Can A Grassroots Organization Save A Boatyard From Condo Creep?

By Ryck Lydecker

A few passionate boaters strive to save a working waterfront on Long Island Sound. Their experience may provide inspiration to other communities around the country.

Photo of the fuel dock at Brewer’s Yacht Haven WestA familiar sight to many, the fuel dock at Brewer's Yacht Haven West closed when the company lost its lease on the boatyard site last fall.

Just when you thought the real-estate market downturn had slowed the forces that a few years ago swallowed up marinas and other working waterfronts nationwide, one of the largest full-service boatyards in the Northeast is now closed. It appeared to be a casualty in the "gentrification" of the harbor in Stamford, Connecticut. Brewer Yacht Haven West, tenant on the site for 15 years, officially ceased operations last October 31 when the land's owner, one of the biggest developers in the region, wouldn't renew the boatyard lease.

Workers razed the 10-shop buildings left there in December. Thus, with the cold decisiveness of demolition, boaters lost water access, 350 slips closed, and so did essential haul-out, repair, and winter storage on a finger of land that had been the centerpiece of Stamford's maritime heritage for nearly a century. Some 60 skilled jobs in the marine trades went by the wayside as well.

"Right now, if I need my boat hauled, I have to run 10 miles east to Norwalk or 15 miles west to Mamaroneck, New York," says Henry Marx, owner of Landfall Navigation, a boating supply, marine safety, and nautical chart retailer headquartered a few miles from the boatyard site. "And if she's leaking, I'll never make it. This is a safety issue as well." It's a business issue for the local economy, too, he notes. "We had a billboard at one of the I-95 exits to Stamford but when they pulled the boatyard out, I decided it wasn't worth the expense because there's nobody going to the boatyard anymore," Marx explained. "I think in five years, there will be no marine businesses left in Stamford if they don't get that boatyard back."

Is there any chance of getting it back? Well, if three determined Stamford boaters have anything to say about it, yes, a full-service boatyard will reopen, and with the same level of service as before. In fact, they've been saying a lot about it, and with an ever louder voice, as more boaters and Stamford residents get behind the grassroots organization they formed even before Brewer Yacht Haven West closed: Save Our Boatyard.

Three Ladies In Boat Shoes

"I'm a boater and a taxpayer, so this whole situation angered me and a lot of others," says Stamford resident Maureen Boylan, a founder and leader of Save Our Boatyard. "This was the largest working boatyard in the Northeast, and for a developer to come in and give Brewer three months to get out, as they did last year, then decimate the place is wrong. Hence, a whole bunch of us who shared my feelings got together, started petition drives, then created Save Our Boatyard."

That "bunch" started small, with two other like-minded boaters, Carolyn Goldenberg and Dawn Rogers, who had gotten wind of plans to close the boatyard in the summer of 2009, just as Boylan had. That was after the property had changed hands from one developer to the current owner, Building and Land Technology (BLT) based in Stamford, Connecticut. The 14-acre boatyard is part of a single 80-acre parcel of former industrial land on Stamford's waterfront now under redevelopment by BLT. Called Harbor Point, it’s a $200 million mixed-use project to include office, retail, and other commercial space as well as residential units, just 35 miles from The Big Apple.

"Dawn and I had been watching what was going on at the boatyard, how things were falling apart," says Goldenberg, who keeps her 40-foot Cruisers Inc. Aft Cabin, Clan V, in a marina adjacent to the yard. "One day last summer, we were on our boats talking about the situation and we looked at each other and said, "We can't let this happen," and Dawn said, "Let's get a petition going," so that's what we did." The pair put together a simple statement demanding to keep the yard open, complete with sign-up sheets, and set to work. "We'd go anywhere we could find a bunch of people," Goldenberg says. "We knocked on doors, sat outside grocery stores, passed petitions out in restaurants when we were out to dinner – anywhere. We always kept extra copies with us and if somebody said they wanted to help, we got them to sign."

Within two weeks, the grassroots go-getters had collected 600 signatures by themselves. Then in the fall, they attended an outdoor political rally where they figured they could get some publicity for their cause. That's where they met Maureen Boylan. She and her partner keep their 27-foot Sea Ray, Misty's Gals II, at a nearby marina, also operated by Brewer and called Yacht Haven East. That 360-slip marina, which remains open, is entirely separate from the yard that is now closed. Boylan, like so many boaters in the area, had relied on Yacht Haven West for fuel, maintenance, and any needed repairs.

"Maureen asked what we were doing," Goldenberg reports. "And when we told her, she said, "You want some help?" Of course we said yes. Maureen took copies of the petition, and all of a sudden, she started rolling with this. That's when the three of us formed Save Our Boatyard."

The rest of the story is a textbook example of grassroots action, and on a David-and-Goliath scale, at that: petitions, letters to the editor, press conferences, rallies, media coverage, lobbying local officials, speaking up at hearings, even a YouTube video about the issue, and a Facebook page to keep everyone current. Save Our Boatyard, explains Boylan, is all action and little bureaucracy. No dues, no bylaws, no officers, no budget, and certainly no lawyers on retainer. The group operates with a nine-member committee and an electronic database with hundreds of names.

Photo of boat getting ready to leave Brewer’s Yacht Haven WestThe last boat gets ready to leave Brewer's Yacht Haven West.

Playing By The Rules

The crux of the Save Our Boatyard argument for reopening the yard and restoring all services previously offered hangs on a Stamford Zoning Board ruling of 2007 when it approved the original developers' plans for the entire 80 acres. "It said the 14 acres must be maintained as a working boatyard," says Boylan, who compiled a 15-point list of services offered there before the yard closed, which she submitted to the zoning board for the record. The formal approval says, in part, there could be "no reduction in any current capacity, any uses and services ensuring the continued operation of the important water-dependent uses." Zoning regulations for the waterfront part of Stamford, known as the South End, call for the preservation of any "existing, viable water-dependent use."

For the record, Boylan, Goldenberg, and others lobbying to bring back the boatyard are impressed with the rest of the improvements the Harbor Point project has brought to South End. "They're doing a good job renovating the area," says Henry Marx. "The hotel, restaurants, transient docks — that's all great. But we need a boatyard down there, too."

A shipyard/boatyard has occupied the site since 1903, and today it's considered contaminated ground by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environment Services. So it needs extensive environmental remediation, which BLT is required to complete before construction. An editorial published in the January 27 issue of the local newspaper, The Advocate, took BLT to task for clearing the site without city zoning-board approval.

For its part, BLT reportedly now has agreed to provide temporary boat service facilities, including a Travelift, but not fuel, at the site during the environmental remediation process, but as this article went to press, the company had made no details available. BLT did state at a March 5 hearing that it had been consulting two potential operators but needed 120 days to complete its plans. The board, to the delight of the dozens of boaters who stayed at the hearing until 11:00 p.m., said no and gave the developer 30 days to comply. Be that as it may, some Save Our Boatyard supporters fear the same level of facilities and services that they lost won't ever return, and that condos will creep in after all.

Local Knowledge

Approximately 500 boats float on the waters within Stamford city limits in season, either in marina slips or on moorings, according to Mike Taylor, the harbormaster. "The slips are mostly in condo marinas that go with a residential development," he reports. "They have no haul-out, storage, or repair facilities – just slips and a place to park your car; it's a shame."

Taylor, a state employee, declined to comment on the boatyard issue specifically because "there's no application before the Harbor Commission and it's really a zoning issue," but added, “I grew up on City Island [New York] which was a big boatbuilding area, famous for the yachts it turned out in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Unfortunately, New York had very lax zoning laws and City Island has turned into a big condo on the water; there's little of the working waterfront left. I'm glad there's a strong group like Save Our Boatyard here as a watchdog. They're vocal and passionate about the water and water-dependent uses in Stamford. It's great for boaters to get organized. Otherwise we lose. Save Our Boatyard is doing what's right for Stamford Harbor." 

— Published: June/July 2012


Getting Organized? BoatUS Can Help

The famous expression, "All politics is local," is so true, especially when it comes to waterway issues. Local citizens and local governments are very protective of their waterways, and for good reason; these are the lifeblood of many communities. Boat owners have a big stake in what goes on in their community so it’s important to organize and speak with one voice. For tips on how to develop an effective organization, contact GovernmentAffairs@BoatUS.com.

 

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