New Fees at Cape Charles Harbor Hit Hard for Commercial Watermen

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A workboat is docked at the Cape Charles harbor. The Coastal Precast Systems plant is in the background. Photo by Jim Ritch.

By Stefanie Jackson – It hasn’t been smooth sailing so far in 2021 for Cape Charles boaters who have been contending with some unexpected changes since Jan. 1, when the private Cape Charles Yacht Center took over management of the public town harbor.

“We as commercial fishermen feel like we are just kind of systematically being driven out of the harbor,” Scott Wivell said of continually rising harbor rates and expectations from harbor management that make him, as a waterman, feel unwelcome.

The Cape Charles town council approved the new harbor management agreement Sept. 17, 2020, which took effect at the beginning of the new year.

According to the town harbor management vision statement, the Cape Charles Yacht Center pledged “to improve the appearance, function, and financial position of the Town Harbor,” which is deteriorating and struggles to break even, much less turn a profit.

One step toward the harbor’s financial goals is adjusting rates for docking and electricity usage.

According to a proposal discussed during the Jan. 21 town council meeting, the daily cost of 30-amp electric service at the harbor would decrease from $7 to $5, the monthly cost of 30-amp service would increase from $30 to $35, and the daily cost of 50-amp service would increase from $14 to $15.

It was the dramatic increase in the proposed monthly cost of 50-amp electric service, from $50 to $105, that caught the attention of Cape Charles residents like Justin McCarthy, who had submitted a written public comment stating that with the docking and electricity rate hikes combined, his annual harbor fees would increase 56%.

(Town Manager John Hozey explained that only the current daily rates for electric usage had been approved by the town council. The monthly rates were unofficial and not based on actual costs, but the proposed daily and monthly rates were based on actual costs.)

Stuart Smith wrote that in August 2020, the Cape Charles town council assured residents of its control over harbor rates, and J.B. Turner, a principal in the Cape Charles Yacht Center, pledged not to raise harbor rates for Cape Charles residents, but “clearly, that commitment has not been honored.”

Wivell also was told that harbor rates would not dramatically increase, yet the new rates that were proposed could cost him nearly $500 more a year. That’s a lot when “you’re barely getting by as it is,” he said.

The proposal discussed Jan. 21 showed harbor docking rate hikes across the board, including smaller rate increases for locals and watermen and bigger increases for visitors, aka transients.

Cape Charles Yacht Center docking rates would be adopted at the town  harbor, with longterm commercial watermen receiving a 40% discount and residents receiving a 20% discount.

However, even with the discounts, many residents and watermen would still pay more than what they’re paying now to dock at the harbor. Residents who pay by the season (for example, April 1 through Oct. 31) would pay nearly 25% more, watermen would pay about 15% more, and residents who pay by the month for less than three months per year would pay nearly 10% more.

Residents who pay by the month for more than three months per year would pay about 6% less.

Councilman Steve Bennett was not in favor of raising docking rates for watermen 15%, with residents paying only 10% more or even saving money.

“These guys make a living here, and they should be afforded a similar break,” he said of the watermen.

And the watermen get no additional benefit when harbor rates increase. The new floating docks, concrete dock, breakwaters, bathhouse, and other recent harbor improvements all benefit transients, Wivell said.

Bennett said any docking rate increase for watermen should be implemented in phases over a two-year period, like the 37% rate increase for annual slip holders.

Bennett also liked Hozey’s suggestion to increase the resident discount to 30%. Cape Charles residents who are seasonal slip holders would pay only 9% more instead of 25% more.

However, town council members decided they needed more time to consider the harbor rate proposal and postponed a vote on the matter until their Feb. 18 meeting.

Another new problem watermen have encountered in 2021 is an inability to get fuel at the harbor outside of regular business hours.

Before the yacht center took over management of the harbor, the watermen had fuel cards that authorized them to access the harbor’s fuel pumps at any time.

The fuel cards were not credit cards; they provided access to the fuel pumps, not a method of payment. Harbor employees printed out computer reports daily indicating how much fuel had been pumped by each waterman overnight so invoices could be written and paid later.

When management of the harbor transitioned to the yacht center, a computer software incompatibility issue was detected, meaning overnight usage of the fuel pumps could not be tracked. The yacht center responded by deactivating the watermen’s fuel cards.

Councilman Andrew Follmer said he heard the watermen were notified by letter after the cards had been deactivated, which was unacceptable.

“We need to show them … a little bit more respect. They’re business people,” Follmer said.

“If it was a mechanical failure that can’t be helped, that’s one thing. But if we knew this was coming and we didn’t communicate in advance – that needs to not happen again,” he said.

Mayor Smitty Dize commented that since the cards were deactivated, some watermen have had to go to Royal Farms in the middle of the night to get fuel.

Spencer Travis, assistant harbor master, has been coordinating with the two or three affected watermen so they can fuel up during yacht center business hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., when their transactions can be processed manually.

But watermen normally don’t work during regular business hours, Dize pointed out.

Turner said a possible solution is installing credit card readers on the fuel pumps, and a temporary workaround will be provided to the watermen until a permanent solution can be implemented.

Councilwoman Tammy Holloway agreed with Follmer that the communication between the yacht center and its new harbor clients needed improvement.

She said, “I don’t think that’s how we want to start this relationship.”

Wivell remembers when he was a child, there were hundreds of watermen who worked in Cape Charles. Now he is one of only three full-time watermen left in town.

He said he was reprimanded at least three times last year after he set fishing equipment on the docks while addressing a mechanical failure, and locals who wanted to walk along the docks complained.

Wivell believes watermen are “being driven out in the interest of people who are just coming here to retire.”