The Chilmark selectmen endorsed a formal appeal to the U.S. Coast Guard’s rejected insurance claims for the Menemsha boathouse fire Tuesday night.
The selectmen unanimously voted to approve an appeal letter crafted by town counsel Ron Rappaport that questions the outcome of the investigation into the cause of the July 2010 fire and challenges the Coast Guard’s dismissal of the claim due to the belief the fire started on town property.
In a letter to Coast Guard attorney Susan Steiner, who issued the denial, Mr. Rappaport said that based on the physical evidence and eyewitness accounts, the blame likely lies with the Coast Guard and not the town.
“It is more likely than not that the fire originated on the southwestern side of the USCG controlled boardwalk pier leading to the boathouse and that the arcing and shorting of its electrical supply line was the cause. There is no evidence to suggest that the fire started elsewhere,” wrote Mr. Rappaport.
“Given that there is credible evidence suggesting that the drive-on pier caught fire after the boathouse became consumed in flames — and given the lack of eyewitness evidence establishing that a lit cigarette was deposited on the boardwalk pier prior to the onset of the fire — the town has presented a valid claim for compensation."
In late March the Coast Guard notified the selectmen it would not pay insurance claims for the massive Menemsha boathouse fire due to the belief the fire started on the town-owned drive-on pier and not on Coast Guard property. While not unexpected, the denial garnered outrage from the selectmen, sparking the appeal process. A multi-agency investigative report released last February ruled the cause of the fire undetermined, and investigators named three possible sources of the fire — faulty wiring under the Coast Guard boathouse, faulty wiring under the Chilmark public pier or a lit cigarette — but could not pinpoint the cause.
The investigation concluded the fire originated at the connection between the two docks.
In the appeal letter, Mr. Rappaport points to several key eyewitness reports in the investigation report supporting the conclusion that the fire started on the Coast Guard’s pier leading to the boathouse, including one witness who “undeniably saw fire on the USCG pier” and another “crucial” witness who had an unobstructed view of the boathouse and could “identify the precise location where the fire originated before spreading to the USCG Boathouse itself and surrounding structures, including the drive-on pier.”
“The location of the most significant damage to the drive-on pier further demonstrates that the fire likely originated on the USCG property from arcing or shorting of the electrical line servicing the boathouse,” Mr. Rappaport continued.
Former selectman Frank Fenner has previously challenged the accuracy of his statement in the investigative report, and Mr. Rappaport wrote the town is concerned the Coast Guard relied on incomplete summaries of the various witness statements such as Mr. Fenner’s.
The town filed a claim for rebuilding the public dock that was destroyed in the fire but has since been rebuilt. The new $1.5 million pier was paid for by the town. About 40 people have filed similar claims through the town and the Coast Guard, about half of whom have not received a reimbursement. The claimants received a similar denial letter to the one sent to the town; most claimants suffered damages between $10,000 and $20,000.
Selectman Warren Doty urged boat owners who received the March denial letter from the Coast Guard should file similar appeals. He suggested, with encouragement from Mr. Rappaport, that private claimants use Mr. Rappaport’s appeal and add a personal addendum.
“We’re submitting ours as the town of Chilmark; other individuals who want to make the appeal can use this material,” Mr. Doty said. “[Mr. Rappaport] suggested they submit the same letter and write a one page note that says, ‘I appeal on the same terms of the town of Chilmark’.
The board was enthusiastic about the appeal.
“It’s very, very good,” selectman and chairman of the board Jonathan Mayhew said. “I think it’s very valuable."
If the selectmen are unhappy with the Coast Guard’s final determination, the selectmen can file an additional appeal in U.S. District Court.
The Coast Guard is working on plans to rebuild the historic boathouse sometime in the next two years; the plans are set to go out to bid in July.