West Tisbury votes library funds, dogs mornings at the beach

West Tisbury voters were numerous and agreeable. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

West Tisbury voters turned out in force for their annual town meeting on Tuesday, April 10. They agreed to fund a new public library, added new energy-efficient building codes, and scrapped a summer dog ban on Lambert’s Cove Beach in favor of a new, partial ban.

Although several articles were hotly debated, voters agreed to compromise on many key issues. For example, voters agreed to allow dogs on Lambert’s Cove Beach in the morning before 10 am during the summer, but kept the ban in place in the evening after 6 pm.

The meeting started 20 minutes late, to accommodate the capacity crowd still waiting to take their seats in the gym of the West Tisbury School. When moderator Pat Gregory finally brought the meeting to order, a total of 340 registered voters were in attendance. Town Clerk Tara Whiting said more voters checked in after the meeting started, and the final tally was 378.

By the end of the four-hour-plus meeting, one of the longest and most heavily attended in recent memory, voters had quickly and easily approved several spending articles, including a $14.38-million budget for FY2013, which represents a 4.5-percent increase over the current budget.

Voters also approved $24,000 for a new tractor with trailer and mower, $36,380 for a new four-wheel drive vehicle for the police department, and $175,000 for post-retirement benefits for town employees in the Dukes County retirement system — of which $99,000 will come from free cash and $76,000 from overlay surplus.

An article to appropriate $85,000 for the development of construction documents for a new police station at the public safety building also passed easily.

Final library vote

The first major discussion of the evening was over an article to appropriate $1.5 million for the renovation and expansion of the West Tisbury Free Public Library, and to pay all related borrowing costs.

The total cost of the upgraded library is expected to be more than $6 million, but the cost will be split among a $2.98 million state grant, $1.57 million in private donations to the West Tisbury Library Foundation, and the town’s $1.5-million share, which was approved Tuesday by a near unanimous vote.

Library trustee Dan Waters presented the article, which effectively represented the final step in the long-planned library project. “This is the moment of truth,” Mr. Waters said. “A lot of people worked long and hard to get the best possible deal for this project.”

There were a handful of questions about the project and one detractor, who questioned if this were the right time to spend so much on a new library.

“I can’t help but think we are in competition with other towns to have the best town hall, the best police station, the best library. It just seems unreasonable that West Tisbury has a five or six million dollar library…when things are bad and they are going to get worse,” said Nick Van Nes.

But Mr. Van Nes was clearly in the minority, and after years of careful planning by the library committee that included numerous public forums and presentations, the article’s approval led the audience to erupt in applause.

Solar flare-up

Voters were not as agreeable on another article, which authorized the selectmen to enter into long-term contracts — including power purchase agreements and land leases — with private parties or government organizations for the development of renewable energy projects in town.

The article was placed on the warrant by the town energy committee in anticipation of the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative approaching the town about building a solar array to be installed at the town landfill off Old Stage Road.

Many residents felt the article granted broad and far-reaching powers to selectmen to approve large scale projects without approval from voters at town meeting. “I think this warrant article is like using a hand grenade to kill a mosquito,” said Dan Cabot.

Richard Andre, president of Vineyard Power, said he worried that the language in the article was too specific and only mentioned projects sponsored by Cape and Vineyard Electric, which he suspected might shut out other companies interested in partnering with the town on green energy projects.

Mr. Andre proposed an amendment to remove the language referencing Cape and Vineyard Electric, which passed. Sandy Shapiro, a member of the town energy committee, explained that the article only applies to the Cape and Vineyard Electric project and removing language would complicate matters.

After a close standing vote, Mr. Andre’s amendment was reconsidered and rescinded, and voters finally agreed to change the language so it only applied to a solar project at the town landfill by the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative. The article passed by a wide margin.

Dredging debate

Some voters expressed opposition to an article authorizing the town to seek grant money for the dredging of Mill Pond. The article was placed on the warrant by a specially appointed Mill Pond committee.

Several residents argued that dredging the pond is unnecessary and expensive. The environmental firm ESS Group, hired by the Mill Pond Committee, has described a dredge project that could cost between $150,000 and $400,000, depending on the amount of material removed.

Carl Nielsen of the ESS Group said the pond is slowly filling up with sediment.

“The pond is likely to fill with sediment, recreation potential is limited now and likely to decrease, and the pond will provide less open water habitat for fish and wildlife over time,” he said. “The pond does not function as a pond very well and does not function very well as a stream either.”

But civil engineer Kent Healy said he didn’t support dredging at this time, and instead suggested the town focus on how water flows in and out of the pond. “The preservation of Mill Pond depends on ensuring water flows into Mill Pond faster than it flows out, and no plans for dredging should be made before that is understood,” he said.

Ebba Hierta said dredging the pond could create more problems than it solved. “The pond once played a key role in our Island economy by providing power before there was electricity…” she said. “That is no longer the case. Aesthetics is not a good enough reason to degrade the environment.”

Mill Pond committee chairman Bob Woodruff said the article does not commit the town to dredging. It only allows officials to pursue grant opportunities. In the end, voters agreed to an amendment requiring that any dredging project proposal to come back to town meeting for a final vote.

Stretch Code

Voters also clashed on an article to adopt a more environmentally friendly building code, called the Stretch Code, which requires higher levels of energy efficiency in new buildings and major renovations than is required by the base code.

Sharon Estrella, chairman of the finance committee, said the new code could add costs unfairly to construction projects and suggested that the town instead wait until the state makes the Stretch Code mandatory, which could happen as early as 2013.

“We felt that a grace period was in order for young people or elderly who were in the process of putting on additions or building, so they could do it without added expense, because that expense will be on the homeowners…we have enough restrictions on building and zoning,” she said.

Robert (Spike) Smith said the code was a tax on the less fortunate, while Bob Potts argued that voters needed more time to digest and understand the complicated new building code.

Kate Warner said the Stretch Code is not a radical change from the current building code. “Will it cost [the homeowners] a little more? Yes. But doesn’t it make sense to make buildings more energy efficient now instead of having more lousy, leaking buildings in town that people have to pay more for as many years as they exist – that is crazy,” Ms. Warner said.

A motion to postpone the article indefinitely lost, and the new Stretch Code passed easily.

Costly roads

Voters also disagreed on an article to spend $2.615 million to repair a number of town roads, many of which are in disrepair. The plan was suggested by highway superintendent Richard Olsen and supported by the finance committee and capital improvement planning committee.

Mr. Olsen argued that making all the road repairs now — instead of spreading the repairs out over several years — would save the town money because of the cost of asphalt and borrowing, both of which are expected to increase substantially in the coming years.

Selectman Richard Knabel moved to amend the article to repair only the roads in most need of repair, which he said would cost $1.5 million. “I am not opposed to road repair…, but I am opposed to the amount of this,” he said. “We should be redoing our roads on an ongoing basis, incrementally, as it becomes necessary.”

Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, chairman of the selectmen, reflected on his reputation as a fiscal conservative before stating that he supported repairing all of the roads now. “We have let our roads fall into serious disrepair, and this is an opportunity to step up to the plate and fix our roads,” he said.

Mr. Knabel’s amendment was defeated in a close vote, although another amendment to remove $242,000 to repair Old Courthouse road was approved by a wide margin. Several residents of Old Courthouse agreed the road is not in immediate need of repairs.

Several other residents suggested amendments to remove other roads from the plan, which drew a sharp rebuke from selectman Cynthia Mitchell. “So all of a sudden everyone is a road repaving expert? We have a very fine highway superintendent: go with his recommendation, please,” she said.

The main motion for the road repairs passed by a vote of 120-33, at least according to Mr. Gregory, who is experienced at giving his best guess for lopsided town meeting votes.

To the dogs

The most hotly debated issue of the night did not come up until after 10:30 pm, when voters took up an article to rescind a rule passed at a special town meeting last November that banned dogs from the popular town beach from June 15 to September 15.

The ban was initiated by the parks and recreation committee in response to years of complaints about smelly dog droppings and out-of-control canines at the beach. The plan was approved by a close vote during a special town meeting in November, after an hour of emotional debate on both sides.

The latest article, to reverse the ban, was placed on the town meeting agenda through a petition circulated by a group called Friends of Lambert’s Cove Beach. It would again allow dogs at Lambert’s Cove Beach before 10 am and after 6:30 pm during the summer months.

Nicole Galland, a member of the group, presented the article and recommended an amendment to split the question to allow voters to either lift the ban and allow dogs only during the morning or lift the ban and allow dogs only during the evening. That amendment was quickly approved.

Ms. Galland said the Friends of Lambert’s Cove Beach proposes to raise funds to hire monitors to make sure dogs are only allowed on the beach during approved hours and make sure owners keep their dogs under control and clean up after them.

“We realize that things have been attempted in the past that haven’t been carried out… so we propose a new model,” she said. “Right now there is nothing to keep the dogs off the beach, and that won’t stop just because there is a ban. That’s like saying just because there was prohibition there wasn’t any booze. You need enforcement to make it work.”

Cheryl Lowe, co-chairman of the parks and recreation committee, argued the town should give the ban a try before rescinding it. “We understand many people were really happy when this ban was put in place. We are trying this as a compromise so the people who want to walk their dogs at the beach can do so nine months out of the year but the people who don’t want dogs can go the beach in the summer,” she said.

Steven Carter said he was sick of the dog problems at the beach and doubted the proposal to use monitors would work. “Every year’s it’s the same issue with the dogs running around,” he said. “It’s never going to work: you are just going to have one more summer where people can’t bring their children to the beach or can’t have a picnic because dogs are off the leash.”

Another resident, who did not identify himself, said there were other places for dogs in summer.

“This group wants the dogs on the beach where they can do the most damage,” he said. “You have a parks and recreation and committee and board of health that recommended against this. I like dogs, but you have the State Forest, there are other places for them. Why, why put dogs on the beach?”

Animal Control Officer Joan Jenkinson said she supported the dog ban at the beach. “I love dogs, and I love seeing owners spend time with their pets,” she said “But I have to say they present issues at the beach. They don’t always pick up after their pets, not all dogs get along with other dogs…. For three months of the year there are other places they can take their dogs.”

Caryn Broitman took a different view.

“The issues here need to be managed and carefully monitored, but nobody should be banned from the beach. I think it would be a sign of the strength of this town if we can honor both people’s experiences,” Ms. Broitman said.

“I just want to say for my little kids and my 92-year-old mother, the dogs are an intense source of joy and refreshment,” agreed Geraldine Brooks. “I hear people say other towns don’t do this, well this is the best town in America, and this is for those special creatures that give us so much joy.”

In the end, voters modified the ban, allowing dogs in the morning, between 7 and 10 am, but prohibiting dogs after 6:30 pm.

The final article, to allow selectmen to issue one-day licenses for the sale of beer and wine at fundraisers, was approved by a nearly unanimous vote with almost no discussion.

The article appeared on the warrant as a stopgap in case voters reject a ballot question at the town election today, April 12, that would allow both the sale of beer and wine in restaurants that seat more than 50 people and the sale of beer and wine at fundraisers.

Polls are open today from 12 noon to 8 pm. Voters will also consider a non-binding question on whether to build a roundabout at the Blinker intersection and two overrides of Proposition 2.5 regarding the funding of the road repairs and the new library.