After years of planning, discussion and often heated debate, the Oak Bluffs conservation commission Tuesday unanimously endorsed the $10 million Steamship Authority plan to expand and improve the ferry terminal on Sea View avenue.
Commission members voted 4-0 to approve an order of conditions, which is the permit required under the Massachusetts wetlands protection act and the town wetlands bylaw.
"It's a good feeling to know we're all on the same page," said boat line general manager Wayne Lamson. "This is the project that appeals to the most people, and it's one that we are pleased to endorse."
"There had previously been some very good plans, but there is no doubt that this is a very good plan. They have come up with a very sensible plan that addressed all the important issues," said selectman Michael Dutton, who at one time supported converting the old town hall into a terminal.
"It's been a long time coming, but we are very happy to be at this point," conservation commission chairman Joan Hughes declared.
The approval now puts the future of the project into the hands of several state agencies.
The project will need to go through a comprehensive review known as the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act (MEPA), as well as water quality certification from the Department of Environmental Protection and approval from the Army Corps of Engineers.
But, perhaps most importantly, the commission's approval crystallizes the vision for the new terminal. Over the past few years, SSA planners, residents and town leaders have debated the design and scope of the sometimes controversial project.
A previous incarnation of the project had called for the old town hall - currently the police station - to be converted into a new terminal office, a proposal met with mixed reviews by some residents and town leaders.
That version also called for vehicle staging along the North Bluff, also unpopular with many in town.
The SSA pulled that application back after the commission and many residents raised concerns. The conservation commission is the only town board or commission with permitting authority over the project.
The scaled-back project approved Tuesday calls for the construction of an extended staging area SSA officials hope will reduce traffic along Sea View avenue during the busy summer months. SSA planners are optimistic the new staging deck will be large enough for a full boat's worth of vehicles.
Other improvements include a new covered walkway with wider pedestrian lanes, a concrete island on Sea View avenue to separate passenger pick-up and drop-off and a longer boat loading ramp to accommodate larger trucks.
Plans also calls for the replacement of many deteriorated mooring dolphins, and the installation of a new 50-foot transfer bridge and a new covered timber pavilion waiting area next to the current terminal.
SSA facilities engineer Bill Cloutier said the commission's approval essentially marks the real beginning for the project.
"We have plans now that everyone can get behind. The project is off the ground," he said.
Mrs. Hughes did ask that the boat line keep the commission involved as the project moves forward.
She asked the SSA to share their time table for construction so that the town can move forward with plans to improve the coastal bank at the same time. The first step in the town's plans would be to apply for state or federal grants to pay for the repairs.
The SSA also agreed to provide progress reports on the project to the conservation commission and the board of selectmen, and to inform them of any architectural developments.
The commission's approval followed a brief site visit to the terminal by MEPA official Dierdre Buckley, who fielded questions about the project from several residents and town officials.
Although a few had questions about the technical aspects of the project, a majority of people wanted to know if the appearance of the terminal would change.
Selectman Kerry Scott said many people were comfortable with the current aesthetics, and expressed hope that the appearance would not be radically altered.
"I just hope that it will still look like a wooden boat launch," she said.
Project engineer Steven Cecil said the terminal would essentially retain its current character and appearance.
"I think it will be a more welcoming view. It's not going to look entirely like a 19th-century wooden structure. But it will still be very unique . . . it is very rare to see this type of structure with this amount of heavy timber decking," Mr. Cecil said.
Work on the project is tentatively slated to begin in the fall of 2007 and will continue for at least two - most likely three - off-seasons, according to Mr. Cecil.
Mr. Lamson said much of the project cost will be paid for through a combination of state and federal funding, long-term loans and revenue generated through user rates.
The price tag for the early version of the project, which called for the construction of a new terminal at the old town hall, had been estimated as high as $13 million.
The SSA now will seek funding from the state and federal Department of Transportation, as well as the federal Ferry Boat Discretionary Fund Program.