City officials approved plans to rebuild Thompson's Wharf, while opting to not pursue a state grant to pay a portion of the project's costs.

The proposed rebuild would would push the wharf out to the channel buffer and effectively double the amount of slip space from the existing 400 linear feet to 800 linear feet. Harbormaster Katherine Pickering noted the increase in available space at the wharf will allow vessels to more easily enter and exit the slips.

She also pointed out that as part of the planned rebuild, the expanded wharf space would accommodate a dinghy dock.

Pickering described the existing condition of Thompson's Wharf as being in “very bad shape,” specifically referencing the condition of the steel pilings that secure the float array and how staff members have to nail down boards that are popping up on the wharf due to badly corroded metal fastenings.

She said a test done on the steel pilings determined there was significant corrosion between the mud line and the low-water line, and as a result, she said she would be uncomfortable having any large vessels tying off to the pilings.

City Manager Joseph Slocum estimated the project will cost about $190,000, with Pickering stating construction could begin as early as the spring of 2014. She explained to councilors that the city would typically have to drive any pilings before early April, as required by the Department of Environmental Protection.

However, she said after having conversations with DEP, she learned the city can drive pilings year-round if fewer than 30 pilings will be installed or the city employs noise abatement measures, such as using a vibrating hammer to drive the pilings.

Councilor Roger Lee asked Pickering what would be done with the boats that are at Thompson's Wharf when construction begins. Pickering said those boats would be moved temporarily to City Landing while the wharf is being rebuilt.

SHIP grant

To assist with funding a portion of the rebuild costs, the city was looking at applying to the state's Small Harbor Improvement Program (SHIP) to secure a $47,500 grant. The program provides up to a 50 percent match for waterfront improvements that promote public access to the water.

Pickering said she spoke with Dan Stewart who administers the SHIP grant and he explained that in order to be eligible for the funding, certain uses are considered public, and therefore are eligible for SHIP funding. Those uses include short term, or “transient” rentals that would be for no longer than seven to 10 days; seasonal charter vessel use; and season winter rentals because there is almost no public demand for access to the water in the winter.

Thompson's Wharf, which is used primarily by charter vessels and for seasonal slips, generates between $25,000 and $28,000 in revenue each year, Pickering said.

The SHIP grant would pay for about 25 percent of the rebuilding costs, while the city would pay for 75 percent, or $142,500. Funding for the city's portion of the rebuild would come from two accounts — the Thompson's Wharf Capital Reserve and the Enk Fund. Slocum said $74,500 would be taken from the Enk Fund and $68,000 would come from the reserve account.

Councilors Nancy Hamilton and Roger Lee took particular issue with the fact the SHIP grant, if the city was awarded and accepted the funding, would mandate how a portion of the wharf is used. Lee raised a concern that increasing the number of short term rentals will result in the harbor master's already limited staff being stretched too thin, which could result in the need to hire additional personnel.

“I can see having to increase staff, so there will be increased expenses,” he said.

Pickering commented that if the city were to accept the SHIP funds, it would be obligated to maintain the transient slips at the wharf for 20 years.

Lee said he was also concerned that the rebuild would result in the loss of seasonal slips. Currently, Thompson's Wharf has 10 seasonal slips available and the rebuild would reduce that number to eight seasonal slips.

Hamilton commented that based on the estimated yearly revenues, the city could recover the amount of the SHIP grant within two years of renting slips at the wharf.

Before voting on approving the redesign of the wharf and whether the city would pursue the SHIP grant, Mayor Walter Ash Jr. asked why charter vessels are given space at the wharf instead of being on a mooring in the harbor.

Pickering said the charter vessels need to be in an area where they are clearly visible because the charter business in Belfast is not as well established as it is in Camden or Rockland.

“It makes it more difficult not being able to have your boat on the dock,” she said.

In the past, she said she did put a few charter vessels on moorings, but those businesses failed.

Discussion ended after Hamilton motioned to approve the design for the rebuild of the wharf and to find funding other than through the SHIP grant to pay for the project. Her motion was approved 4-0 with Councilor Eric Sanders absent.

Slocum suggested Pickering could still apply for a SHIP grant to assist with the building of new floats at City Landing. Pickering said the deadline to apply for a SHIP grant is Friday, Dec. 13.