The Vineyard Gazette – Martha’s Vineyard News | Daily News Byte


GOSNOLD — The offseason at Cuttihunk shouldn’t be easy.

A tiny dot and notch of sand, golf carts and cottages located at the farthest reaches of the Commonwealth’s smallest town, the seasonal island is only accessible to the public by ferry on Mondays and Fridays in December. No police, no hospitals, no shops, no restaurants and definitely no secrets. The school exists, but there are currently no students. There is a church, but there is no pastor.

It may be the most beautiful place in the country. Maybe he’s the quietest.

And for the island’s roughly 100 registered voters, about a dozen of whom stay on Cuttihunk during the winter, that’s exactly the point. I can get milk on land. They get peace from that.

“You have to be creative and innovative,” said City Clerk Lisa Wright, who lives on Cuttihunk year-round. “And here, if you want pizza, you make pizza.”

But for the past three years, Ms. Wright and the other residents have been without a different need, vital to life on the mainland and on the island. In 2019, the state DEP sent notice that RM Packer, which has installed, supplied and operated six underground fuel tanks on the island over the past two decades, would have to upgrade the small facility, adding environmental improvements to bring it into compliance with state regulations . . But combined with the recent installation of a solar farm, which reduced the island’s fuel consumption by about 40 percent, the upgrades proved too expensive, prompting the company to retire the tanks and leaving Cuttihunk residents without their own fuel source, residents said.

“[Mr. Packer] we felt it wasn’t feasible, and we fully understood that,” head coach Gail Bluth said in a phone interview. “But that means we’re out of fuel on the Island for three summers.”

One of the few winter residents, Seth Garfield is an oyster farmer, fire chief, landscaper and more. — Ray Ewing

While Mr. Packer continued to supply the island with fuel in an ad hoc capacity, a recent grant from the Seaport State Economic Council gave Cathyhank a more permanent lifeline. Announced last week, the grant awarded the city of Gosnold $510,000 to complete a permanent fuel farm so it no longer has to transport fuel from other communities, as it has for the past three years. The money comes in addition to a $573,000 grant in September from the state Office of Coastal Management.

The project includes the installation of a concrete foundation, two above-ground tanks, electrical and piping to connect the tanks to the city wharf, dispensing equipment, a holding tank and a high-level alarm system.

The city also received $457,000 to replace an aging, 20-year-old public bathroom at the city marina. The waterfront baths are the only public baths on the island, apart from a couple of facilities in the town hall.

Ms. Blout praised the more than $1 million in grant money in an interview, thanking Lt. Gov. Karin Polito, who has visited the island several times and announced the grants last week.

“The [seaport economic council] reacted like that, and supported us like that over the past years,” said Mrs. Blout. “That’s a huge amount of money for this smallest city in the Commonwealth.”

“They love us,” Ms. Wright added.

Cuttihunk has been looking for a permanent solution to fuel problems since before the pandemic. Boaters and recreational visitors, who keep the port busy during the summer, cannot refuel when they stop – making Menemsha, about 10 nautical miles away, the closest port for fuel. Ms Wright said recent summers had been the busiest on record, despite not having a fuel source. Although there are very few cars on the island, residents use fuel for golf carts – the main form of transportation on the island.

Winter is a quiet time in Cuttihunk Harbor. — Ray Ewing

“It was really a challenge for everyone,” Ms Wright said. “People might only need 20 gallons for the whole summer if you have a golf cart, but how are you going to get it here and store it safely?” It was a matter of public safety. And then, of course, there are city vehicles that use fuel.”

Seth Garfield, an island oyster farmer, fire chief and landscaper, among countless other things, said he had to collect his own fuel for the 40 or so lawns he mows, as well as his vehicles.

Most importantly, for the few who work year-round, the lack of a depot means residents must rely on an off-island source of fuel to heat their homes. “We have to reduce the possibility of accidents,” Ms Blout said. “We need to stop residents and boaters from bringing in gallons of fuel and storing it.” And we really need to have a properly run, safe facility, like every other city in the Commonwealth has.

The seventh city in Dukes County and the least populous in the state, Gosnold straddles all nine Elizabeth Islands, from Nonameset just outside Woods Hall to Cathyhank more than 14 miles to the southwest. Almost all its inhabitants live on Katihanko, which is the only one of the islands with a permanent settlement.

The city has a spartan annual budget of about $1.5 million, Ms. Blout said, and despite more than $1 million from the state, Gosnold will still need to seek long-term funding for the fuel farm project, which he hopes to complete before the next summer.

Lisa Wright, Town Clerk, Library Trustee and more. — Ray Ewing

A special town meeting is scheduled on the island for January 23. There is no quorum.

“We’re going to advertise that heavily,” Ms. Blout said. “And because it’s such an important issue, people will come.”

The past few years have been a tumultuous time of change and transition for the normally peaceful island, which has a summer population approaching close to 1,000 before dropping to around 10 during the off-season. In addition to planned upgrades to the fuel farm and bathhouse, the city recently repaved nearly all of its approximately two miles of roads with an $800,000 grant from the Massworks Infrastructure program. It was the first major road work to happen on Cuttihunk in 25 years, and added storm drains to the century-old stone walls that line Tower Hill Road.

In the past six months, the city also replaced about 2.6 miles of its original 1960s asbestos-cement water pipes with PVC, a $1 million project that was partially funded through grants and financing. With no vehicles or heavy construction equipment on the island, pavers and plumbers had to come by boat — a huge logistical pain that complicates any major public works project, Ms. Wright said.

A gas station that the fuel farm will help. — Ray Ewing

“They all came by barge after barge after barge,” Ms Wright said. “A lot of people, when they work here, they’ll get an estimate, and then they’ll increase it by 75 percent.” They call it the Cuttihunk Contingency.”

The lowest bid the city has received for the fuel farm project is still around $1.5 million.

“The bids were phenomenally expensive,” Ms Wright said. “That’s why we advocated for a donation from the economic council.

But with the road and pipe work finally complete, Ms Wright had a chance to show off the new blackboards on Wednesday. The winter equinox sparkled in the low, early morning sun.

Walking down the new road from the harbor, one of the first stops was Mr. Garfield’s garage, his ATV and truck parked out front. Mr. Garfield grew up on Cuttyhunk before going to college at the University of Rhode Island. He returned and started an oyster farm with his wife in 1981, raising three children and employing hundreds of others.

“I’ve been here since my scratch,” Mr. Garfield said. “I’ve employed probably 80 percent of the kids on the island over the generations.”

But Wednesday also marked a period of transition for him. Mr. Garfield recently sold his oyster farm business to Charmaine Gahan, a summer visitor from Concord who previously worked for Mr. Garfield. He is now her employee.

Newly paved roads sparkled. — Ray Ewing

Ms Gahan hesitated when asked if he was a permanent resident.

“You are a registered voter,” Mr. Garfield prompted. “You are on the finance committee.” You’re on your way.”

The tour continued along Tower Hill Road to the Lilliputian but dignified town hall. An antique voting machine from the 1920s rested on a small stage in the back room, showing how 55 people voted in the recent election.

“I think about 10 voted in person,” Ms Wright explained. “But we were open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., like everywhere else.”

She continued to the city’s gleaming new library, which was recently renovated through about $550,000 in private fundraising. Unlike the Vineyard Libraries, the Gosnold Library does not have CLAMS reciprocity. That didn’t dampen the spirits of Ms. Wright, who—full disclosure—is also a library trustee in a town where every resident wears many hats year-round.

“We are proud of our choice,” she said.

Next to the library there is a school building, which currently has no students, but in the midst of the pandemic has grown to eight.

“It was outrageous,” Ms Wright said. “They didn’t stay.”

Just beyond the playground, Ms. Wright pointed to dozens of acres of land property that became conservation land in 2020 after a significant purchase by the Buzzards Bay Coalition. The land, which was once part of a private estate, was put on the market for development ahead of the sale, which included a popular south-east facing stretch of beach.

Ms Wright then walked across town to the disused Coast Guard station, noting that Gosnold had also received money to turn the inside of the large building into a visitor centre, honoring the town’s history and former military presence on the island. On Wednesday, the interior of the building was littered with faded buoys and out-of-season signs – the dusty traces of the Maritime Railway partially visible on the floor.

The last stop was an empty, sandy, rectangular fenced lot south of the island’s solid waste containers. It was desolate and empty, not even a scallop shell in sight. But just beyond, dune grass swayed in the wind, outlined by the shadow of a shorebird flying overhead.

Mrs. Wright unlocked the gate and smiled.

“That’s it. A future fuel house,” she said. “Beautiful, isn’t it? And you came all this way to see it.”


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