Welch, and we are still seeking funding for a project which he may have an opportunity to help with. No town funds would be used in relation to a project with any private individual. If we get the funding that we are looking for, I will happily tell you all about it.” 

Green-Beach, who is an Oak Bluffs select board member, abstained from voting on shellfish regulations when they went before that board recently.

During the previous board meeting, Welch asked permission to pursue a possible arrangement in which he raises some of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group’s shellfish seeds until they can be “sold and distributed” at his dock. He would receive an education from the shellfish group and act as a grower for them, with hopes to do it himself in the future. Additionally, he would help to find quahogs with purple in their shells. Welch said this was not a subleasing of his dock, and he would be doing all of the work. The board had held off on making a decision before getting more information. 

“I spoke to Chip [Vanderhoop, Aquinnah harbormaster and shellfish constable], and Chip thought it would be beneficial for our community as well to have the seed available,” board member Tom Murphy said. “I don’t know that I understand what your proposal is, but it’s clearly a use of the property that’s designed for use in our waterways, so it seems like an appropriate use. I don’t have any objection to it.” 

Board member Gary Haley also said he did not have any objections to the proposal. 

Berta Welch, an artisan and member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), supported the proposal, particularly “sustaining that shell in our pond for future generations to be able to make jewelry and other art with it.”

“We want to keep that purple shell,” she said.

Wendy Swolinsky, another leaseholder, expressed concern about allowing the proposal to move forward. Swolinsky said she is currently in a lawsuit over shared use of her building in the area. 

“In every case — if there’s another proposal in front of the board — we would analyze it and determine whether or not it is in the best interest of both the town and the community,” Murphy said. “If another proposed shared space was presented and if it made sense, then I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t do that.” 

“Then I think you should change the language in the lease. The lease says no, except for blood or family,” Swolinsky said. She wanted clearer rules under the lease on what is allowed, instead of a case-by-case basis where “all of a sudden it can change.” 

Murphy said the board is not “privy to the details of your lawsuit,” and Swolinsky would need to talk to her attorneys. 

The select board later went into an executive session regarding “legal issues related to [Aquinnah] Cliff leases.”

Updated to include a comment from Green-Beach.