Edgartown voters agree to $4.9 million spending on new library

Voters filled the Old Whaling Church Tuesday night. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Edgartown voters agreed Tuesday to spend $4.9 million on a new library at the site of the former Edgartown School. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor and was followed by sustained applause that marked the end in the latest chapter of the story of the town’s long effort to build a new library.

Immediately after voting on the new library, voters agreed to transfer ownership of the Captain Warren House from library trustees to selectmen and authorized selectmen to dispose of the property.

Voters turned down a request to significantly relax zoning bylaws to allow affordable houses on otherwise unbuildable lots. It was the only article rejected outright.

And they had no appetite for mobile concession stands on South Beach.

A total of 305 voters, or just 10 percent of the town’s 3,162 registered voters turned out. It was a long night for Edgartown voters, who plowed through a combined 74 articles on the special and annual town meeting warrants. They approved a $28.3-million operating budget for FY2013 that begins July 1. The meeting began at 7 pm and did not end until 10:30 pm.

Today, voters go to the polls to elect town officers. There is one Proposition 2.5 override question, a request for $272,500 to pay the town’s share of an estuary study of Cape Poge Pond, Pocha Pond, Katama Bay, and Oyster Pond.

Voter poetry

Longtime moderator Philip J. Norton Jr., well practiced at reading town currents, kicked off the meeting, punctually as usual, shortly after 7 pm, once town clerk Wanda Williams confirmed a quorum was seated in the stately Old Whaling Church.

The 12-article special town meeting warrant, consisting mostly of transfers and appropriations from free cash, provided a warmup for voters who made short work of it. Voters agreed to fund various town building repairs that included reshingling the Edgartown fire station, and to meet shortfalls in municipal contract obligations that included $82,900 for police salaries for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Voters approved an article submitted by petition that asks Congress to pass a constitutional amendment intended to reverse a Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to funnel money into political campaigns.

The intermission between the special and the annual meetings featured a poetry reading. “I am honored to be here tonight,” Steve Ewing, the town’s first poet laureate, said in a preface to his presentation of a poem he dedicated to the town’s workers. “Actually, I’m a dock builder who likes to write.”

Mr. Norton kicked off the annual and Peter Look, a persistent town meeting questioner, asked the moderator to shift article 63, submitted by petition of Mr. Look, to the front of the line. Mr. Look insisted that the topic, a report he wrote on town meeting ethics and possible violations by municipal employees, was pertinent to the town’s business.

Mr. Norton put the request to a vote. By a narrow margin of 128 to 122 voters agreed to give Mr. Look the floor.

Mr. Look read from a prepared statement laced with metaphors to the ocean and anchored in references to the constitution that took town officials and voters to task for a list of 11 items, examples he said of ethics violations, misdeeds, municipal subterfuge, destruction of documents, crimes, and so on and so forth. The voters, and the town officials that were the target of Mr. Look’s itemized list of misbehavior listened quietly and politely.

Mr. Norton moved to take up all 11 items. At that, selectman Margaret Serpa defended the behavior of town leaders and noted that Mr. Look had failed to attend meetings open to all voters.

As the discussion progressed, one exasperated voter said it was ridiculous, that there was no documentation of any of Mr. Look’s accusations. “Why do we have to listen to this,” he asked the moderator. “You don’t,” Mr. Norton replied and gave the floor back to Mr. Look. By 7:53 pm the voters had had enough. The question, if there was a question although no one was sure, was moved and seconded and dispatched unanimously, and voters moved on to annual business.

Money, land, safety

Voters moved speedily through the $28.3-million operating budget that will guide town spending in the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1. The only significant adjustment was a request for less money to operate the dredge. Harbormaster Charlie Blair said a transfer of $120,000 from the dredge gift account to the general fund was responsible.

A request to transfer the title of a 9-acre piece of property off Meshacket Road to the affordable housing committee for a mixed use affordable housing development was amended at the request of Jim Athearn with language intended to protect the wooded view from the road. Voters approved the article as amended despite the objections of housing committee member Janet Hathaway that the committee was at the beginning stage and ought not to be limited in scope.

Voters happily granted Police Chief Tony Bettencourt the tools he said he needed to do the job. They unanimously approved a request for $85,000 to establish an emergency management command center within the station, which would include a firearms training simulator.

New chapter

The overriding question of the night was whether voters would approve three warrant articles that related to the long and at times contentious effort to build a new library in Edgartown.

Selectman Michael Donaroma, chairman of the library building committee, provided a step-by-step description of the dilemma facing the town: what to do with the Warren house, the Carnegie Library, and the old Edgartown School, three buildings unsuitable by code for town purposes and in need of much expensive repair.

The solution he offered was to sell the Warren House, thereby offsetting town costs to build a new library on the site of the old Edgartown school, which would eliminate the school building, and give the historic Carnegie building to the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which has the expertise to protect and utilize it.

“It sounds like it is a lot, but it is doable,” Mr. Donaroma said. All but two voters agreed.

Real estate gimmick

The most extensive debate of the night related to a request to change the zoning bylaws to allow affordable homes on otherwise unbuildable lots of as little as 5,000 square feet that could be sold to a direct family member and would have allowed the lot to be sold after 15 years with no restrictions.

Supporters spoke of the need to generate affordable housing. Opponents questioned the practical effect and said it would open up the town to more substandard lots and unchecked development. Roger Becker described the article as a “gimmick” apparently written by real estate interests. He proposed an amendment to eliminate the 15 year limit. The amendment failed. By a vote of 45 in favor and 115 against the article failed.

Voters ambled through the remaining articles. The meeting concluded at 10:30 pm, late by Edgartown standards.