Tisbury officials fuss over ‘hoo rah’ sign removal, to no effect

R.I.P. — File photo by Dan Cabot

Tisbury building and zoning inspector Ken Barwick’s decision to remove a worn, plywood sign affixed to a tree on State Road for years, in violation of town zoning laws, landed him in the hot seat at the town selectmen’s meeting Tuesday night.

Town administrator John Bugbee called on Mr. Barwick to explain why he carried out his enforcement duties, which Mr. Bugbee said generated phone calls and emails to his office, and to Mr. Barwick’s.

The plywood sign nailed to a tree declared “Hoo Rah for Bill – Craig” in crude white lettering. In 1998, former Tisbury selectman Craig Kingsbury nailed the sign up to support for then visiting President William (Bill) Clinton at the time of the scandal over his amorous dalliances with former White House intern Monica Lewinski.

Mr. Kingsbury attached the sign to a tree that grows on state property, not his own, in an easement for State Road. Although Mr. Kingsbury died in 2002, the sign remained and was repainted at least once.

In March, Mr. Barwick asked the Tisbury department of public works remove the sign, and workmen took it down.

At the Tisbury selectmen’s meeting Tuesday, Mr. Bugbee said in response to recent letters and phone calls, he had asked Mr. Barwick “to talk about once and for all the process for removal of the Hoo Rah for Bill sign.”

“I thought it would be helpful if Ken came before the board and explained how the whole process took shape and why we did what we did,” Mr. Bugbee said.

“Simply put, the sign was in violation of Massachusetts General law, state law, and local zoning ordinances,” Mr. Barwick responded.

Mr.Barwick said that over the past 10 to 12 months, he had received phone calls and emails, had people stop him on the street, drop by his office, and come to his home to ask him why the sign was still up. Among their complaints, Mr. Barwick said, they pointed out the sign is outdated and doesn’t provide any useful information that would assist motorists or bikers on the road. Several people called it a “blight on the landscape” and an eyesore, he added.

Mr. Barwick said he thought about the comments, and when a couple of zoning enforcement issues came up in that area, he took the time to have a close look at the sign. “I realized that it essentially served no purpose, it doesn’t give directions, or anything like that, even though it’s been up there for 13 to 14 years,” Mr. Barwick said.

As is the protocol for zoning enforcement regarding signs, Mr. Barwick contacted the property owner, the Massachusetts Highway Department, and spoke with District Five Highway Director Bernard McCourt.

Mr. McCourt told him that the only people who are allowed to post signs on state highway properties are state highway planners, engineers, or authorized personnel.

Mr. Barwick said he asked why, since the “Hoo Rah” sign had been up for so long, the state didn’t remove it. “I was told that MassHighway immediately removed signs like that when they popped up,” Mr. Barwick said. When he said he intended to remove the sign, he was told, “Be my guest.”

Mr. Barwick said he then asked DPW director Fred LaPiana to send a crew to remove and properly dispose of the sign in late March.

A few weeks later, Mr. Barwick said he received a call from a woman he described as “an abutter to where the sign is located on State Highway.” Although he did not identify her, he meant Mr. Kingsbury’s daughter, Kristen Kingbury Henshaw.

She told Mr. Barwick the sign belonged to her and asked him to try to find it. He told her he would, and when he got home from work, he changed his clothes and headed to the landfill, where he searched through the dumpsters.

Mr. Barwick said he went a step further and called SEMASS, which disposes of trash transported from Martha’s Vineyard, and asked if the sign could be recovered, but was told it had already been shredded and recycled.

Mr. Barwick said he explained what happened to Ms. Henshaw and apologized in a letter, April 23.

“She was interested in any correspondence or emails or conversations I may have had with anyone about the sign,” Mr. Barwick said. “All of the conversations were of a negative nature. I never had anyone approach me and say it was a beautiful thing and should remain for all time. I apologized to her for not contacting her as the owner of the sign, and told her we contacted the property owner, which in this case was MassHighway.”

Selectman chairman Geoghan Coogan asked why Mr. Barwick’s letter to Ms. Henshaw was dated in April, if the sign came down in March. Mr. Barwick again explained that he talked to her after he took the sign down. Mr. Barwick said he was puzzled why the issue was being discussed now.

“Apparently Mr. Bugbee has been receiving some anti-Ken Barwick calls and emails, and he felt compelled to put me on the agenda to discuss why I’m doing my job,” he said.

Mr. Coogan persisted. “My question was why we didn’t notify her first before taking it down.”

“The law is that we notify the property owner,” Mr. Barwick said. “I didn’t take into consideration the sign was owned by the abutter. I explained that to her. I meant no disrespect by that.”

Selectman Tristan Israel said he saw the sign as the embodiment of a former selectman, Mr. Kingsbury, and not as a political sign.

“I just wonder if in the future something like that could have been designated,” he said. “We did lose something I enjoyed seeing when I used to drive up-Island.”

The discussion ended on that note. Selectman Jeff Kristal did not comment.

In a conversation with The Times following the meeting, Mr. Barwick said he was caught off guard when Mr. Bugbee told him he would be on the agenda to discuss the sign removal, since it happened months ago and he had offered a sincere apology to Ms. Henshaw. He said he has known her and her family for years, and that he even offered to have his own granddaughter repaint a similar sign as a substitute, not a replacement, for the one Ms. Henshaw’s daughter painted for Mr. Kingsbury.

In a follow-up email yesterday, The Times asked Mr. Coogan to expand on his question to Mr. Barwick about notifying Ms. Henshaw before taking down the illegal sign her father posted.

If tomorrow a person were to erect a sign along State Road that said, “Hurray for Sarah Palin” or “Hurray for Nancy Peloski,” would Mr. Coogan also expect Mr. Barwick to first contact the person who put the sign up before taking it down?

“I would, because regardless of whose property it is on, if we know who put it up, it’s that person’s property, and so notifying them is proper,” Mr. Coogan responded by email. “If we don’t know who put it up, then there’s no way we could reasonably contact that person. In this case, we all knew who put it up, and that’s why I asked whether the family had been contacted first.”

Asked in a phone conversation to discuss his fondness for the former sign, Mr. Israel said, “I just don’t have any comment on that point for The Times.”