Block Island trips in jeopardy?

07/22/2010 12:00 AM |

Is the Peconic Star Express boat to Block Island operating illegally? That was the question after a lengthy and heated argument at Monday night’s Village Board meeting.

When Capt. David Brennan added the Peconic Star Express to his existing contract with the village to keep boats at the railroad dock, his application said nothing about Block Island excursions, Mayor David Nyce said. In approving the new boat for dockage, village officials thought they were simply adding another fishing boat to the captain’s fleet, the mayor said.

Then he read The Suffolk Times’ June 24 story about the advent of Block Island trips from Greenport and it raised a question in his mind.

The dock where the excursion boat ties up is owned by Suffolk County. The village has a contract with the county allowing it to use the dock for commercial fishing purposes, including fishing and party boats. It does not provide for the regularly scheduled foot-passenger service being offered by Peconic Star Express to Block Island.

Mr. Nyce said he thought it was important to get a clarification from Suffolk County about whether the excursions to Block Island from Greenport are acceptable.

That riled Trustee Chris Kempner, who said she had read the lease between the village and Capt. Brennan and concluded there was no problem with the excursions. She objected to village attorney Joseph Prokop’s opinion that the Peconic Star Express might be operating outside of what the village could approve.

Ms. Kempner insisted it’s not a county issue and that it’s important that a decision be in the best interest of villagers.

“Whether or not we’re in favor of it may be moot” if the county doesn’t want it, Mr. Nyce said. To not include the county is “ill advised,” he said.

The village needs a clear definition of what is or isn’t allowed at the dock, Trustee George Hubbard said.

Capt. Brennan, who did not attend Monday’s meeting, said Wednesday morning he was surprised that there had been any question about his operation.

“I am doing absolutely nothing different than I have been doing since 1989,” he said. The Peconic Star II, which is often used as a fishing vessel, has been used for lighthouse tours and trips to Montauk and Connecticut, he said. He has provided service for weddings, funerals and even ran — at the request of village officials — a service between the dock and the Russian tall ship Mir when it visited Greenport. He has also taken trips between Greenport and Block Island before, he said.

His contract with the village is to operate commercial passenger vessels, he said.

He also noted that other boats have operated from the dock that weren’t fishing vessels.

The board’s debate Monday opened the door for resident John Saladino to accuse members of not liking any maritime activity that’s good for the village. He, too, had read the contracts between the village and county and the village and Capt. Brennan and said he thought the excursion boat was a plus for Greenport.

“It’s really not a fishing village anymore,” Mr. Saladino said. He argued that allowing the excursions would not only give Greenporters a chance to visit Block Island easily, but bring Block Islanders and visitors from that Rhode Island tourist area to Greenport.

“No one is discouraging it,” Mr. Nyce said. But Mr. Saladino said there’s a perception among villagers that the excursion boat isn’t welcomed by board members. Without naming her except to suggest that she wouldn’t like his remarks, he aimed barbs at Trustee Mary Bess Phillips and her husband, Capt. Mark Phillips, a commercial fisherman who operates vessels from the dock.

“A lot of people believe they have certain rights when they really don’t,” Mr. Saladino said. No one in Greenport is “special,” with rights others don’t have, he said. The dock is supposed to foster fishing and maritime activities and Capt. Brennan, who pays a lot of money to the village to dock in Greenport, should be allowed to run the excursions, he said.

“To restrict its use seems wasteful to me,” Mr. Saladino said.

Ms. Phillips appeared to be struggling to maintain her temper through Mr. Saladino’s discourse. Twice she reached for, then pushed away, her microphone and she declined comment at the end of the meeting.

“The biggest issue is liability,” she said in a telephone interview Tuesday morning. She explained that if there were an accident at the dock, she and her husband, who are insured, could be sued, as could the village and the county.

She also provided a copy of her e-mailed response to members of the Suffolk County Commercial Fishing Task Force on July 13 after they had inquired about the Peconic Star Express.

Ms. Phillips told the members her family operates commercial fishing vessels from the village and had used the commercial fishing dock for the past 25 years and maintained the dock when necessary.

She acknowledged that the Village Board was considering whether an excursion boat could legally operate from the dock. But because of her involvement with the dock, she said in her e-mail that she would continue to recuse herself from discussing the issue and voting on it.

[email protected]