Northshore Harbormasters Association News

More for moorings

 Dinah Cardin/ dcardin@cnc.com
Friday, March 25, 2005


It was only a matter of time before Amesbury officials considered charging boaters who call their waters home port. That was obvious. Every other municipality around them charges boaters to tie onto a mooring or dock.

     But who thought it would be this complicated?


     For now, Jack Bailey, a third-generation harbormaster in Amesbury, runs the department from his own house on a budget of $7,500 a year. There, the river sparkles through the sliding glass doors of his family den that doubles as his home office


     This is where he processes the free boating and docking permits. To obtain them, boaters have historically gone straight to Bailey’s home or utilized the good, old-fashioned postal service to renew their permits, sending the under-budgeted town employee a self-addressed, stamped envelope. It was casual. No money even changed hands, so what’s the fuss?


     Over the years, when boaters have called to inquire about the town’s mooring and docking fees, they have been more than a little shocked to find this service is F-R-E-E.


     "I always thought it was nice, something you didn’t have to pay for," says Bailey. "It wasn’t necessary at the time."


     But that has changed and with it, so has the job of this mostly volunteer department made up of people with day jobs. Being the harbormaster is Amesbury is becoming more demanding, as the waterway is more crowded than it was 15 or 20 years ago. About 400 boats are docked or moored in Amesbury and many of the owners are from out of town.


     "It’s been a lot of work for myself and past harbormasters to make sure people are complying with state and local regulations," he says. "You can’t have people putting moorings in just anywhere. It’s a way of keeping things under control. But it’s becoming busier and busier. It takes more time to do the paperwork."


     So as docks go into the water in the next couple of weeks, Amesbury’s Municipal Council will be making a decision whether to approve the proposal before them – that motorized boats moored or docked in Amesbury for more than two weeks a year will be charged $3 per linear foot, unless they are smaller than 16 feet. In that case, there is a fixed fee of $20.


     And this is going to make Bailey’s life a whole lot more interesting.


     "We’ll have to physically walk the docks," Bailey says. "There’s no other way to do it."


     No other way to check for the adhesive stickers on the starboard side of a vessel’s transom, which will be issued in a different color every year, indicating that all taxes and fees have been paid.


     The proposal has come under fire from some local marina operators, whose jobs stand to get quite a bit more complicated if the bylaw is passed. But it’s a necessity, says Bailey, because even if the town doesn’t raise the funds, aquatic activities like fishing, water skiing, boating and sailing will continue to gain in popularity.


     "They’re not making any more water," he says, "but they are making a lot more boats."


     Old school operator


     For now, the town’s 20-year-old government-issued boat is kept at Bailey’s home. His department spent hundreds of hours, he says, rebuilding the engine. He’s out on the water seven days a week, but also manages a hauling operation at a marina in Chelsea, making his presence on the water part-time.


     Sometimes the stay-at-home harbormaster even patrols for speeding boaters from his backyard.


     "If I’m mowing my lawn out there in a T-shirt and shorts, sweatin’ like a stuck pig," says Bailey, gesturing to his back yard, "I’ll jump in my boat and go get them."


     Occasionally boaters will ask to see some I.D. from this non-uniformed man, sometimes in his own boat with an added blue light.


     "They’re not stupid, just ignorant," he says of speeding boaters who don’t understand the damage caused to docks and other boats by the rollicking wake behind them.


     Meanwhile, the North Shore Harbormaster Association, made up of harbormasters from Winthrop up to Newburyport, doesn’t know what to make of Amesbury.


     "The norm is to have a fee and Amesbury is out of the norm if they don’t have a permit fee," says Dan McPherson, Beverly Harbormaster and current president of the organization.


     Further down the coast, in communities like Beverly, Salem, Marblehead and Danvers, there have been fees since the late ’80s and early ’90s, he says. The intent was to help offset the cost of the harbormaster’s department, so that a resident without a boat isn’t paying to fund something that doesn’t affect them.


     "All (area harbormasters) agree we see more boats and more boat traffic no matter where you go," says McPherson. "If Captain Jack Bailey thinks  there needs to be more presence, then I believe that."


     When its members go to increase their fees and add to their budgets, they look at towns of comparable size that seem to be taking in some revenue.


     Amesbury, to them, is a mystery.


     "Because nobody works for nothing, except me," says Bailey.


     And nobody has volunteer assistants who work free, who buy their own uniforms and their own gasoline for their boats, except for Bailey.


     "It’s a labor of love," says the man who has been on the river his whole life, assisting his father in the ’70s and taking over the part-time position in 1994, when the annual budget was $500.


     Bailey is aided by his son, a police officer, who acts as a liaison between the harbormaster’s department and the police department. And those who use the waterway have made quiet donations over the years. You could say it’s been pretty old school.


     Vote to fee


     That could change, with the Finance Committee in Amesbury expected to review the proposal for the "waterway management fees" at its Wednesday night meeting, and the Ordinance Committee tackling it on Thursday. Depending on their recommendations, the Municipal Council could take it up at its next meeting on April 12.


     James Chandler, the District 1 councilor responsible for drafting the fee proposal, has been ambitious, says Bailey, in his push to get it going for this season. The town will be hard pressed to get the program up and running before boating season starts, he says.


     Still, it’s nothing new. Bailey initially submitted this proposal in the mid-’90s and thought it would gain more attention then. But now, he says he has the support of a few councilors and he thinks it will pass, if for no other reason than because of tight budgets all around.


     The impetus for the fees, says Chandler, is the unfair usage of taxpayer’s money. In other words, someone who lives on a farm should not have to pay for a boater’s activities on the river.


     "We’re always needing revenue in town and sometimes revenues aren’t used equally," he says. "We just think it’s more fair that the people who are using these services are paying for them. Not that I like to tax myself, but I’m on the river and we need protection and support. We’re sort of late getting into it. Some people have come up river to escape it. Haverhill is also going to do a bill this year."


     It is usually a surprise to many that Amesbury has gone so long without charging, says Bailey.


     This could be because almost 100 percent of the town’s waterfront is privately owned. Unlike other waterfront communities, who work to keep their municipally owned waterfronts clean and accessible to the public, there is very little town-owned waterfront here. There is no waiting list for moorings, because unless a boater knows a land owner who allows crossing over their land, people couldn’t get out to their boat.


     The only piece of town-owned land with access to the river is the Merrimac Street boat ramp by Larry’s Marina. Residents may use it to launch their boat from a trailer. But only those with resident stickers may park there. There are no commercial moorings because of the access issue. But just because moorings or docks are on private property doesn’t mean boaters won’t be paying.


     The collected revenue will go into a waterway improvement fund and gentrify the harbormaster’s department, letting them afford an assistant harbormaster or two, says Chandler.


     "We’ve been getting away with Jack using his own boat. This will give a pool of money," for down the road expenses like buying a new boat or fixing the town boat ramp, he says. "We want to build up some money in this fund, so we have money available."


     Marina malaise


     On a recent sunny afternoon at Larry’s Marina, white shrink-wrapped boats were still surrounded by snow. But orange buoys, nylon dock line, polishing clothes and Snappy Teak boat wax awaited boat owners, who will soon show up to ready their vessels for the year.


     As long as the weather cooperates, April 1 will signal the boating season. Marina owners eagerly anticipate winter’s end and spring’s beginning, to get the docks in place and the slips filled.


     Inside, employee Dave Taylor speaks about the proposed ordinance that will affect him, both as a boat owner and as someone who works at a marina. The new waterway fees that may be levied by the town will make boating more costly and, says Taylor, add confusing paperwork at his job.


     "Now boating is becoming a luxury thing," says Taylor. "A boat now, with the economy and job market the way it is, isn’t just something everyone can go out and buy."


     The marina’s owner, Larry Kelcourse, points out the good work done by the Coast Guard and to the federal waterways fee that was done away with years ago. He agrees the fees will add to the workload and he wonders if marina owners might pitch in to the waterways fund, making the permits and the extra work unnecessary.


     The problem with marinas chipping in money, says bylaw sponsor Chandler, is that it wouldn’t require the marinas to provide valuable information to the town that will help get often-ignored excise tax bills paid.


     "The problem is we need those lists so we can make sure boats at the marina are paying those taxes," says Chandler. "If we see Blue Moon or some boat has no sticker, we can now go to the list and see who Blue Moon is, their number, address and write them out a ticket. They (marinas) have all that information. Most of those slips have been reserved already."


     But this proposal should not have been written without a prior conversation with those who run the marinas, says Jim Kelcourse, Larry’s son, who was raised at the marina the family has owned 30 years.


     "I do believe the harbormaster does a good job. Jack’s a nice guy. He has a lot of responsibility," he says. "But my question is, why haven’t the marinas been approached first to address this matter?"


      Prior to the bylaw going for a vote, the father and son say they wish they could sit down with the harbormaster and the bill’s sponsor.


     Dan Swift, owner of Hatters Point Marina, which opened last year near the Hatters Point condominiums, is more welcoming of the fees, as long as they keep Harbormaster Jack Bailey doing his job.


      "I know that I would be very concerned if Jack would decide not to do it and we wouldn’t have anyone to do it. So if it keeps his interest to do it, that’s great," says Swift. "If that doesn’t happen, we may not maintain the same level of service. Even if its just to maintain it, it’s better than no harbormaster. My guess is it probably would help him even more out on the river or maybe he can get some help."


     He credits Bailey for keeping tabs on things, policing the wake zone and making sure "the crazies stay calm."


      Most of those who dock at his marina will be affected, since those in Amesbury two weeks or more will be assessed the fee and 99 percent of those at his marina are there for the whole season, says Swift, who charges $95 a foot the season.


     "I’m sure some people are not going to be happy," he says. "Some people will think it’s just the cost of having a boat. You’re going to get it all."


     For his part, Swift says his support for the fees is boosted if that money can stay in the harbormaster’s department and not go to the town’s budget.


     Meanwhile, the summer season is crucial for marinas. It’s the money-making time. Kelcourse points out the increased tourist dollars brought into the community from boaters. But he adds that summer boating still isn’t as crowded or raucous here as it is elsewhere.


     "This is a small town. This isn’t Newburyport."

Posted on March 27th, 2005 by Administrator in North Shore