Two longstanding Chilmark residents may be forced to hand over to the town multiple mooring permits they hold and rent out, according to a letter submitted to the town selectmen this week by their attorney.

A sharply divided board of selectmen requested the opinion from Ronald H. Rappaport earlier this winter.

The town of Chilmark manages 200 moorings and 53 slip assignments at Menemsha. Currently Jonathan Mayhew holds 25 mooring spaces off of Clam Point Cove and Lynn Murphy holds 15 spaces. In the past two years, the state inspector general has reviewed similar cases in Chatham and Harwich involving people who hold multiple moorings and rent them out and found the situations illegal.

At a selectmen’s meeting in February selectman J.B. Riggs Parker requested the board seek an opinion from town counsel on the matter. “For a long time I’ve been concerned about the inspector general’s opinion,” Mr. Parker said this week. “These are state waters that are supposed to be held in trust for the benefit of state residents. The state has chosen to appoint the harbor master to supervise the moorings. It has to be fair and equitable, which would require using the town waiting list.”

The request prompted heated discussion in town hall. “Why do we need a legal opinion when we are a legal entity?” chairman Warren Doty asked his board at the time. “Why do we want to make things different if this offers a service?” The board voted 2-1 to seek the opinion. Mr. Doty cast the dissenting vote.

The debate comes amid a much broader town discussion around the rules and regulations for Menemsha harbor, which the selectmen have decided to make more transparent and equitable.

In his written opinion issued this week, Mr. Rappaport recommended that beginning in 2009, any mooring permits not in use by Mr. Mayhew, Mr. Murphy, or their immediate families be made available to harbor master Dennis Jason for distribution to town residents through the harbor waiting list procedure. The selectmen must inform Mr. Mayhew and Mr. Murphy about their intent. Mr. Rappaport also noted that there are inconsistencies between the regulations issued by the Department of Environmental Protection and those of the inspector general. He suggested selectmen urge both Mr. Mayhew and Mr. Murphy to appeal to the Department of Environmental Protection regarding their rights.

“We will pursue it to get clarification,” Susan Bainbridge Murphy, wife of Mr. Murphy, said this week.

Mr. Murphy rents moorings to many customers who are already on the town waiting list and has held his moorings since before the town began tracking mooring permits. Often the Murphys, who run a boat building business out of their Chilmark home, use their moorings to hold boats they are working on or trying to sell. “You do sometimes have to be fair and you do sometimes have to fight for your right to make a living,” Mrs. Murphy said.

Mr. Mayhew, a former Chilmark selectman and well-known commercial fisherman, has held 25 moorings in the Clam Point Cove area since 1968. For a fee, Mr. Mayhew provides access to the pond and parking. Many of his customers predate the town mooring list.

Mr. Parker said the next step is up to the harbor master and the selectmen. “I would think the harbor master, who has the responsibility for the regulations, and perhaps the harbor selectman, Frank Fenner, would come up with suggestions about how to proceed and who should do what when,” he said.