Chilmark selectmen hear pros and cons of town beach bus service

Squibnocket Beach is quiet in the off season.
File photo by Lynn Christoffers

Squibnocket Beach is quiet in the off season.

At their first meeting of the New Year, Chilmark selectmen Tuesday moved quickly through a busy agenda that included a public hearing about the Vineyard Transit Authority’s bus route #12. Town leaders also approved parts of a new lease for the Tea Lane Farmhouse.

The in-town bus service, formerly known as Route 12, runs during the peak summer season in July and August, from approximately 10 am to 5:30 pm and costs riders $1. Ridership has fluctuated since the service began in 2008.

The bus runs in a loop starting in Menemsha; then up along North Road with stops at Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn, Captain Flanders House, then over to Lucy Vincent Beach and then back to Menemsha.

During its first year, 4,891 people took the in-town bus; in 2009 that number dipped to 1,412, in 2010 the number rebounded to 3,062 and last year the ridership was 2,943.

Because Route 12 is an in-town route, selectmen have more control over the route than other inter-town routes, and can also make changes to the route if they wish. On Tuesday selectmen met with Angela Grant, executive director of the VTA, to discuss the in-town route, reviewing the past year and looking ahead to next summer.

One issue that figured large in the discussion was the extent to which the bus serves inn guests. The route was established in part to provide a means for guests to visit town beaches with limited parking without a vehicle.

A new policy put into place late last summer on a trial basis allows innkeepers to give their guests a pass that allows them to drive onto Lucy Vincent during off-peak hours, before 11 am and after 3 pm.

On Tuesday, beach superintendent Martina Mastromonaco called on town officials to re-evaluate the need for the bus route. An evaluation she distributed as a handout said that when the route was started several years ago it was a “much needed addition to the department’s big problem of overcrowding of the beach parking area, leading to traffic jams and disgruntled patrons.”

But things have changed since then, Ms. Mastromonaco argued in the handout. The Blueberry Hill Inn has closed, and beach conditions at Squibnocket have improved so that guests can now choose between different beaches.

Ms. Mastromonaco noted that two summers ago the Beach Plum and Menemsha Inns purchased their own small shuttle and made changes that, she said, reduced the need to service inn guests who wanted to go to the beach.

“The service overall has been wonderful, nice drivers, and consistent trip times,” she wrote. “It is time to re-evaluate the need to regularly schedule trips to the beach. Maybe the bus could be of value to the town as an in-town shuttle, but to use it for the sole purpose of inn guest transport, I am sure is not economical for all parties.”

Kristen Maloney, chairman of the town beach committee, also said the use of the in-town bus was down. “The placards we gave to the inns seemed to work really well… that alleviated some of the problems and made the guests happier, but it also meant less use of the bus,” Ms. Maloney said.

Selectman Warren Doty asked whether the beach committee wanted to see Route 12 terminated. “We are sort of learning that way. The inns seemed to be pretty happy with what happened last summer,” Ms. Maloney said.

Ms. Grant disagreed with the idea of ending service. She said Route 12 has become a vital link in the VTA system in recent years, because it allows people who take the bus from Aquinnah to go into Menemsha without having to go all the way back to West Tisbury for a transfer. She also noted the bus provides service that otherwise would not exist for handicapped people.

Ms. Grant said she was surprised by some of the comments Ms. Mastromonaco made about passengers left stranded due to weather changes. She said the VTA’s policy during bad weather is to make a decision before 9 am to change bus routes.

She said that Route 12 buses are shifted to other routes during rainy days, but that is done in the morning, meaning it was doubtful people were being brought to the beach earlier in the day and then stranded there.

“Our policy is, if we brought people to the beach, we bring them back,” Ms. Grant said. “If there was a problem with that last year, I was not made aware of that. We don’t strand people. That’s not what we’re in the business of doing.”

Ms. Grant also said that the VTA drops off copies of its schedules all around town — to inns, stores and beaches — and also posts a copy on the VTA website. “I don’t see how it is possible that the beach department did not have a schedule,” she said. “From a publishing perspective, I think we did a pretty good job getting the info out there.”

Innkeepers in attendance were mostly supportive of keeping Route 12. Julie Flanders of the Captain Flanders House said she liked having the option of giving her guests a pass to drive onto the beach during non-peak hours. But she also advised against eliminating the bus. “A lot of my people are trained to take the bus – so if you don’t do a bus route at all, what do you propose to do with our guests who don’t have cars?” she said.

Dennis Barquinero of the Beach Plum Inn agreed. “We felt the sticker program…worked very well; but we also had guests who enjoyed the bus, either because they don’t have an automobile, or they like hopping on the bus to go to the beaches,” he said. “It was a great balance.”

Selectmen agreed to meet with VTA and beach officials again in February before they make any final decisions – if any – regarding Route 12.

Ms. Grant suggested town officials report any concerns about bus service to the VTA immediately, instead of waiting several months. “I was caught a little off-guard by this,” she said. “The VTA prides itself on being very responsive to the town’s needs and concerns.”

Farm for lease

In other business, selectmen also reviewed a draft lease for the Tea Lane Farmhouse, the historic 17th century farmhouse on the corner of Tea Lane and Middle Road that officials are planning to lease to a resident farmer.

Selectmen have now proposed a unique alternative calling for the property to be leased to someone who will agree to both preserve it as a working farm and make improvements to the old farmhouse.

The town is holding an open house of the property this Saturday between 9 am and noon to meet with interested candidates.

On Tuesday selectmen reviewed a 30-page draft lease for the property, and agreed that more work needs to be done. The agreement would allow the resident farmer to lease the land for 75 years at a cost of $20,000, while agreeing to make specific renovations to the farmhouse and also preserve the property as a farm.

Mr. Doty pushed for the selectmen to approve the conditions already reviewed by the town attorney, which would allow officials to provide clearer information during the open house on Saturday. Selectmen unanimously approved the conditions after a brief discussion.

Selectmen also agreed to allocate $2,000 to pay for a land survey of the old town landfill to be conducted by Vineyard Land Surveying & Engineering as part of a plan to install a new solar array on the site.

The company initially provided the town with a quote of $2,500 for the work, but selectmen are optimistic they could bring the cost down to $2,000.