Tensions run high over eviction of Billy Goat Boats in Orange

Samantha Whaland, owner of Billy Goat Boats in Orange, stares ahead and listens as Town Administrator Matthew Fortier speaks to the Selectboard at Wednesday’s meeting in Town Hall. The watercraft rental company is at the center of a controversy after being evicted from the East River Street boathouse over a leasing issue.

Samantha Whaland, owner of Billy Goat Boats in Orange, stares ahead and listens as Town Administrator Matthew Fortier speaks to the Selectboard at Wednesday’s meeting in Town Hall. The watercraft rental company is at the center of a controversy after being evicted from the East River Street boathouse over a leasing issue. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

From left, Orange Selectboard member Richard Sheridan, Clerk Pat Lussier, member Jane Peirce, Vice Chair Andrew Smith and Chair Tom Smith listen at Wednesday’s meeting in Town Hall. Billy Goat Boats, a family-run watercraft rental company, is at the center of a controversy after being evicted from the East River Street boathouse over a leasing issue.

From left, Orange Selectboard member Richard Sheridan, Clerk Pat Lussier, member Jane Peirce, Vice Chair Andrew Smith and Chair Tom Smith listen at Wednesday’s meeting in Town Hall. Billy Goat Boats, a family-run watercraft rental company, is at the center of a controversy after being evicted from the East River Street boathouse over a leasing issue. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Jerry Whaland of Billy Goat Boats paddles a canoe on the Millers River near his business in Orange in May. Billy Goat Boats might remain at Orange Riverfront Park after the former town administrator took responsibility for a leasing issue that forced the recent eviction of the family-run watercraft rental business.

Jerry Whaland of Billy Goat Boats paddles a canoe on the Millers River near his business in Orange in May. Billy Goat Boats might remain at Orange Riverfront Park after the former town administrator took responsibility for a leasing issue that forced the recent eviction of the family-run watercraft rental business. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Billy Goat Boats, a family-run watercraft rental business at Orange Riverfront Park in Orange.

Billy Goat Boats, a family-run watercraft rental business at Orange Riverfront Park in Orange. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Watercraft inside Billy Goat Boats, a family-run watercraft rental business at Orange Riverfront Park in Orange.

Watercraft inside Billy Goat Boats, a family-run watercraft rental business at Orange Riverfront Park in Orange. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Billy Goat Boats, a family-run watercraft rental business at Orange Riverfront Park in Orange.

Billy Goat Boats, a family-run watercraft rental business at Orange Riverfront Park in Orange. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Access to the Millers River at Orange Riverfront Park on East River Street in Orange.

Access to the Millers River at Orange Riverfront Park on East River Street in Orange. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 12-07-2023 6:18 PM

ORANGE — Billy Goat Boats might remain at Orange Riverfront Park after the former town administrator took responsibility for a leasing issue that forced the recent eviction of the family-run watercraft rental business.

The company, which is owned and operated by Samantha and Jerry Whaland, was booted from the boathouse at 25 East River St. The town claimed it has not received rent in two years, in violation of a lease agreement. But Gabriele “Gabe” Voelker, who retired as town administrator in March, told Selectboard members at Wednesday’s meeting that the blame lay solely at her feet. She explained the lease expired and she gave verbal permission for the company to stay through at least the end of this year.

“Billy Goat Boats was given permission to stay, for the other year. I gave it to [Jerry Whaland]. He had no idea he was in violation of his lease. This is completely, 100% on me,” Voelker read from a statement. “I was not aware that I couldn’t extend it. I thought I could.”

Voelker explained that the boathouse was empty when she took the town administrator job and the previous owner did not pay the rent of $1 per year. This, Voelker said, set a precedent. She said she was overwhelmed with other town matters, including the June 2022 downtown arson and the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the lease for Billy Goat Boats got put on the proverbial back burner.

“I didn’t have the wherewithal to do an RFP,” she said, “and was not aware that I couldn’t extend [the lease].”

Town Counsel Donna MacNicol said Billy Goat Boats won a request for proposals (RFP) process and set up shop at the boathouse after being awarded a three-year lease.

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“Once that three-year lease was over, a new RFP needed to be done,” she said. “It wasn’t, for a gazillion reasons.”

MacNicol said state statute allows a Selectboard to lease a property for up to 30 years. This problem was inherited by Matthew Fortier, who took over as town administrator in August.

“I want to say that I am sorry I put Matt in this position,” MacNicol said. “I should have told Matt when the notice to quit came around that he should have called Billy Goat [Boats], told them it was coming, so there wouldn’t have been this brouhaha.

“That said,” she continued, “it still needed to be done.”

The Selectboard unanimously adopted Vice Chair Andrew Smith’s motions to develop an RFP, appoint Fortier as chief procurement officer and form a screening committee to review the responses to that RFP.

However, Samantha Whaland said vicious online criticism has made her question whether she wants to continue operating Billy Goat Boats. She expressed frustration over the town’s fumbling of this issue and how she and her husband have been treated. She said Voelker advised her not to pay any rent until a written contract was drafted and that she has gotten no help from Fortier.

“I do feel that he has a personal vendetta against me and my family,” she said. “So I just want to put that out there.”

In a statement provided to the Greenfield Recorder in advance of Wednesday’s meeting, Jerry Whaland said “I didn’t stop communicating with Town Hall, Town Hall stopped communicating with me. If people want answers, they should reach out to their town administrator and elected officials. If they want the truth about my arrangements with the town of Orange, they should reach out to the previous town administrator and economic director. We simply don’t know what to do except comply with their illegal order to vacate the premises and seek damages in court.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Selectboard Chair Tom Smith voiced disappointment that he and his colleagues were never informed that Billy Goat Boats’ lease had expired and that the Whalands had gotten a verbal extension. He started the meeting by saying he would require professional behavior and that people would be asked to leave if they did not remain respectful. As his wife took to the microphone, Jerry Whaland said she has invested $83,000 into Billy Goat Boats. He then left the room when Smith asked him not to speak without being called on.

“I’m a little less emotionally charged than he is,” Samantha Whaland said.

On social media, many have asked about whether Billy Goat Boats would remain involved in events such as the Athol-Orange River Rat Race. The location is used as the end point of the race, where the kayaks and canoes come out of the water. In a statement, River Rat Race organizers said they met with town officials and there would be no changes to the event.

In his statement, Jerry Whaland said he would continue to be involved with the River Rat Race, along with the Millers River Challenge, Great River Triathlon “and many other positive community events till the first shovel full of dirt hits my face.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120. Athol Daily News Editor Max Bowen contributed to this report.