Martha's Vineyard Commission continues theater project hearing
Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Commission
The Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) continued a public hearing on a new theater building proposed at Tisbury Marketplace, after the Tisbury planning board questioned whether the proposed movie theater is a permitted use. The planning board raised the issue in a letter received the day of the November 17 hearing.
Tisbury building inspector and zoning officer Ken Barwick, who referred the project to the MVC as a development of regional impact (DRI), said the letter took him by surprise.
In his letter dated November 16, and marked received November 17, planning board co-chairman Tony Peak said the planning board does not consider the movie theater proposal a permitted use under a zoning bylaw for the town's waterfront commercial district.
Mr. Peak said it is also unclear whether zoning exemptions offered in Massachusetts General Law would apply to the proposed theater. As a result, Mr. Peak said the planning board had already asked for an opinion from town counsel and expected a response shortly.
Developer Reid "Sam" Dunn proposes to build an approximately 3,000 square-foot theater building in an empty corner slot of the L-shaped development that he plans to lease to the non-profit Martha's Vineyard Film Society (MVFS), run by executive director Richard Paradise.
Mr. Barwick was the only Tisbury town official that attended the hearing. He said although he respects the planning board's concerns, his office had thoroughly researched the town's bylaw regarding zoning in the waterfront/commercial district, which is divided into two areas, waterside management and commercial management.
Mr. Barwick said the theater fit the description of a nonprofit educational use, which is allowed under uses specified in a section of Massachusetts General Law, which applies to the town's zoning district.
Mr. Barwick said in a conversation with The Times after the hearing that he was surprised by the planning board's action.
In a telephone conversation with The Times on Saturday, Mr. Peak said it was unfortunate that no one from the planning board was able to attend the hearing, and offered an explanation of what prompted his letter on behalf of the planning board.
"From what I read in the bylaw, I don't see how the theater is a permitted use; it's not really a nonprofit education organization," Mr. Peak said.
Since Mr. Dunn, not MVFS, owns the property, he added, "As far as it applying as an exemption as a nonprofit educational organization, it also is my understanding that those exemptions apply only to property owned by such organizations."
Mr. Peak said the planning board's action to consult counsel was not a matter of going over Mr. Barwick's head, but rather a matter of preempting his interpretation of the zoning regulations, which might raise some problems later.
A theater for MVFS to call home
Reid "Sam" Dunn proposes to build the theater in the corner slot at Tisbury Marketplace next to Rocco's Family Style Italian Restaurant.
He plans to lease it for 15 years to the Martha's Vineyard Film Society (MVFS), a member-funded 501 (c)(3) nonprofit arts organization run by executive director Richard Paradise. The film society would do the build-out of the interior as a 190-seat all-purpose theater.
Mr. Paradise said the theater would serve as the permanent home for MVFS with state-of-the-art digital equipment to show documentaries, foreign films, old movies, and MVFS films. The theater would also provide a venue for other nonprofit organizations for lectures, conferences, and small plays, Mr. Paradise said, and would not compete in any way with commercial theaters on the Island.
Mr. Dunn, who is an architect, and the Ferryboat Village Partnership developed the Tisbury Marketplace in 1984. The Marketplace's spaces were individually purchased as condominiums through the Tisbury Marketplace Condominium Association (TMCA) formed in 1989.
Mr. Dunn retained development rights to two vacant properties in the complex. He opened the Saltwater Grill Restaurant at the site of the former Daily Grind sandwich shop in 2008. In October 2010 he received approval from the MVC and town to build an office and retail building across the lawn from the restaurant on one of his vacant lots.
Last May, the TMCA unit owners voted unanimously in favor of an agreement with Mr. Dunn and the Ferryboat Village Partnership that included a revised site plan, which moved the building back 18 feet towards the parking lot.
The condo association also agreed to the theater project, pending review and approval by permitting entities, and an easement for a multiple-use path across the lawn area bordering the Lagoon Pond.
Public hearing, part one
Commissioner Linda Sibley of West Tisbury ran last week's public hearing as the acting chairman of the Land Use Planning Committee (LUPC), in place of chairman Doug Sederholm, a commissioner from Chilmark. Mr. Sederholm, a commissioner from Chilmark who is a practicing attorney, recused himself from the hearing because he did legal work for the film society's incorporation. Commissioner Bill Bennett of Chilmark also recused himself, because he is a business and condominium unit owner at Tisbury Marketplace.
Given the questions raised by Mr. Peak's letter received earlier that day, Ms. Sibley said, "Chapter 831 requires the MVC to make a positive finding that something meets zoning in order to approve it."
She said she would continue the hearing to December 8, because it was likely the zoning issue would likely be resolved by then, since Tisbury town counsel had already been consulted.
"If this hasn't been resolved by the town, we'll have to consult our counsel," Ms. Sibley said.
The delay would also give the commissioners time to schedule and complete a site visit, she added.
Mr. Dunn questioned the Planning Board's action, in view of the fact that Mr. Barwick had already determined the project was in compliance with zoning before referring it to the MVC.
"It's an interesting situation, because the zoning official whose call it is has found positively for it, and now someone who is not the zoning official has decided to ask the town counsel for an opinion," he pointed out.
Ms. Sibley said she understood his point, but stood by her decision to wait for a legal opinion.
"I can give you examples," she said "There was a building in West Tisbury that was approved by the building official at the time, and was later found to be on somebody else's property, and they had to tear it down. I respect the building official and I respect the Planning Board, but mistakes can be made, and we would really like this to be resolved, because as I said, Chapter 831 instructs us to find that it meets zoning."
Testimony for and against
Although the hearing would be continued, Ms. Sibley took testimony from those who attended.
In discussion about the project's impact on Tisbury Market Place, Mr. Dunn and Mr. Paradise agreed that parking is the biggest issue. Although theater patrons would utilize the marketplace's existing 134 spaces, they propose to mitigate usage by making an employee lot behind the theater the primary parking area. Mr. Paradise said he would also restrict programming in July and August to evening hours, after 7:30 pm, when most of the other marketplace businesses would be closed, in consideration of their owners.
In testimony from the public, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Sederholm, speaking as private citizens, both said they were highly in favor of the theater project, as did MVFS member El Edwards of Oak Bluffs.
"I agree there will be parking issues for several weeks in the summer, but it's a great idea, and it would be a shame to deprive the Island community of this because of a few parking issues," Mr. Bennett said.
Net Result owner Louis Larsen and Toy Box owner Beebee Horowitz voiced objections related to their roles as Tisbury Marketplace Condominium owners. Ms. Horowitz asked the MVC to postpone its decision on the theater project until the new building currently being built by Mr. Dunn is finished and the business owners have time to adjust to changes in traffic and parking it might cause.
Mr. Larsen said he was under the impression that the theater project was not imminent, and was not in favor of it being built now. Phil Combra, who owns Bert's Barber Shop in Tisbury Marketplace, said he is concerned that the proposed theater would draw business away from Main Street shops, restaurants, and the Capawock Theater.