With a series of lawsuits between two well-known Island businessmen threatening fuel service for boaters in Oak Bluffs harbor this summer, town officials are scrambling to build and operate their own filling station near the Island Queen dock by the Fourth of July.
Town officials say the plan — which is before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and has several further regulatory hurdles to clear after that — would cost about $100,000, but that at least that much would be lost in slip and moorings revenue if boaters can’t get fuel at the marina and therefore go to other harbors.
The idea is vehemently opposed by Mark Wallace, owner of the current filling station for boats at Church’s Pier in front of Nancy’s Snack Bar.
But fuel magnate Ralph Packer is attempting to evict Mr. Wallace from the Church’s Pier location — one among myriad legal actions between the two businessmen that date back to July of 2007, when a delivery driver for R.M. Packer Co. mistakenly connected to a fuel tank owned by Mr. Wallace that already was filled to capacity.
As a result, approximately 700 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into an area in front of the Sand Bar and Grill. Pressure in the tank built up until a safety valve at the top of the tank blew, shooting a geyser of diesel fuel that reached all the way back to the Wash-A-Shore Laundromat on Circuit avenue extension.
The spill prompted a wide-ranging cleanup with an estimated cost of about $500,000, and also forced several businesses along the harbor to close for several weeks in the summer.
Last June, R.M. Packer Co. sent a letter to Mr. Wallace stating that because of the delivery mishap, his insurance company was prohibiting them from delivering fuel to the Oak Bluffs harbor. Complicating matters was the fact that Mr. Wallace was leasing the storage tanks and pumps from Mr. Packer.
Mr. Wallace then hired a new fuel supplier, Loud Fuel of Falmouth, and was able to continue selling fuel on the harbor last summer.
Since that time, Mr. Packer has initiated further lawsuits against Mr. Wallace, including the attempt to evict him from Church’s Pier location.
Mr. Wallace said Mr. Packer is also trying to evict him from both his Budget Rental locations in Vineyard Haven, and is threatening to initiate foreclosure on a second mortgage he took out to cover the cost of purchasing the fuel tanks on the harbor.
Amid the legal disputes, the town has stepped in with a proposal to build and operate a pumping station and storage tanks along the harbor. The plan is currently being reviewed by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission as a development of regional impact (DRI); it also would need approval from the conservation commission, planning board and zoning board of appeals.
At a meeting of the MVC land use planning subcommittee on Monday, town administrator Michael Dutton said the goal is to have the new filling station complete by the Fourth of July. “What we have now are two private enterprises dueling with one another, and the fear is there will be no fuel on the harbor this summer,” he said, adding:
“For the time being, I actually feel more comfortable having a municipality do this . . . it could provide more consistent service for boaters,” he said.
The plan before the commission lists the town of Oak Bluffs, Mr. Dutton, and harbor master Todd Alexander as applicants. It calls for the installation of two 1,500-gallon gas tanks or one 2,000-gas tank at the harbor master’s shack between the harbor sidewalk and parking lot. The fueling location would take place on the floating dock just north of the harbor master shack.
The project application cites the legal disputes between Mr. Packer and Mr. Wallace.
“There is litigation that stems from an accident in 2007 when the tanks buried underneath the sand at the Sand Bar and Restaurant were overfilled, leading to a geyser of diesel fuel. Fuel for boats was available from Church’s Pier on a limited basis last summer. Boaters had to call a cell phone number and leave a message and would then get a call instructing them when to show up.”
Mr. Alexander said the town harbor management committee stepped in after several summers of spotty fuel service on the harbor. Upon learning Mr. Packer was trying to evict Mr. Wallace — which could end fuel service this summer altogether — the committee felt it was time to build a town-operated fuel station.
“People aren’t going to come here if they can’t fill up; plus it’s kind of embarrassing to have a marina that doesn’t offer fuel. I don’t think the committee was satisfied with how the fuel dock was being run; that’s not a shot at Mark [Wallace]; he has a lot of things going, including the dispute with Ralph [Packer] . . . I personally think the town can do better,” Mr. Alexander said.
Mr. Dutton this week estimated the new fuel station will cost around $100,000, and there have already been discussions with a vendor who would install the new tanks and pumps for free in exchange for a guarantee of buying gas from that vendor. The anticipated hours of operation at the fuel station would be from approximately 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. from spring through fall. The harbor master does not anticipate increasing the number of employees to operate the station, he said.
Mr. Dutton said providing fuel is vital for the economic health of the harbor and town.
“We don’t want people going to other town harbors, just because we don’t have fuel. I’ve been saying for two years that fuel service is critical on the harbor, and as it stands now the service is spotty at best. The town cannot sit by and watch and do nothing,” he said.
Mr. Wallace is vehemently opposed to the town building and running a new fuel station, arguing he already is providing fuel service at Church’s Pier. He has filed a request for a temporary restraining order in superior court against R.M. Packer to stop the company from foreclosing on his gas tanks, and is confident he can continue to provide service through the summer.
Mr. Wallace said he worked hard the past few years to continue to provide fuel services in the face of adversity, and has spent around $30,000 to connect diesel and gas to the pier.
“We have a guy who is basically trying to evict me from every property he owns, who is making things very difficult for the town, but still I’m here ready and willing to provide gas at the harbor. I already am providing gas, actually, but now the town comes along and wants to compete against a private interest,” he said.
He said it makes more sense to have the gast station at Church’s Pier, under his control.
“One option is to continue to operate the gas station in a better location. The other is for the town to spend $100,000 to build a new facility with gas tanks partially sticking out of the ground in a neighborhood. Does the town really want to get in the gas business? Who is to say what the town wants? Right now, there is no town, it’s a few people making decisions,” he said.
But David Pothier, chairman of the harbor management committee, said losing fuel service at the marina could cost the town as much as $100,000 in slip and mooring revenues each year. People will stop coming to the marina if they cannot purchase fuel there, he said.
“We are running a marina, we need to offer fuel. It’s that simple. Yes, we’re in the marina business and not the fuel business, but you can’t have one without the other,” he said.