In response to a sharp increase in the number of requests to rent the Agricultural Hall (Ag Hall) in recent years, West Tisbury selectmen on June 15 discussed the possibility of expanding both the number and the types of events allowed at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society’s (MVAS) property off State Road.
Selectmen met with Dale McClure, president of the society, who said the number of requests to rent the Ag Hall has risen sharply in recent years. “The Ag Hall has become an Island community center, everybody wants to use it,” he said. “The problem we have is saying no.”
Mr. McClure said the society asked to meet with selectmen to discuss the types of events that should be allowed at the Ag hall.
He cited a 1998 legal opinion from town attorney Ronald H. Rappaport, which concludes the use of the property is limited by the town zoning bylaws and an Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) held by the town and Vineyard Conservation Society .
The legal opinion found the zoning bylaws limit the permitted uses of the Ag Hall to include only religious, educational, municipal, and governmental uses, and all other related activities such as barns, riding stables, and the sale of produce.
The agreement allows the Ag Hall to be used for events that are “customarily incidental to a permitted use.”
The legal opinion also cites the APR which allows the property to be used for a full range of nonprofit and educational activities that the MVAS has historically pursued, which includes everything from horse and buggy rides and cattle shows to meetings for government and civic groups.
The agreement states concerts and similar activities are allowed as long as they raise funds for the MVAS and provided the impact on the neighborhood is limited. It also states that a limited number of weddings — only four a year — may be permitted because they can be classified as incidental uses.
The opinion states they must be weddings of a MVAS member, with no more than 250 people, no amplified music outside the building, no music at all after 10 pm, and at least four weeks’ notice given to selectmen, the chief of police, and the town conservation society.
Mr. McClure opened the discussion by stating the Ag Society is now pushing the limits of the APR and the 1998 legal opinion. “We feel we are edging on our agreement, by allowing some things that aren’t allowed on that agreement,” he said. “We wanted you to know we aren’t blindly going ahead, we are trying to manage the best we can and if there is a problem we want to know about it.”
Mr. McClure went through a list of events held annually at the Ag Hal. Some were clearly within the scope of the zoning bylaws and APR, including the monthly trustees meeting, the spinners and weavers gathering, farmers’ markets, church pageants, and youth awards meetings, to name a few.
But other events fell into a grey area, he said, such as some trade shows, political rallies, birthday parties, end-of-life celebrations, and artisan fairs. He said the most common request is for weddings.
Generally speaking, the society favors allowing more weddings at the Ag Hall, he said.
“We turn away a lot of weddings … If there was a way we could do anything it would be to ask if we could possibly do more weddings,” he said. “We have rules, they are generally done by 10 pm and out of there by 11 pm, the parking is minimal, and it creates good funds for us and not a lot of wear and tear.”
Mr. McClure suggested the town consider a zoning change to allow a wider range of events at the Ag Hall, provided it doesn’t disrupt the neighborhood. “We want to be good neighbors, but we want to be a good organization to the rest of the Island that helps us survive,” he said.
Mr. McClure said the society was not, at this time, seeking permission from the selectmen to hold more events on the Ag Hall, but instead wanted to know what selectmen think should and shouldn’t be allowed on the property.
“The request really wasn’t to come here and get permission to do anything. If we could, that would be great, we just wanted to make you aware,” he said. “If you have any complaints we want to know about it.”
Selectman Richard Knabel said he did not have any complaints.
“I think the Ag Society, from my point of view, has been a good neighbor. Personally, if I did have any complaints I would voice them, and I don’t have any,” he said.
Selectman Cynthia Mitchell agreed.
“I think [the Ag Hall] has naturally evolved into a terrific community center,” she said. “It’s heartening to see the Ag Society, as a nonprofit whose mission is educational and agricultural, to see it really evolving that way as well. From my personal point of view, it is all pretty [much] as it should be.”
Ms. Mitchell suggested the Ag Society reach out to the neighbors to see if they had any complaints and would support a zoning change to allow more events at the Ag Hall.
“It might be time to go to the neighbors to talk about how you are doing. Have you gotten any complaints? We haven’t gotten any complaints; maybe it’s time to look at the residential part of the picture,” she said.
Mr. Knabel agreed talking to neighbors was the logical first step.
“I think talking about rezoning is going too far, too fast. Why not sit down with the neighbors and talk about what you want to change … It seems to me that would be the most appropriate place to start,” he said.
At the end of the discussion, Mr. McClure said the society does plan to speak with the neighbors.