Tisbury Selectmen Reject Bid to Bring Fox Ferries Into Harbor


Fox Navigation, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut, wants to resume high-speed ferry service to Vineyard Haven harbor next season, but Tisbury selectmen denied the company a harbor use permit at a public hearing Tuesday night.

After losing the Schamonchi to Oak Bluffs, the selectmen have openly asked for a passenger ferry service. But selectmen rejected the Fox ferry plan, citing concerns over safety, noise and even the fumes associated with the high-speed ships.

Jeff Kristal, president of the Tisbury Business Association (TBA), had written a letter to the selectmen on the association's behalf in support of allowing the service.

Mr. Kristal said he understands the board is concerned about traffic and the stressed infrastructure in Tisbury.

"Why not look to Fox for the solution? The selectmen say they want more visitors without cars. We get the answer, and then we turn them down," said Mr. Kristal.

The TBA president said the Fox ferry service is a way to stimulate the town economy. Businesses along Beach Road and even those along Main street were helped by Fox's service when it ran here two summers ago, according to Mr. Kristal.

Grant Parker, a consultant for Fox, told selectmen the two fast ferry vessels, the Sassacus and the Tatobam, would make daily round trips from May through October, running from the Cross Town Ferry Terminal in New London, Conn., to the West Dock in Vineyard Haven harbor, a facility owned by R.M. Packer Inc.

The proposed schedule was for two daily round trips. A one-way trip takes an hour. The Sassacus carries 264 passengers and the Tatobam 289. Each boat is about 150 feet in length and 39 feet wide; both run on jet fuel.

The service began in 1998 and continued until last summer. Harbor master Jay Wilbur said that last summer Fox made one or two trips, but then stopped coming altogether without notifying him.

When Tisbury adopted its district of critical planning (DCPC) regulations last October, Tisbury's town counsel said the Fox service was not exempt from the new rules. While Fox is reserving its right to dispute the exemption, they did agree to follow the process, which was why they applied for a permit.

Mr. Wilbur opposed bringing back the service. "From a seamanship point of view, it doesn't make sense for them to come into the Vineyard Haven harbor," said Mr. Wilbur. "They have to add 20 minutes to the trip because they have to slow down when entering the harbor."

In addition, Mr. Wilbur said, "They did not act like good neighbors. They were belligerent from the beginning."

Mr. Wilbur said he issued numerous citations to the skippers of the boats for such things as traveling too fast. Mr. Wilbur said he advised Fox years ago that Oak Bluffs was a more suitable harbor.

Mr. Wilbur said that when the ferry comes into Vineyard Haven, business in the harbor is basically shut down.

Almost everyone at the public hearing opposed the service, objecting to the ferries' loud noise, fumes, poor aesthetics, threat to safety and damage to the environment.

Mr. Parker admitted the noise level is high and the smell offensive. But he did defend the vessels on safety issues, noting that the two boats were never involved in an accident.

Selectman Raymond LaPorte cited the town's DCPC regulations as grounds for turning down the permit. The district regulations were written, as he noted, "To maintain and enhance the cultural heritage and economic vitality of the Vineyard Haven harbor and waterfront, and to protect the health, safety and well-being of town residents and visitors."

Owners of marine businesses told several anecdotes at the public hearing Tuesday, illustrating how Fox's service threatens the cultural heritage and economic vitality of the harbor. Nat Benjamin, owner of Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway, said that when he was taking customers sailing, the fast ferry came by, jarring them with its offensive smell, and his customers looked at him as if to say, "We are paying for this? What is it, an added bonus?"

Residents Muriel and Susan Mill were at the hearing to support the service. They said the ferry is convenient and that most people who come to the Vineyard leave with bags full of goods purchased on the Island.

Selectman Tom Pachico said the town does like the idea of a passenger ferry, but not the sort of vessels Fox proposes to use.