Reversing a downsizing of seven years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard soon will expand its Vineyard presence, including resumption of full use of the Menemsha Coast Guard station.
As part of that process, Chilmark selectmen have been told the town police department, now a tenant at the old historic station, located on the hill overlooking the Home Port restaurant and Menemsha Pond, must find a new home by May 1.
Representative William D. Delahunt and Coast Guard Capt. Judith Keene will make a formal announcement of plans at the Menemsha station, in the presence of local officials, next Thursday. Captain Keene is the commander of Group Woods Hole, a regional unit which oversees the waters of southeastern New England.
Menemsha will expand from its current status, which in Coast Guard lingo is called "station small."
The number of personnel involved, and the nature of the renewed role of the station, is expected to be announced next week. Neither Mr. Delahunt nor Captain Keene would offer details yesterday.
But the expansion comes after years of effort. Capt. James F. Murray, the previous commander of Group Woods Hole, told the Gazette last December that there would be some growth within the year.
Chilmark police have had their office at the station since the summer of 2000, operating under a license agreement which provided for 30 days' notice at any time.
Selectman and chairman Alex Preston said officials there were given the May departure date this week.
Executive secretary Tim Carroll said he was told personnel are coming from Boston in February to survey the station and plan physical changes to the building.
Prior to the downsizing of 1996, the Coast Guard here, in full operation, had 30 personnel; that number was reduced first to 20, and then cut further. Those cuts were made in a time of federal fiscal woes; they were part of a $400 million Coast Guard cost saving spread over four years.
Since 1996, the station has generally operated with a skeleton crew of ten. It is currently staffed with 14 men and a 41-foot utility boat.
When the cuts of the mid-1990s were being made, there was strong Island opposition. In the summer of 1998, Representative Delahunt toured the facility and said he was working to save the station from closure. The Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah began negotiations with the Coast Guard about the possibility of taking over the station for its own use.
Yesterday, Mark Forest, district director for Mr. Delahunt, said: "When the congressman was first elected in 1996, even before he was sworn in, he made a trip to the Vineyard and pledged to the Island he would work on saving the station. The future of the station has been a top priority since the day he was elected."
He also said: "Congressman Delahunt was concerned with the recent grounding of the barge in Buzzards Bay [this spring.] We think it was a wake up call that additional resources need to be available to deal with this spill. This is a very busy area."
Captain Keene took over Group Woods Hole in June. The group includes ten stations that reach from Provincetown to the east to Point Judith in the west.
She oversees approximately 350 active duty Coast Guardsmen, 150 in reserve and 1,600 auxiliary personnel. In this year alone, the group responded to over 300 search and rescue cases.
Menemsha Coast Guard personnel oversee the waters south and west of the Vineyard and Buzzards Bay.
"This group is one of the jewels of the Coast Guard. It is very busy," she said. "One of the reasons we are so busy is that we are in the traffic lane to New York and to Boston; much transits through the Cape Cod Canal."
Provincetown Coast Guard Station was also one of those, like Menemsha, downsized in 1996; it was restored to full status three years ago.
Executive petty officer Matt Welsh, who heads up the Provincetown station, said when the upgrading came in August 2000, it took "a major workload off the [existing] crew." His station's role, like that of all stations, is to do search and rescue, enforce fisheries regulations, protect the environment and, under the Department of Homeland Security, provide surveillance.
As a "station small" Provincetown had 14 people and three boats. Restored to a full station, its staff rose to 23. When the station is "small," he said: "You do a lot more prioritizing. You can't tell someone not to drown."
Over on Nantucket, there are 30 personnel at Coast Guard Station Brant Point. Senior chief Sheila Lucey has a staff of 30, and said: "It is extremely busy for us. Though it is a beautiful place, it also has some of the most treacherous and difficult waterways. We train every day."
From an Island point of view, the biggest hurdle in all this concerns the relocation of the Chilmark police.
When Chief Tim Rich met with selectmen on Tuesday he told them he doesn't look forward to another move. Police had full use of the building over the last three years, and even set up an overnight room with lockers on the third floor.
Chief Rich told the selectmen that he would like to have the same kind of station in the future, most likely at the Menemsha School. But it is an awkward time. The Menemsha School has gone through changes in the last two years to accommodate town expansion. This winter, the old school is the home for town hall employees. The town hall is being fully renovated and expanded. Last winter the Menemsha School was the temporary home of the town library, while the library was being built.
Selectman Warren Doty reported that converting the school to a police station will take some effort. The new town hall isn't supposed to be done until the end of February, or perhaps the end of March.
The board of selectmen authorized Mr. Carroll to try and hire Deborah Durland, architect of the renovated library, to do a needs assessment for the police department and to come up with a design for the old school.
Selectman Frank Fenner said he hoped that efforts would be made to keep in mind that the school is a historic building and to be aware that people in town want the building maintained as such.
Chief Rich said he would work with the Coast Guard and the town over the move. "I thought moving once in my career was enough. It is very disruptive. We are under the gun and we don't have a lot of control."
Chief Rich said that the Menemsha School would make a suitable police station. "There is a lot of history here," he said.
Mr. Preston said: "I will meet with Captain Keene to work out a schedule as soon as possible. We clearly need to come to agreements that have a plan for the police department."