Tisbury seeks legal options for problem properties

Frustrated by what they describe as a lack of progress on the Café Moxie’s reconstruction and other vacant storefronts on Main Street, the Tisbury selectmen have asked town counsel for advice on eminent domain as a possible tool to pressure landlords into action.

Selectman chairman Jeff Kristal broached the subject of eminent domain at the selectmen’s meeting November 4 at the Tisbury Senior Center.

Although he stopped short of naming Café Moxie, Mr. Kristal asked what process the town could use “to take a piece of property that’s been vacant on Main Street for two years; it’s a corner lot that used to be a restaurant, and it’s just an eyesore.”

Café Moxie was destroyed by fire on July 4, 2008, only weeks after the interior was completely renovated. The Bunch of Grapes bookstore next door, which also was severely damaged by the same fire, was rebuilt and reopened the summer of 2009, almost a year to the date of the fire.

Café owner Paul Currier said delays in the insurance claims process put off reconstruction by a year. Mike Ryan of Island Wood Works, who co-owns the property with Mr. Currier, started up the building effort again in the fall. A letter from Mr. Currier appears in today’s edition of The Times.

Café Moxie’s construction was delayed into the spring of 2010 and halted over the proximity of power lines next to the newly added second floor.

Mr. Currier said in a letter to the editor of The Times last May that the café was underinsured and he subsequently had been unable to secure a construction loan because of the poor economy. Over the summer, the café remained three-quarters framed and covered with a tarp.

“We keep on hearing excuse after excuse after we bent over backwards to let them build over the summer, as long as they were off the sidewalk; we ripped up the sidewalk, we ripped up the road, we’ve done everything possible, and it sits there, and it’s the worst eyesore in town on Main Street,” Mr. Kristal said. “What can we do? What’s the process if we were to take it by eminent domain and then put it out to bid, so somebody could come in with a restaurant and sell it back to them?”

Town administrator John Bugbee said town counsel advised that the town would have to have adequate justification based on the status of the property. “Meaning that if the property owner is in pursuit of any kind of effort to try to develop the property, it makes the process very difficult,” Mr. Bugbee said. “But he’s going to be giving me the plan going forward, if we choose to go down that road.”

Selectman Tristan Israel said he agreed with Mr. Kristal and considered leaving the property in the state it is in a safety issue in the long run. “If this helps the process get jump-started with the owner, great, if not, we can’t just sit there like this forever.”

Mr. Bugbee said he would get more details about the process, a step that selectman Geoghan Coogan, a practicing attorney, agreed the selectmen should do first. Mr. Kristal also suggested that Mr. Bugbee write the owners and find out the current status of the property and permits.

Asked in a phone call with The Times on Friday why he made the veiled but obvious reference to Café Moxie, Mr. Kristal said, “I didn’t want to blindside anybody, because I do want to get the information before we do go to them, but so be it. They need to start doing what’s best for the town and not dragging their feet.

“Specifically we were talking about Café Moxie, but in more general terms, this [eminent domain]would be a nice tool to at least know going forward where the town in the future can stand if there are developments that don’t seem to be moving in the best interest of the town,” he added.

Mr. Kristal said the selectmen had been in recent contact with Mr. Currier. “Paul, from what I understand, is out of the project,” he said.

The selectmen had not talked to Mr. Ryan about eminent domain, Mr. Kristal said.

“We don’t know if eminent domain is a possibility,” he said. “We want town counsel to research it. We’re not saying we’re going to take it. We’re just saying we need to find out what all the tools are that are available at the town’s fingertips to proceed.”

In response to an email from The Times, Mr. Coogan said yesterday the selectmen had discussed several months ago whether the town could use eminent domain for privately owned commercial buildings. Although an attorney, Mr. Coogan said he leaves Tisbury’s legal matters to town counsel.

“As selectmen, we have a number of properties on Main St. that need repair and have needed repair for years,” Mr. Coogan’s email said. “We need a mechanism to start moving people in the right direction. Whether that is the threat of eminent domain or just a change in our zoning by-laws, we need to move forward with cleaning up parts of our town.”

In a phone call with The Times yesterday, Mr. Currier confirmed, “As of November third, I did finally sell my share to Mike Ryan. I am out of it.”

Mr. Currier said Mr. Kristal initially raised the prospect of eminent domain after the fire. “It was a pretty unpleasant prospect,” he said. “Nothing came of it, and we cleaned the site up.”

It cost $14,000 to resolve the electric issues with NSTAR, according to Mr. Currier.

“There were a lot of factors that delayed us, but at the end of the day, I understand that the real view of the town is they just want to get it done,” Mr. Currier said. “It was really a great little restaurant and I did what I could, but it’s been two and a half years, and that’s a long time. It’s time to get it done and move on.”

No ambulance transport

Under departmental reports at last week’s meeting, ambulance coordinator Jeffrey Pratt recommended that the town discontinue its off-Island ambulance transport service.

The recommendation was based on a study by a working group that included Mr. Pratt, Mr. Kristal, finance and advisory committee chairman Larry Gomez, town accountant Suzanne Kennedy, and director of municipal finance Tim McLean.

Mr. Pratt said Tisbury Ambulance Service initiated the transport service about five years ago to transfer people with non-emergency healthcare needs from the Island to mainland medical facilities. The town’s goal was to purchase a second ambulance with the revenues, which went into a revolving account.

Instead, Mr. Pratt said the working group found the transport service cost almost as much as it made. The group determined that after five years the transport service netted about $15,000. That amount does not take into account the town’s initial investment of $25,000, wear and tear on the ambulance used, nor indirect costs such as insurance costs and time spent by town employees who oversee the service, Mr. Pratt said.

“The bottom line is that you need a significant volume, and not a volume that we’re going to get,” Mr. Pratt said.

While he commended the Oak Bluffs ambulance service for its successful transport service, Mr. Pratt said it requires a staggering amount of work and use of equipment for what is probably a 20 percent profit margin.

Tisbury averages 70 off-Island transports a year, and last year’s ambulance runs totaled about 1,300. Even if that number was doubled or tripled, Mr. Pratt said, in the long run Tisbury would be faced with the same financial situation.

“We’d end up coming to the town to ask them for money to run the ambulance service, and we’re not allowed to do that with a revolving fund,” he said. “The revolving fund must be solvent or stop the service.”

Mr. Pratt said he and Mr. Kristal met with Martha’s Vineyard Hospital CEO Timothy Walsh a few weeks ago to inform him of Tisbury’s possible plans. Mr. Pratt said that if the hospital needs Tisbury’s help for a transport, the town would provide it if a crew and ambulance are available. The ambulance service will maintain its revolving account so that it may receive reimbursements in such cases from insurance providers.

The selectmen voted to discontinue the off-Island ambulance transport service on June 30, 2011.

Rental program cut

In other department reports, Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA) executive director David Vigneault provided an update regarding the county’s rental assistance (RA) program.

Tisbury participates in the program through use of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds.

Towns that adopted the Community Preservation Act (CPA) collect a three-percent surtax on property taxes which is matched by the state to fund projects related to historic preservation, open space, and affordable housing. The state’s match dropped from 100 percent when the program started to about 40 percent in FY11, according to Mr. Vigneault.

Last year Tisbury awarded $144,000 from CPA funds to rental assistance funding for fiscal year 2011 (FY11). Mr. Vigneault said $105,750 of that amount currently supports 18 rental assistance households. Although $38,250 remains available from the funding, Mr. Vigneualt said two factors hamper the program right now — income eligibility and available housing inventory.

Of 34 Tisbury residents on the Housing Authority’s waitlist, 30 do not meet the program’s income eligibility levels and would be unable to pay about half their rent, as the subsidy requires. And even if they were, there are fewer properties available. Landlords that were willing in the past to lower rents are unable to do so in this economy because they have to cover their carrying costs, Mr. Vigneault said.

As a result, the current RA program is not working for the people who need it most, Mr. Vigneault said, and Island town housing committees and CPA fund committees are questioning whether it makes sense for towns to invest in it.

Mr. Vigneualt said each town should tailor its expenditure on the rental assistance program to its needs. The selectmen explained that they plan to request CPA funds to hire a consultant to help set up Tisbury’s own housing trust. To that end, they voted to cut their CPA fund request for the RA program by $18,000 for FY12.

In other business, the selectmen appointed Jeremie Rogers as a special police officer through June 30, 2011, at Police Chief Daniel Hanavan’s recommendation. Mr. Rogers, a graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Northeastern University. He recently finished his police training.

The selectmen also approved $18,420 to fund Tisbury’s share of legal services for Island town negotiations for a cable television contract; an NSTAR petition to install underground cable and conduit on Iroquois Avenue; and $23,169 in change orders for the emergency services facility construction.