The owners of Nip n’ Tuck Farm in West Tisbury confirmed Tuesday they will shut down a dirt bike track on their property that is the subject of complaints by neighbors and an appeal to the zoning board of appeals (ZBA) of the town zoning officer’s decision that the activity does not violate town bylaws.
Fred and Betsy Fisher own the scenic farm located off State Road well known for grazing cows and horses. Informal use of the farm property over many year by dirt bike enthusiasts led to more organized activity supervised by Jermaine J. Mendez, a riding enthusiast and Oak Bluffs police officer, but also led to complaints by some neighbors.
In an opinion he delivered to selectmen on November 3, zoning inspector Ernest Mendenhall said the organized activity does not violate town bylaws.
Neighbors Louisa Williams and Chris Brooks appealed that decision to the ZBA. On Wednesday last week, a large crowd of critics and supporters of the dirt bike track testified for nearly two hours in front of an overflow crowd at Howes House.
The hearing was suspended in order to provide ZBA members with an opportunity to consult with town legal counsel. It is scheduled to resume on February 10.
In a brief telephone conversation, Betsy Fisher confirmed for The Times that the dirt bike track would be shutdown.
“Yes, it is not something that we want to do but something we have to do,” she said.
Ms. Fisher referenced the complaints directed in letters to the editor and town zoning officials against what she described as an innocent pastime. “The community ganged up on us,” she said.
Ms. Fisher declined to say anything more on the subject.
Yesterday, town officials The Times spoke to said they had heard a rumor of the decision but had not received confirmation directly from the Fishers.
Irrespective of the Fishers’ decision, the ZBA must reconvene. What happens then would depend on whether the neighbors decide to withdraw their appeal of Mr. Mendenhall’s ruling, something that appears unlikely.
Reached for comment, Ms. Williams and Mr. Brooks told The Times they were pleased to hear of the decision to close the track but would proceed in their appeal.
“After considerable thought, we’ve decided to continue with the ZBA appeal, hoping that this process, and the discussions that come out of it, will help the leaders of West Tisbury determine what land use is appropriate where.
“We also hope that the West Tisbury selectmen, the ZBA, and the conservation commission will examine the question of noise levels in our town. At the same time, we hope this will encourage Islanders to find a safe, appropriate place where dirt bike riders can continue to enjoy their hobby.”
Dirt bike dust up
A large crowd of critics and supporters turned out last Wednesday. “It would be our intent to [make a ruling], but we are not promising that,” ZBA chairman Tucker Hubbell said.
ZBA member Nancy Cole explained to those in attendance it is the role of the ZBA to uphold Mr. Mendenhall’s decision or to overturn his decision.
Opponents of the track argued that Mr. Mendenhall was wrong when he decided that the dirt bike track is not in violation of zoning bylaws 8.5-1 and 8.5-2, provisions that limit the accessories that may be used on residential property.
After filing their request for a hearing, opponents also argued that owners Fred and Betsy Fisher may be in violation of the Massachusetts’ Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) agreement the family entered into in 1986. The Fisher family sold a restriction over 50 acres of its property to the state for $475,000.
The language of the APR requires that “no use or development of the premises other than for agricultural purposes will be permitted.”
According to the APR signed by Fred S. Fisher Jr., the town conservation commission (ConCom), the West Tisbury selectmen, and the state Department of Agriculture (DOA) must ensure that the APR is not violated. The APR land use restrictions continue forever.
During the hearing, Mr. Hubbell said the APR will have to be reviewed by the ConCom and the selectmen. After the meeting, opponent Wayne Greenwell told The Times, “Clearly the APR raises zoning implications.”
The ZBA members, who also include Toni Cohen, Eric Whitman, Tony Higgins, and Larry Schubert, read into the record a dozen letters submitted to Mr. Mendenhall and the ZBA. Member Robert Schwier was not present. Neither of the Fishers attended the hearing.
Amy O’Brien of Edgartown compared illegal riding on a nearby Land Bank property to supervised riding. She wrote,”At Nip and Tuck there are time limits and supervision. At land bank, none of the children are supervised and they run from before the sun comes up until after we’re in bed at night. My boys have used the Nip and Tuck Farm for riding. I say yeah for you. Great call.”
Cynthia Blumquist of West Tisbury wrote, “My sense is that the noise and fumes produced by groups of dirt bikes should mean that this activity is prohibited, specifically on agricultural or residential property. Our zoning laws are part of the arsenal for our use to attempt to maintain West Tisbury as the type of town we wish it to be. I hope that you find against allowing this pollution of our environment to continue.”
Pete Costas of West Tisbury wrote,”Caleb and I enjoyed several fine afternoons at Freddy Fisher’s motorcycle track. We signed a waiver and obeyed the rules. The noise does permeate for quite a distance; however, so do lawnmowers, chain saws and airplanes. There is so little for kids to do here on the Island, please don’t take this away from the ones who enjoy it.”
Critic Bonnie Tilton Jackson of West Tisbury wrote, “Weekends are a time of rejuvenation and relaxation, but not at 5 Eliakim’s Way, West Tisbury. The afternoon hours are relentlessly filled with physical and emotional stress. If the dirt bike track location had been rightfully and fairly disclosed to me prior to the purchase of my home on West Tisbury leased property, I would not [have] purchased the property, affordable or not.”
Louisa Williams of West Tisbury said, “At our house, when the wind blows a certain way we can hear the cows at the Fisher Farm. About five years ago we began to hear more than cows. The noise kept up and got worse, it’s gotten louder. Now the dirt track is an Island recreational area with kids coming from all over.”
Ms. Williams described the dirt bikes as “jet skis on land” and said, “Who is minding the store, who is looking out for the character of the town? The town should find a good safe location for the dirt bike riders, but to do that on Nip n’ Tuck Farm is not right.”
Steve Maxner of West Tisbury, called his fellow critics “neighbors for a sound decision.”
“I would support an appropriately sited and permitted track.” he said, “but this track should never have been permitted in town. The town bylaws prohibit it. Why the town knowingly chose to ignore the violations is difficult to understand. The town chose not to intervene and the result has pitted neighbor against neighbor.”
Dirt track organizer Jermaine J. Mendez (JJ) explained that there are 20 people involved in the dirt bike riding, with seven or eight on the track at any one time. He said he limited the riding time to a total of five hours and only on weekend afternoons. The motorbikes used by the 11 or 12 adult riders may have engines operating at up to 99 decibels, under Massachusetts law. The eight or nine children allowed to ride are using motorbikes with less noisy engines.
Vinnie Maciel of West Tisbury said, “There was unorganized riding on that property for years. JJ went through all of this work to make it work, to make it safer. I do not know what the answer is going to be, but it is definitely a zoning issue.”
“I have tried to compromise,” Mr. Mendez said. “I have done everything right and legal from day one.” Prior to taking over the dirt track operation at Fred Fisher’s request, he said he spoke with Mr. Mendenhall and then-police officer Dan Rossi to be sure that he could proceed. After receiving complaints, Mr. Mendez said that he spoke again to Mr. Mendenhall and was told that he might need a special use permit.
Mr. Hubbell asked whether the group of riders is a club, with members paying dues and subject to rules. Mr. Mendez said it is not. “We are just a bunch of guys having fun.”
Mr. Hubbell said that the group may need to be a membership club and may need a special use permit.
Mr. Mendez said that the group gives Mr. Fisher a “thank you” gift every year. After the meeting, Mr. Mendez told The Times that this past year the gift was $1,500 in cash.
Mr. Whitman said to Mr. Mendez, “JJ, you should tell Betsy and Fred to read the APR on their property. Have them talk to an attorney to be sure that they are not in violation of the APR, which is what they got the money for in 1986.”
Ms. Cole and Mr. Higgins asked Mr. Mendez if he had looked into other locations for the track, including the State Forest and county land. Mr. Mendez said that he had been unsuccessful in finding another venue. “I have tried many, many locations,” he said.
Paul Levine of West Tisbury said, “We must reach some compromise that will allow us all to enjoy our space and not be overcome by the noise. The ability to compromise is what defines our community.”
If the ZBA upholds Mr. Mendenhall’s decision, the opponents’ next move might be to court. If the ZBA overturns Mr. Mendenhall’s ruling, the question of the future of the dirt bike track will go to Mr. Mendenhall and the selectmen.
“Everyone has rights – the people who oppose this, Freddy Fisher, the town,” Mr. Hubbell said.
After the ZBA hearing, Richard Knabel, chairman of the West Tisbury selectmen, told The Times in a telephone interview that he has instructed town administrator Jennifer Rand to ask town counsel to advise her who has jurisdiction to enforce the APR. He said he hopes to have an answer by the next selectmen’s meeting on January 26.
“This has been going on for months, and I do not want to reinforce the notion that everyone is passing the buck,” he said. Mr. Knabel said that prior to the ZBA hearing, he didn’t know that an APR was in effect at the Fisher property.
“Now I know it, and now we will pursue it,” he said. “We have asked for a legal decision on the APR jurisdiction and that would take precedence over anything else. We must cut the red tape and get down to the key issue – what is an allowed activity on agricultural preservation land. We owe everyone a speedy decision.”
This story was updated from an earlier online version. It contains a corrected version of a quote attributed to a letter Amy O’Brien sent to West Tisbury.