Coast Guard senior officers told the Chilmark selectmen this week it will be at least two years until the government agency can begin rebuilding the historic Menemsha boathouse that was destroyed in the July 12 fire.
All physical evidence has been collected for the investigation, and demolition of the charred boathouse is set to begin Sept. 15, Capt. Verne Gifford (commander for Southern New England), Cmdr. Will Smith and Menemsha station chief Jason Olsen told the selectmen on Tuesday. Also attending the meeting were special agents Robert Ditolla and Joe Green.
The investigation into the cause of the fire is still underway, led by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The meeting included heated discussion about whether the town should renew a lease agreement for docking the Coast Guard’s 47-foot search and rescue vessel on the main harbor bulkhead. In the end selectmen Warren Doty and Frank Fenner voted to allow the lease, with selectman Jonathan Mayhew opposed.
Commander Smith said the Coast Guard had hired the same contractor the town hired to clear the debris, AGM Marine, a move praised by Mr. Doty. AGM will only remove burned debris from the site, but Commander Smith said the Coast Guard plans to follow up the work with at least two projects to address site conditions.
“One project will be establishing a pathway to the Coast Guard floating docks . . . and the second is the actual replacement of the boathouse later on,” he said. The Coast Guard’s floating docks were not damaged in the fire.
But because the 2011 fiscal year budget has already been passed by Congress, the Coast Guard cannot request money for the project until 2012. “We’ve been pursuing from day one to get funding for replacement as soon as we possibly could,” Commander Smith said. “We have a request in the fiscal 2012 budget to get funds to replace the boathouse.
“What that means to you from a practical standpoint, assuming all stars align and we get funding allocated from Congress in October 2011 — we’re likely to see construction not until July or August of 2012. Construction would take 12 to 18 months after that.”
Mr. Mayhew asked if there was a quick fix to the situation, but Commander Smith said he doubted it. Executive secretary Timothy Carroll asked if the Coast Guard plans to remove the underground storage tanks that were filled with sand in recent years, and Commander Smith said he would take it into consideration.
“I’m alarmed that construction would probably at best case start in July or August of 2012,” Mr. Fenner said. “It’s the high part of our season here . . . We have to be very careful of how it clicks in that time frame on both sides of it, for both years,” he added.
“If it’s just going to be too crowded in a small harbor in summertime, we can work into the contract to minimize those disruptions,” Commander Smith responded.
He said the Coast Guard will hire a firm to design the new boathouse once money is allocated, at which point a public comment period would be opened. “
We feel as though we live a long way away from Boston. We like to have a local meeting for something as important as this is to us,” Mr. Doty said. “We’d like to have a public meeting to discuss it, then we can make intelligent comments.”
Commander Smith said a formal request would need to be filed.
Special investigator Robert Ditolla presented a short written statement to the selectmen regarding the status of the investigation.
“We understand the community is anxious to get answers about the fire; however, to insure the integrity of the investigation I cannot discuss it while it is ongoing,” he said.
“While this may seem like a very long time to people, the reality is that it’s been less than two months and we have a lot of ground to cover. We want to exhaust all resources, and we’re still receiving names of people that have information. We have an obligation to contact those people. The last thing we want to do is close out the investigation and have information out there.”
Steve Broderick, a Menemsha fisherman, raised more questions of accountability. “This is an unfortunate circumstance for the town and the Coast Guard,” Mr. Broderick said.
“I have nothing but respect for the Coast Guard but they couldn’t help us. It’s two months from the fire, and there’s a burned-out sunfish floating in middle of the harbor. Someone has to take responsibility for something . . . Somewhere along the line someone has to step up.”
The discussion then turned to granting a lease to the Coast Guard for a slip in the harbor. “Since summer season is on us, the smaller [25 foot] boat hasn’t significantly degraded search and rescue capabilities,” Captain Gifford said. “We are concerned that as we get to fall and winter season that we put the 47-foot boat back.”
As for the space for the Coast Guard search and rescue vessel, Commander Smith said the lease is needed through next May; he said the Coast Guard plans to build a temporary dock in time for next summer.
Harbor master Dennis Jason, a former Coast Guardsman, urged the selectmen to approve the lease.
“I hate to see us in a position that it’s us and them . . . in the 115-year history here. [The Coast Guard] has performed more good than it has harm,” he said, adding: “I think the 47-footer, we should have it. We’re going to move boats around, we’re going to make it all work.”
Mr. Doty agreed but had a thought. “Maybe we could encourage the investigation to speed up by saying we’re going to look at this lease for a little while,” he said.
“I understand you’re dissatisfied with the speed of certain things but I think a point I’d like to make is the 47-foot surf boat is your heavy weather search and rescue for the Island. It is your closest asset,” Commander Smith said.
“If you want to be unhappy with the Coast Guard’s pace of investigation, that’s one thing. That should not affect your decision about this lease that will bring the 47-footer to this harbor.”