Chilmark voters at a special town meeting Monday unanimously approved three articles authorizing the town to spend just over $1.7 million to repair the West Dock car-way destroyed in the Menemsha fire on July 12, and to cover other emergency expenditures stemming from the blaze.
In sharp contrast, voters clashed spiritedly over a request to spend $300,000 to repair the historic Tea Lane farmhouse at the corner of Tea Lane and Middle Road. After nearly an hour of debate, they amended the amount requested to $30,000, which will be used to hire an architect to prepare a new plan for the old farmhouse.
By approving the amendment, voters effectively rejected the work done by a seven-member Tea Lane farm committee that was appointed by selectmen back in April.
Prior to the start of the meeting, Warren Doty, chairman of the town selectmen, acknowledged the absence of Russell R. Walton, a longtime resident and town officer, who died August 3, after a long battle with cancer.
Mr. Doty said that Mr. Walton, who was a member of the planning board and former town conservation agent, was a fixture at most town meetings and was well known for sitting in the front row and seconding a motion with an enthusiastic, “so moved!”
“He was dedicated to good planning. He loved to walk in the fields and tell us where all the wetlands were. We are missing Rusty here tonight,” Mr. Doty said.
Voters — a total of 103, approximately 12 percent of those registered — went to work to quickly approve the first three articles relating to the July 12 fire in Menemsha that destroyed the U.S. Coast Guard boathouse and several town docks.
Mr. Doty presented the first article, asking voters to authorize $1.5 million to build a new car-way and pedestrian walkway. He said the town is still waiting on a team of state and federal investigators to determine the cause of the fire, which may play a large role in determining who is liable for paying for the repairs.
But Mr. Doty argued that replacing the car-way was too important to wait any longer.
“We have worked hard at putting Menemsha back together as fast as we can,” he said.
Mr. Doty said the town is after funding for the new car-way from several state and federal agencies and has reached out to retiring 10th District Congressman Bill Delahunt’s office, as well as to Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown.
He said the town hopes for financial help from the state’s Seaport Advisory Council, which consists of 15 members appointed by the governor, including cabinet secretaries, agency heads, mayors from seaport communities, and regional and waterway user representatives.
Town officials will meet with the council on October 8. They have already submitted an application for financial aid, Mr. Doty said.
“What we wanted to do here tonight was ask town meeting to fund the entire cost of this project, with the idea that as we get reimbursements we will be able to reduce the costs. If we don’t begin this project today, if we wait for the U.S. Congress or some other body, we won’t have a dock next summer,” Mr. Doty said. Voters agreed to the question.
Next was a request for $27,000 to cover the cost of fighting the blaze.
Town executive secretary Tim Caroll proposed to reduce the amount to $25,192 and remove language stipulating the money would come from available funds in the treasury. Both the amendment and main article passed easily.
The third article relating to the Menemsha fire — asking for $200,000 for emergency expenditures resulting from the blaze — also passed unanimously, but not before some last minute changes.
Mr. Carroll again made a motion to add language to the article stipulating that $140,522 would be covered through insurance receipts, and the other $59,478 would come from available funds in the treasury. The amendment passed, as did the main motion.
Tea Lane farmhouse request
As originally written, the article having to do with the Tea Lane Farmhouse would have authorized the town to spend the $300,000 to renovate the farmhouse and prepare the property for a tenant farmer. The proposal was to pay for the work through a combination of community preservation act funds, funds in the treasury, and money from the stabilization fund.
The town and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank jointly purchased the property in June of 2001 for just over $3 million in a life estate transaction; allowing Mr. Silva to retain the right to live on the property until his death.
As part of that deal, the town kept ownership of the farmhouse and three acres around the homestead, while the Land Bank took ownership of 50 surrounding acres. After Mr. Silva died in February, selectmen appointed a seven-member Tea Lane Farm committee.
Monday, selectman Frank Fenner quickly made a motion to add language to the article stipulating that any repairs to the property would need approval from the selectmen, historical commission, and community preservation committee.
He also urged voters to support the article to preserve an important piece of the town’s history.
“We already went to a trusted architect, and we’ve got a very reasonable price to produce this plan,” Mr. Fenner said. “If we delay this I believe it will add a least a year until someone can come in and live there and start working on the land. I think it’s a shame to wait that long.”
Tea Lane resident Pamela Goff said she supported preserving the farmhouse in its current form. “I want to argue on the side of keeping this house as a reminder of our history and the humble lives people lived here until recently,” she said.
But Chris Murphy, the elected representative to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said the town should take more time to consider different options for the farmhouse.
“We don’t need to move quickly on this. We need to take our time and get a good plan. I don’t think fixing this up for a tenant farmer is the only option the town has,” he said.
But before voters could act on the first amendment proposed by Mr. Fenner, Lenny Jason proposed a second amendment, to reduce the amount sought to $30,000, to be used to hire an architect to come up with a whole new plan for the old farmhouse.
Mr. Jason’s amendment also included language requiring any plans to come back to annual town meeting for final approval, and would be drafted with the assistance of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust.
Mr. Jason, a member of the town historic commission and community preservation committee, argued the current plan by the Tea Lane Farm committee needs more vetting. “So far we don’t have a plan. We just have a concept,” he said.
Matthew Dix of North Tabor Farm argued against the amendment. Mr. Dix’s wife, Rebecca Miller, is a member of the Tea Lane farm committee.
“This just seems like the right thing to do. It seems [this amendment] will just tie things up and make it more expensive,” he said.
Jane Slater, chairman of the historic commission, said she worried that all the discussion about preparing the property for a tenant farmer was clouding what she felt was the central issue: Preserving the historic farmhouse.
“Our primary concern is the house. All the discussion about the farm is really an aside to the issue of how we are going to deal with the house and make it a workable, livable property, but still preserve its historical significance,” Ms. Slater said.
Voters approved Mr. Jason’s amendment to cut the funding and hire an architect by a tally of 61-29, and then passed the amended article by a wide margin.
With the two major issues decided, voters then quickly approved the remaining five articles — one to transfer $4,990 from the treasury to the reserve fund administered by the finance advisory committee and another to appropriate $10,000 to pay for the debt service related to the Middle Line Road affordable housing bond.
Voters also approved approximately $3,100 to fund the town’s share of the Tri-Town Ambulance for the previous fiscal year.
Former town treasurer Judy Jardin asked why the town didn’t pay the bill from the town’s available free cash and later made an amendment to that effect. After a brief discussion, voters defeated her proposed amendment.