Conference plans that split Oak Bluffs selectmen are changed

A proposal to erect a tent on the grounds of the Island Inn for a leadership conference riled Harthaven neighbors. — Photo by Steve Myrick

A plan by a Boston-based training and consulting firm to hold an executive leadership conference under a tent on the grounds of the Island Inn that had riled neighbors in the adjacent Harthaven section Oak Bluffs has been changed.

The Partnership Inc., which provides leadership training for professionals of color and consults with companies on recruiting and retaining executives, announced Wednesday it would stage its conference at the Featherstone Center for the Arts, off Barnes Road in Oak Bluffs.

The conference, which organizers said is expected to attract 300 to 400 attendees, is June 7–9, with extensive corporate sponsorship. Scheduled speakers include American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault and interim U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, William “Mo” Cowan.

Oak Bluffs selectmen heard vigorous complaints at their meeting last Thursday from residents of the Harthaven neighborhood upset about the conference when it was planned for the Island Inn. Residents cited increased traffic, parking, and noise.

Selectmen disagreed over whether they could permit the event. That issue now appears to be moot.

“For many years, The Partnership has hosted a leadership conference of New England’s business and civic leaders to discuss the important issues of diversity and inclusion in our business community,” Partnership spokesman Sean Findlen said in an email to The Times late Tuesday.

“This year, we are delighted to return to Martha’s Vineyard for the first time in a decade. It has been a number of years since our last conference, and The Partnership has received heavy interest from those wishing to attend this year’s event, in such a special place like the Vineyard. To accommodate a much larger-than-expected group, we will relocate the conference to the Featherstone Center for the Arts.

“As we have for many years, The Partnership values our relationship with the Martha’s Vineyard community and looks forward to hosting this year’s conference on the Island.”

Welcome or not

Discussion with selectmen last week generated two differing views of the board’s authority to control the event.

Oak Bluffs resident Carol Fulp, one of the organizers, told selectmen last week that the group planned to erect tents on the Island Inn property to stage the conference, which will include catered meals with wine.

“We are very sensitive about the impressions we leave,” Ms. Fulp said. “We are working very hard to have an event that is respectful of the community. I live here too.”

Selectman chairman Walter Vail said the decision to allow tents on private property rests with the town’s building inspector. Residents or the selectmen have a right to appeal the building inspector’s decision to the zoning board of appeals, he said.

“This kind of conference, in my estimation, brings a number of people to this town who, I personally think, we should try to welcome, not turn away,” Mr. Vail said. “I don’t think we have the power to turn it down, even if we wanted to.”

Selectmen Gail Barmakian and Kathy Burton argued that the board has issued permits and alcohol licenses for similar events and wanted a vote by the selectmen. Police Sgt. Mike Marchand advised the board that a liquor license is necessary.

The Island Inn is exempt from some zoning regulations because it was established before zoning laws were enacted. The business cannot change or expand its use without permission from the zoning board of appeals.

Ms. Barmakian, Ms. Burton, and many residents contended that an outside tent is expansion of the use, though the building inspector ruled that it is not.

“I think that is outrageous, 300 to 400 people in a residential area,” Harthaven resident Wesley Brown said. “I don’t think you’ve really done your homework on this. I’m very disturbed that the building inspector is not here.”

The selectmen took no action, but asked The Partnership Inc. to apply for a two-day alcohol license.

Bus bid

Selectmen accepted a bid of $4,000 annually from Martha’s Vineyard Sightseeing, the only bidder, to rent four town-owned parking spaces for tour buses. But the contract gives selectmen the right to approve the vehicles, and they withheld that approval until tour bus operator Scott Dario meets with them. Mr. Dario has purchased four new tour buses with vinyl wrapping depicting caricatures of Island beach scenes. They have drawn criticism.

Selectmen also accepted a bid of $3,012 annually for two smaller spaces from Martha’s Vineyard Excursions, a company that operates van tours.

Also Thursday, highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr. reported construction crews are wrapping up their spring work on the roundabout at the intersection of Barnes Road and Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. He estimated crews will be able to finish the job, including a final layer of pavement, when they return after Labor Day.

He also advised selectmen that the sidewalk in front of 57 Circuit Avenue, the site of the former Oyster Bar Grill, will be cleared by Memorial Day. The Edgartown National Bank is remodeling the building as a bank branch and office space.

Selectmen scheduled the unusual Thursday meeting after they postponed their regular Tuesday session because the meeting was not posted properly under the state’s open meeting law.