SSA Pressures Oak Bluffs on Pier Plan; Boat Line's Tone a Sore Point for Town

By ALEXIS TONTI

Amid controversy over a Steamship Authority proposal to renovate the Oak Bluffs pier, boat line managers are now using plans to lease the abandoned town hall for a new terminal as leverage.

In a letter to Oak Bluffs selectman Richard Combra, SSA director of engineering Carl Walker says any permitting delay will undermine the entire project. He puts pressure squarely on the town conservation commission to fast track its review of the SSA proposal.

Mr. Walker also states a number of other conditions upon which, he says, the entire renovation project is contingent.

"Because of the federal grant (which was based on a ferry facility) and our own view that the staging and terminal are part of the same travel experience, we will not commit to the new terminal until staging and other issues are fully resolved," Mr. Walker wrote.

Last month the SSA began to move forward with plans to improve its Oak Bluffs facilities on several fronts. The conservation commission opened its review of the pier improvement project, which includes a redesign of the traffic flow around the area to relieve congestion. The plan comes under the board's purview because of its siting in a coastal resource area.

A week later it was confirmed that the Oak Bluffs selectmen had begun talks with SSA managers to sign a contract to lease the abandoned town hall for use as a new terminal office for roughly $46,000 a year.

At the time, it appeared that the signing of the lease agreement did not hinge upon the outcome of the environmental debate. But now boat line managers say the two are contingent upon one another.

In addition, Mr. Walker says the improvement project hinges on a number of other conditions. They include:

* Formal approval by the SSA board of governors;

* Maintenance of a federal grant for $725,000; and

* State legislative approval authorizing the town of Oak Bluffs to enter into a lease for town hall for more than 10 years.

But in his letter Mr. Walker casts the permitting process of the conservation commission as the major obstacle to the next phase of the project. He states that unless the issue is resolved shortly the project will be subject to increased costs and lengthy delays.

The conservation commission has raised a number of concerns about the project. Board members' toughest questions have come with regard to a plan to fill in and pave a portion of the coastal bank along Seaview avenue extension. The SSA wants to turn the area north of the current terminal into a new vehicle staging area.

The conservation commission is the only town board with permitting authority over the project.

Board members have asked for more information about the scope of the work, and town counsel is also looking into whether the North Bluff bank is a town park, which also would restrict its development.

"Frankly, recent comments by the commission were somewhat surprising since the project relating to the new staging area has remained unchanged for four years; we have frequently met both formally and informally with the commission during this period," wrote Mr. Walker.

But Mr. Walker's contention that the project has been open to input over the last four years is at odds with a statement by conservation commission chairman Joan Hughes, who says the boat line is misrepresenting its efforts.

"We do not wish to be cast as the main local stumbling block to a project which promises great economic benefits for the town," wrote Ms. Hughes, who drew attention to the discrepancies in a letter of her own to Roger Wey, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen.

Ms. Hughes says the SSA met with the conservation commission only once, in February 2003, in an informal meeting about a previous version of the plan.

The plan to refurbish the terminal has been through several revisions since it was first unveiled nearly four years ago. The latest design is scaled back and less expensive than the original, which was pegged at a cost of $15 million. Some of the same concepts are still in place but others have been scrapped, among them a plan to reposition the end of the ferry slip to make the exposed pier more usable during inclement weather.

The Oak Bluffs terminal, which fronts Nantucket Sound, operates seasonally from late spring through early fall.

Mr. Walker says it might be best to divide the terminal project into two components, with seaside improvements - replacing the existing dolphins, passenger walkway and transfer bridge - proceeding separately from the landside construction and terminal refurbishing.

The change would postpone the work, first projected for this winter, until the spring of 2006.

Mr. Walker concludes: "I must remind the town that the project is neither a revenue enhancing nor a cost reducing expenditure. The project's goal has always been to improve the ‘feel' of the Oak Bluffs arrival and departure. Accordingly, we are not compelled to push the improvement to the facility through if the community is still concerned. Yet, considerable delay can jeopardize the costs and the grant."

At the regular meeting of the board of selectmen Tuesday, several selectmen took issue with the letter from Mr. Walker, taking exception to its overall tone and questioning its accuracy.

"There are a couple of mentions in the SSA correspondence that raise some eyebrows for many of us. The conservation commission seems to be taking some heat for slowing down the process," said selectman Kerry Scott.

The May public hearing of the conservation commission had been continued to this past Tuesday, but was continued again because commission members had not received additional information about the project they requested from the boat line.

In addition, the boat line has withdrawn its application from Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act review.

The board of selectmen decided this week to schedule an informal meeting on the terminal improvement project with SSA representatives for next Tuesday.

It is unclear whether conservation commission members can participate in the meeting, since they are still reviewing the SSA permit application.

"The selectmen don't want to be adversaries to the Steamship Authority and we don't want to slow the project inappropriately, but the SSA has presented a plan that is dramatically different than anything we have seen before. The conservation commission must be allowed to do their work," said Ms. Scott.