Safe Harbor Marina expansion approved

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission was charged with weighing pros and cons of boatyard improvements.

A proposed expansion of Safe Harbor Marina in Tisbury was approved by the Martha's Vineyard Commission on Thursday. — Rich Saltzberg

After numerous lengthy public hearings, deliberations, and voluminous public testimony concerning a proposed expansion of Tisbury’s Safe Harbor Marina, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission approved the project in a split vote Thursday evening. 

The project, brought to the commission by Chris Scott, representing SHM Vineyard Haven, LLC, consists of the removal of four structures at the 100 Lagoon Pond location, relocation of a fuel tank, wash shed, and boat racks, in addition to two new boat racks and construction of a boardwalk along the bulkhead.

Dozens of testimonials submitted to the commission, going back to July, highlighted a stark contrast between opponents and supporters of the project.

While SHM representatives and a handful of project advocates argued for the harbor expansion, citing an increase in area boaters, and Safe Harbor’s commitment to improving its environmental footprint, the project was met with significant resistance from direct abutters, conservationists, and some commissioners. 

In their deliberation, commissioners raised concerns over the impact the expanded boatyard will have on the water quality in the already compromised Lagoon Pond. According to a letter written by the board of the Lagoon Pond Association to MVC staff, Lagoon Pond is “compromised per the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP),” and Island towns are under a mandate to help restore it.

“Despite the proposed improvements to the environmental sensitivity of the business,” stated a letter written by the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group board of directors, “we do not feel it is enough to warrant the risk to the habitat and water quality of Lagoon Pond.”

Per her written testimony, the president of the Lagoon Pond Association, Sherry Countryman, agreed, “strongly oppos[ing]” the project.

“While no one denies that additional boat storage/moorings, etc., are needed on this Island, and no one wants to deny a business’ right to operate,” Countryman’s letter stated, “the West Arm is not the place for additional boats and marina activities. At this point in the Lagoon’s history, we must protect the Lagoon from further damage.”

Written testimony offered by Tisbury Waterways suggested that although “there appear to be both benefits and detriments” to the project, conditions ought to be put on any approval that would task Safe Harbors with enhancing its involvement with environmental initiatives.

In her letter, Tisbury Waterways president Melinda Loberg urged the commission to require SHM to cap the number of vessels stored in-water, recycle all plastics used for land storage, and “collect and report statistics related to frequency of boats being loaded and off-loaded from the racks” going forward. 

The expansion calls for an increase in total boat storage capacity on site, DRI coordinator Alex Elvin said, which Safe Harbor argues is a benefit, as it decreases the amount of boats stored in the water. 

The storage increase from 78 to 118 boats, commissioner Joan Malkin noted, then “introduces a vast amount of plastics, if nothing else.”

“Do we know how much of the issues of water quality in the Lagoon are directly attributable to the marina, and how much of it is attributable to a general increase in the water by a lot of other boats?” Commissioner Kate Putnam asked. “I’m concerned that we’re blaming them for things that are not within their ability to control.”

Malkin said the commission has only been privy to “anecdotal evidence” that the marina operations have detrimental impacts on water quality. 

On the flip side, she said, “There is evidence that there are aspects that are beyond their control.”

Commissioner Doug Sederholm confirmed that “there’s no evidence in the record that [Safe Harbor] is contributing any more nitrogen to the pond than any other abutter, given the size.”

Similarly, he added, the commission has not received anything that shows that the marina has contributed directly to the bacteria count of the Lagoon. “The same goes for any potential release of toxic chemicals,” he said. “One could assume that’s a problem, as it’s a problem with every boatyard … but we don’t have direct evidence.”

Commissioner Ben Robinson disagreed, noting that Safe Harbors itself has acknowledged the various impacts the site has on the lagoon, which is why it has begun developing environmental protocols to mitigate those impacts for the expansion.

At a public hearing session in November, Chris Scott addressed a number of issues raised, including the environmental effects of bottom paint, use of copper, and waste management. 

Scott said over the past 18 months, Safe Harbor has made significant changes to its standard operating procedures, which heavily involve protecting the waterfront. 

All mechanical work has been moved away from the waterfront, Scott said; all bottom paint — projected to be 100 percent copper-free in the next year — is done inside the workshop, and the marina will make use of vacuum sanders to prevent dust from entering the water. 

Additionally, Scott said, with increasing the number of trash barrels on the site, and through the company’s recycling and waste collection system, there will be no waste discharge into the pond. 

Ultimately, Scott said, the categorization of the project as an expansion should be “reworded” as a “site improvement plan.” 

Some of the older buildings on the property — all within the floodplain — “need a lot of work,” Scott said. “The footprint here is outdated. It doesn’t fit what we’re doing to date.”

“Honestly, the site felt like a boatyard,” Scott said, “and we didn’t want that. We want it to feel like a marina.”

With a significant waiting list for mooring customers, the goal, Scott said, is to meet the demand for a growing customer base by revamping the aesthetics while falling into line with current efforts regarding climate and flood resiliency.

Robinson reiterated that allowing boat racks capable of accommodating larger boats will result in larger motors. An increase in larger motors throughout the pond, he said, “necessitates a larger detriment to the water quality.” 

He cautioned commissioners not to ignore the “tremendous amount of testimony that we heard, not just from abutters who live on the Lagoon, but water quality experts, that this has an impact on water quality.” 

Commissioner Jay Grossman agreed. “I heard the concerns of the abutters,” he said, “I think they’re valid, and I hold them in high regard.” 

A following motion to limit the size of boats stored in the new and relocated racks as part of a conditional agreement failed to pass. The commission subsequently approved the project in a 9-3 vote. 

Following a fairly heated deliberation, commissioners agreed on a number of conditions SHM will need to address — including ensuring use of 100 percent copper-free paint, providing the MVC with its final Clean Marina certification, and participating in a shrink-wrap recycling program.


  1. I wonder how the fear of another lawsuit came into play with this decision. And it is a bit disingenuous to say we need more boats but not here. There is no other place on the Lagoon you would ever get permission to have a marina. It is either here or at the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard which tried to improve their facility but the just say no crowd scared them off. In fact their is no other place on the whole island except for existing marinas/boatyards you could ever do this and it is a needed expansion for the island.

    • There is no shortage of waterfront land on the Island suitable for marinas and other waterfront dependant enterprise, there is no practical reason to put accomodations near the water.
      What is missing is an Island wide land use/development/zoning government agency.
      It could be called the Vineyard Land Use Confederation if it isn’t already taken.

  2. Congratulations to Safe Harbor on the approval of their project. This project addresses both the demand for boat storage and helps address several environmental issues at the marina. Thankful for the nine commissioners that looked at this proposal, sifted thru the comments and letters, separated fact from fiction and approved this project. Now let’s keep the pedal to the metal when it comes to reducing the nitrogen in Lagoon Pond, the main enemy of the pond right now.

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