SSA Revises Oak Bluffs Terminal Plan

By JAMES KINSELLA

The coastal bank just to the north of the Steamship Authority terminal in Oak Bluffs won't win any beauty awards.

Scrubby weeds predominate, along with buried timbers, dusty paths and a desultory line of small boulders. The cover of the septic system from the town comfort station on Seaview avenue extension also is in evidence.

The Steamship Authority, as part of its proposed $10 million reconstruction of the Oak Bluffs terminal, wants to put two asphalt lanes of vehicle staging along the western edge of the bank, along with a walkway and plantings on the bank slope itself.

To do so, the boat line needs the backing of the Oak Bluffs conservation commission, which is charged with enforcing the state Wetlands Protection Act and also the town wetlands protection bylaw.

Commission members, however, are not so sure the boat line plan is a good idea.

On Tuesday, following a site visit with SSA officials and consultants to North Bluff and the existing terminal, commission chairman Joan C. Hughes put the boat line on notice that any plan put forward by the SSA involving North Bluff must protect the coastal bank, or at least not significantly affect it.

Commission members also let the boat line know that they want a variety of options considered for the terminal reconstruction, including construction of another vehicle lane along the northern edge of the existing pier.

Discussions between the commission and the SSA have been deliberately informal, to encourage a productive give-and-take discussion before the boat line formally seeks permits for the project.

About a year ago, the SSA applied for a permit from the commission to reconstruct the Oak Bluffs terminal, but pulled the application after the commission and others raised concerns. The new plan has not changed appreciably from a year ago.

The SSA has proposed rebuilding the terminal, which is used seasonally, to improve efficiency and safety and reduce traffic congestion on nearby streets.

Ms. Hughes acknowledged that the coastal bank is not especially attractive.

But she said the commission will make its determination based on scientific evidence and not aesthetics.

Besides creating two new staging lanes to the west of the existing split-rail fence on the avenue extension, the SSA wants to create a third staging lane by eliminating parallel parking on that section of the street. A vegetated island is planned to separate the three lanes from the two travel lanes on the avenue extension.

A walkway is planned to run along the bank at the northern edge of the staging area and continuing south toward the vehicle pier. Vegetation and a fence along the walkway would screen the staging area from the sea. The current plan eliminates staging from land on the bluff that historically may belong to Oak Bluffs as parkland.

The plan also calls for the demolition of the existing terminal building and replacement with a Victorian-style kiosk that would include space for an attendant, an automatic teller machine (ATM) and one or more ticketing machines. The terminal operation will relocate to rented space across Seaview avenue in the old town hall. A pedestrian wooden walkway along the southern edge of the pier will be expanded.

On Tuesday conservation commission members called on the boat line to examine other reconstruction options that would decrease the impact on the North Bluff coastal bank.

Boat line consultants said they had eliminated the plan to build a vehicle lane on the pier because of environmental, cost and permitting concerns. Boat line spokesmen said they will now reexamine the proposal.

In response to a request from Ms. Hughes, SSA consultants will provide the commission with a matrix that discusses in detail how the plan for the coastal bank matches up against the wetlands act.

Earlier this month, the consultants supplied written responses to a series of questions raised by the conservation commission and others about the plan. The responses characterized the North Bluff coastal bank as failed, a term that appeared to stick in the commission's craw.

"I can't accept that the bank is a failed bank," said conservation commission member Paul Strauss.

One of the boat line's consultants, Steve Cecil of the Cecil Group, said the SSA plan will in fact repair a bank that is eroding.

Construction is expected to take four years, most likely two spring and two fall seasons. But commission members suggested that any coastal bank work probably would be better done during the summer, since it is out of the way of the terminal's main traffic flow and would be less subject to northeast storms.

Vineyard SSA governor and board chairman Marc Hanover and general manager Wayne Lamson attended the site visit and meeting on Tuesday.

At the end of the meeting, Mr. Hanover said the proposed terminal reconstruction plan offers "a lot of positives."

"I think it will be a huge asset for the town," said Mr. Hanover, who also owns Linda Jean's restaurant on Circuit avenue.

Ms. Hughes said: "As a commission, we have to decide on the science. There's a tremendous amount of dissent [on the project]. We need to have a lot of input."