Oak Bluffs selectmen hear appeal for cart space on Circuit Avenue

Use of the empty lot at 16 Circuit Ave. continues to confound Oak Bluffs officials and business owners. — Photo by Barry Stringfellow

A long and passionate discussion that touched on merchant carts, property rights, and the regulation of business took place at the Oak Bluffs selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday night. The question of the future use of 16 Circuit Avenue, a vacant lot adjacent to Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium, spawned the wide-ranging debate.

William Coggins, owner of the long vacant lot and co-owner of the ice cream parlor, asked selectmen to allow “Soft As a Grape” owner Richard White, who couldn’t attend the meeting, to sublet the “Pick a Pearl” cart for the next five weekends. Mr. Coggins also presented a three-year plan for 16 Circuit Avenue, asking permission for six merchant carts to do business on the parcel in 2014 and 2015, while he goes through the planning, permitting, and construction process for a commercial building with an upstairs apartment, to be completed in 2016.

Selectman Michael Santoro, substitute chairman in Walter Vail’s absence, appeared to express the concern of the majority. “There’s empty storefronts on Circuit Ave,” he said. “Any more destruction of the street could hurt potential renters. Stores could put carts in front of their stores or on the sidewalks, which are already crowded. We’re talking about setting a precedent.”

He noted that the majority of the board had already voted against carts in an earlier straw vote.

“I spent a lot of money on that lot, and I have a right to make a return on it,” countered Mr. Coggins. “I think I’ve come up with a pretty fair compromise. Six carts for two years, then a building would go up, and the town would benefit from the tax base on that. The more foot traffic for businesses, the better for everybody. I don’t understand the argument that it would hurt Circuit Ave.”

“I understand where you’re coming from,” said selectman Gail Barmakian, striking a conciliatory tone. “You have a unique circumstance. But this is a precedent. If carts are allowed, it doesn’t stop other places with smaller lots to put up carts too. That’s problematic for me.”

“I think this board should be more concerned about filling spots, not keeping them empty,” said an agitated Mr. Coggins. “You’re legislating competition here. You think I was happy when Carousel Ice Cream went up across the street from us? The town’s dying a slow death, and you guys are encouraging it.”

“I think the town and the O.B.A. (Oak Bluffs Association) are taking steps to improve the town,” said Mr. Santoro, who kept an even tone throughout. “We’re excited about grants that could be coming our way to address sidewalks, the storefronts, and the landscaping. Bob [Whritenour] has a lot of good things in the works. There’s going to be changes on Circuit Avenue. It’s going to take some time, but Vineyard Haven went through the same thing.

“Carts do great business in Vineyard Haven,” said Mr. Coggins.

“I have a difference of opinion, I think, than the rest of us,” said selectman Greg Coogan. “I think we need more, not less business, and I think we are really getting close to limiting competition, and I am not comfortable with it. I don’t want to be a part of it. I think different options for people to see is an important part of revitalizing business.”

Mr. Coogan suggested that the board rule on the five-week sublet of the “Pick a Pearl” cart and address Mr. Coggins’ three-year plan separately.

Selectman Kathy Burton said she thought the cart issue was moot. “For me, the cart was a trial. Having seen it, I personally didn’t think it fit in at all. I agree with Gail [Barmakian], regarding the precedent issue. I don’t see how you can give a permit for five weeks and not permit others who potentially line up down the road.”

“I think it’s not only a competition issue, it’s an aesthetic issue” said Ms. Barmakian. “I don’t like the idea of people hanging their tee-shirts and sweatshirt wares outside. This is also about the look of the town and the quality of the stores.”

“How can you say you care about the look of the town of Oak Bluffs and let that alley sit like that for 30 years?” asked Mr. Coggins, who estimates he spent more than $40,000 to landscape and to light 16 Circuit Avenue. “I put in a brick walkway, it’s well lit, clean, and you’re telling me it’s messing up the look of the town when all these buildings are vacant and staying that way.”

After Mr. Santoro used his gavel to bring the meeting to order, the selectmen voted to vote on both matters at the next meeting, on Tuesday, September 24.

Their decision did not sit well with Mr. Coggins.

“I’ve been coming to meetings since March. I’m going to move forward. Now my problem is going to be your problem,” he said before leaving the meeting.

In a telephone interview with The Times on Wednesday, Mr. Coggins clarified his parting statement, saying his next step is to seek mediation with the selectmen.

“If that fails, then I’ll take the matter to court,” he said. “I feel bad, I’ve never gone to court on anybody. I hate to waste the taxpayers’ money. But there’s nothing in the bylaws that precludes what I’m trying to do.”

Grey tide

In other business, Peter Temple, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative and a member of newly created Dukes County Healthy Aging Task Force, spoke to the selectmen about the impending elderly population boom on the Island. “Everyone knows there’s a wave of baby boomers about to retire, and the Vineyard is going to feel that impact a lot more than most places because a lot of seasonal residents plan to retire here,” he said. “So in addition to Island boomers, which are expected to triple over the next 20 to 30 years, we expect that extra hit as well.”

Mr. Temple told the selectmen that the shifting demographic will place myriad demands on Island infrastructure that will need to be addressed. “The Council on Aging, the Center for Living, Windemere, the hospital, are all going to need more staff,” he said. “The question is, where are we going to get housing for that staff? Not to mention affordable elder housing, nursing homes, affordable assisted living care, emergency services. Town budgets are going to get pressured. This will affect all the towns as well as the nonprofits.”

Mr. Temple is enlisting medical students from the University of Massachusetts Rural Scholars program to come to the Island in October to evaluate the needs of the growing elderly population in Dukes County. The Rural Scholars have been coming to the Island for the past eight years and are responsible for the creation of CORE (Counseling Outreach for the Elderly). They will share their findings and make their recommendations at an Island-wide meeting on Friday, November 8. Location is to be determined.