Harbor Lease Billing Raises Issues On Several Fronts

by William F. Galvin

            HARWICH — The 15 percent increase aside, boaters holding leases on town slips may have been surprised to receive notice from the harbor department that one-third of the annual fee is due 10 days before Christmas.

             Town Administrator Wayne Melville questioned the timing of the billing in an e-mail to Harbormaster Thomas Leach, asking whether adequate notice of the change was provided to boaters.

            Leach raised the issue before the waterways commission last week, explaining his department has been trying to get the billing out earlier in the year to provide more time to notify people on the waiting list of the availability of slips. Leach said he was able to accomplish that goal based on the early action of the board of selectmen in setting the rates for the next boating season.

            “After the approval of rates in October the door was open to send out notices on Nov. 1,” Leach told the commission.

            Melville said he has no doubt the harbormaster has the right to make such changes, but questioned whether the time frame meets with provisions of the harbor management plan. Leach said the only reference to billing dates in the plan is for moorings.

            The bills mailed to boaters by the harbormaster seek one-third of the payment by Dec. 15. Leach pointed out those people who have not made payment at that point would be deemed to have given up their slip. Leach said this will provide early notice for people who are on the waiting list, instead of these people receiving notice of availability of a slip when the boating season is upon them.

            Melville agreed the early billing will help with town cash flow, but he cautioned it would not win Leach any friends. The initial deposit used to be required by Feb.15. With the early billing, Leach said the second bill for final payment will be mailed on March 15.    

            This will help the whole system flow much better, Leach said. He pointed out other towns, such as Dennis, have moved to the early billing cycle.

            Water commission member Murray Johnson offered a motion to have the commission support the new collection timeframe. Members of the commission asked if people would be notified they are losing access to the slip for non-payment.

            The harbormaster said a letter of notification would be sent to those boaters who have not paid by the initial deadline. “You pay to play.” Leach said of the policy. The commission approved the early billing timeframe.

            Commission member Fred Clancy wanted to know if there have been any complaints about the new billing cycle and increased fees from commercial fishermen in town. He said there was no tuna this year and the cod and haddock seasons ended quickly.

            “The fishermen are going to be dying this year,” Clancy said.

            Leach reminded the commission he made recommendations to them for increased fees and they were approved and sent to selectmen for adoptions.           

Taxpayers Association Looking At Slip Fees  

            The Harwich Taxpayers Association is looking into whether boaters are paying competitive rates for slips and moorings in the harbors. Last week, Matt McCaffery told the group, “There is a significant opportunity to improve financial conditions” through those fees.

            He told the group the fees charged by the town for slips and moorings are half that of private companies doing business in harbors of the town. He said a casual look at the figures indicates as much as $500,000 of new revenue could be generated for town coffers.

            “We need to generate more revenue and if we don’t do this the taxpayers are subsidizing low-cost boating,” McCaffery said. “The fee structure is recommended by boaters to the selectmen.”

            McCaffery then put forth a motion to explore the impact of an increased fee structure for all slips and moorings.

            Peter Wall immediately objected, explaining he was on a mooring waiting list for five years, paying each year and having certain expectations when getting a mooring. He now has a mooring and he said a drastic increase would be a “serious breach of contract” with people on waiting lists.  

            “There is a burden on the taxpayers with subsidized boating,” McCaffery said. “We need to have a decision on whether use of the harbors is for low, medium or high- cost boating.”

            McCaffery said 40 percent of the people who lease slips are not from Harwich. Board of Selectmen Chairman Ed McManus said Saquatucket Harbor was developed with state and federal grants that protect the interests of everyone who lives in the commonwealth.

            Town Accountant David Ryan pointed out there is a surplus generated from the harbor at full cost assessment. Town Administrator Wayne Melville two weeks ago made a presentation to selectmen citing the FY 2006 budget for the harbormaster/natural resources office at $345,954, and on a fully allocated cost basis it rises to $467,234.

            Revenues collected from slips and moorings, during the past three year range from $736,000 to $841,000. The estimated revenues from harbor operations in FY 2006 are $748,000, Melville said.

            The taxpayers association voted to form a subcommittee to study the harbor revenue generation issue.


Boat Founders Off Monomoy; Harbormaster responds as Crew is Plucked From Island In Gale

by Alan Pollock

            CHATHAM — Two men aboard a stricken 32-foot tuna boat are lucky to be alive after a four-hour ordeal last Thursday night.

            Two men, identified as Scott Son of Ashland , Mass. , and Alfred Adams of West Roxbury , were returning to Saquatucket Harbor from a fishing trip off Nauset Beach at around 7:30 p.m. when the trouble began.  Son was at the helm when the boat ran into trouble and began to flood quickly.

            “Either he lost his steering or somehow the boat began taking on water in the rough seas off Monomoy,” Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith said.  Without time to issue a distress call, Son and Adams donned survival suits and abandoned the boat, taking with them their emergency radio beacon and a cellular phone. The boat was equipped with a life raft, which apparently did not deploy.  At the time, gale warnings were flying for winds gusting to 30 to 35 knots from the southwest, and Smith said seas were probably 10 to 12 feet in Nantucket Sound, with short, choppy seas near Monomoy Point. 

            The boat, named the Maximus, is owned by Scott Spottiswoode of Wrentham.

            The men struggled to stay together as they drifted in the darkness, and after 45 minutes, found themselves on the beach.  Shortly thereafter, their stricken boat washed up nearby.  They called 911 on the cell phone, and the state police called the Coast Guard. 

            At 7:45 p.m., the operations center at Coast Guard Group Woods Hole notified Station Chatham, which placed a boat crew on standby.  But for a while, there wasn’t much rescuers could do, according to station chief David Considine.

            “He had no idea where he was,” Considine said.  “The only thing he could tell us was he saw a green buoy.  There are a lot of green buoys out there.”  Eventually, it became clear that the blinking light was coming from the Number 9 buoy off Monomoy Point.

            One of the Jayhawk helicopters from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod was already on a search and rescue mission off Port Clyde, Maine, and was not immediately available to respond.  Coast Guard officials said, given the dangerous flying weather, they opted against launching a second helicopter to airlift the men from Monomoy.

            Instead, the Massachusetts State Police air wing in Plymouth launched a helicopter, which flew over Monomoy Island and confirmed that the two men were on shore.  But the airmen also reported that the men’s survival suits were waterlogged, and the men were cold and wet.

            Summoned by the state police, Smith drove to the Chatham airport where he prepared to assemble a package of dry clothes and equipment to drop to the men.  But when the state police helicopter arrived, the pilot said poor visibility and high winds made it was too dangerous for them to return to the island.

            Conferring with the Station Chatham crew, Smith decided to try to retrieve the castaways by boat.  Station Executive Officer Jason Holm said that would’ve been a difficult task, given the high surf and gusty winds.

            “It would make the boat-to-beach rescue method very dangerous,” Holm said.

            Still, Smith and the Coast Guard were about to leave Aunt Lydia’s Cove when the Coast Guard reported that the Jayhawk helicopter returning from Maine was over Provincetown and available to respond.  The helicopter crew arrived at the scene at 11:16 p.m., and a rescue swimmer quickly helped hoist the two men to safety.  Both were flown to Air Station Cape Cod, and were then rushed to Falmouth Hospital for treatment of hypothermia.

            Petty Officer Lisa Hennings, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard First District, said officials conduct a “serious risk assessment” each time they decide to launch a rescue helicopter, and it was decided not to send a second chopper from Air Station Cape Cod. 

            “These guys weren’t in immediate need of medical assistance,” Hennings said.  With the men on dry ground and not in danger of drowning, “there wasn’t an emergent need,” she said. 

            The reason the two castaways sat on the beach for three-and-a-half hours was that the first helicopter had to airlift survivors of the first search and rescue case to Portland, Maine, and then stop to refuel before heading home.  Traveling back to the Cape, the helicopter encountered strong headwinds, making the trip longer, Hennings said.

            “We try to do the best that we can to make sure that everyone is taken care of in a timely manner,” she said.

            On Monday, a commercial salvage operator tried to free the grounded Maximus from Monomoy Point, but found it was filling with sand and too heavy to move.  Smith said he believes the owner will hire a barge and crane to remove the wreck in pieces.

Waterways Commission Attaches Slips To Commercial Boat Sales

by William F. Galvin

            HARWICH — Four commercial enterprises operating out of town harbors would be allowed to transfer their slips as a condition of the sale of the vessel with little regard for the waiting list under a change in the harbor management plan voted by the waterways commission.

            The commission voted to separate and create a new “ferry permit” category for the Freedom  Ferry which operates between Saquatucket Harbor and Nantucket . That regulation allows selectmen to transfer the present slip to a new entity.

In an effort to promote fishing and tourism in Harwich, the commission also voted to allow selectmen to transfer the slips of three additional commercial enterprises -- the Yankee and Golden Eagle head boats and Perseverance, a seal watch boat – to new entities.    

The commission also voted to freeze the D permit waiting list and allowing those people now on the list to remain until the list is exhausted. While an entity not on that list will have the right to purchase a commercial vessel and access a slip, people on the waiting list would have an opportunity to make an offer of first refusal on the business.

The votes of the waterways commission last Thursday are recommendations to change the harbor management plan. The board of selectmen is expected to hold public hearings on the changes next month. Paul Donovan, chairman of the commission and owner of the Golden Eagle, left the room to avoid a conflict of interest.

Selectmen and the commission scheduled a work session to discuss extending slip transfers with the sale of these commercial enterprises. Board of Selectmen Chairman Ed McManus was the only member present for the discussion.

Harbormaster Thomas Leach said at the onset of the meeting the setting of annual slip fees for the D permit was postponed by selectmen until a determination is made on how to handle the right of these commercial entities to sell the businesses.

            Leach cited concerns from recreational boaters for the absence of parking due in part to the ferry and party boats and the adjacent restaurant. The harbormaster said the passenger boats should be paying more for those slips.

            The owner of Freedom Ferry, Alan McMullen, is interested in transferring his slip if he decides to sell the business, Leach told the commission. But he also said commercial fisherman Mark Smith, who has a slip, said he will make the case that all commercial slips should have that right.

            Leach said a lot of hard work has gone into establishing the ferry operation and there is a sentiment from the board of selectmen they would like to ensure its continued operation.

            Sandra Davidson, executive director of the chamber of commerce, said the ferry is a good resource for Harwich, drawing people here and supporting businesses and restaurants. She also pointed out if the ferry is lost, this opportunity to reestablish the business is not likely in the future.

Leach said using a bid process might be the way to approach commercial slip use. Assistant town administrator Rene Read concurred. But McMullen said while the concept is good, it would not be an easy process for a successful bidder to obtain the Steamship Authority license necessary to operate the ferry. Commission member Murray Johnson also cited the logistics of establishing a lease to operate from Nantucket as an additional impediment.

McMullen recommended his operation be separated from the D permit and made an F Permit.

“The general intent is the solution that allows the ferry to operate from Harwich to Nantucket ,” McManus said. “In general we see the business transfer as a benefit in town. There are things we treasure in town like Brooks Academy, the 400 Club and in addition we’d like to see the ferry continue to operate in town.”

The board chairman said he’d like to see the operation enhanced with a different dockage location and ticket booth and urged the waterways commission to continue over the next several years to come up with a way to accomplish it.   

“What we ought to be about is not trying to dismantle an operation that is running well and throw a monkey wrench into it and make people jump through hoops,” Johnson said.

Member William McShane put forth a motion to establish the “ferry permit” category. Discussion continued as to whether selectmen “will” or “may” transfer the slip with the sale. It was agreed selectmen “may” transfer the slip upon sale.

McMullen told The Chronicle he does not have any intention of selling the ferry in the near future. He also said he has had offers in the past, but no one has approached him in a long time about purchasing the enterprise.

Johnson-- who had prepared language for three motions, the ferry permit, commercial vessel permit and the D permit waiting list-- asked what the commission wanted to do with the three remaining D permits.

The language within the commercial vessel permit identified the function of the vessel as promoting fishing and tourism. Members of the commission supported retention of those vessels for that purpose, agreeing those permits should also be transferred with the sale. There was even discussion about allowing more of those permits in the future.

McManus requested a language change so that selectmen “may” transfer the slip, pointing out if someone plans to not use the vessel for fishing or tourism they might not wish to make the transfer. That motion was approved unanimously.              

  “That Freedom slip and the others as well are worth $100,000 to $150,000 and to allow it to be transferred surprised me,” Harbormaster Thomas Leach said of the commission’s decisions after the meeting.  

            As for the D permit waiting list, the commission agreed to freeze it, disallowing the addition of names. The list bears seven names: Carl Shoote, Alan McMullen, Peter Spalt, Frank Greiner, Sean McMullen, Jill Shoote and Greg Greiner.

            “Don’t use the business to hold those people on the list hostage to buying into it,” Leach cautioned the commission.

            The commission recommended those people should have a first refusal provision based on the price of the sale of the commercial enterprise and the list be discontinued when the names on it have been exhausted.

            There was discussion about setting the fee scheduled for these newly designated slips, but Leach said he was not prepared at that point to make recommendations. McMullen challenged an earlier proposal that would have increased the D permits by 41 percent, stating $4,000 to $5,000 for the ferry boat is a lot of money. The commission planned to continue that discussion on Wednesday.