Updated 5:40 pm Thursday, November 13, 2013
Oak Bluffs voters approved a zoning overlay district that would allow a medical marijuana dispensary in three areas of town. Before voters, convened in a special town meeting Tuesday evening, approved the zoning bylaw proposed by the town planning board, they amended, by a voice vote, the proposed zoning change to eliminate all the parcels in the commercial district along Dukes County Avenue, as well as a lot on School Street.
The three areas approved by voters are a small parcel off Holmes Hole Road that abuts the Tisbury industrial area, several parcels near the Goodale Construction sand pit on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, and the health care district where Martha’s Vineyard Hospital is located.
A paltry 143 of the 3,622 town’s registered voters filled the auditorium of the Oak Bluffs school for the special town meeting, whose most anticipated vote of the evening was the zoning change to accommodate pot dispensaries.
And the zoning question was by far the focus of the longest discussion of the evening, in large part because planning board chairman John Bradford had to clarify, repeatedly, that failure to pass any zoning regulations would leave the town with no say about where a dispensary is located.
“If the town takes no action, it can go anywhere within the business district, except that it has to meet the regulations of the state,” Mr. Bradford said. “Other than that, the town would have no say.” He also had to clarify, repeatedly, that the designated parcels were not mandated to have a dispensary, but that the landowners would have the option to apply for one with the state.
“I taught at the Oak Bluffs school for 37 years and I’ve worked with the Youth Task Force” said voter Bill Jones. “I think the planning board has created a plan we can live with. Taking out Dukes County Ave. was crucial. I urge you to vote for it.”
At the end of the day, the article that promised the most spark was discussed in a civil manner, and the final vote met only token resistance. The official count announced by moderator Jack Law was 34 in favor, four opposed, although it was clear that far more than 34 voters stood to be counted in favor of the amended bylaw. Even though the final vote was technically 12 short of a quorum, town clerk Laura Johnston, in a telephone call with the Times, said 50 people do not have to vote on an article to make it official.
In all likelihood, the Holmes Hole zoning overlay will be the only parcel in Oak Bluffs where a dispensary can take root. Martha’s Vineyard Hospital president and chief executive officer Timothy Walsh has gone on record saying the hospital has no plans to open a dispensary on their property, citing the use of medical marijuana by a Medicare-funded organization is prohibited under federal law.
Additionally, a meeting attendee who is an acquaintance of Jerry Goodale, owner of the lots on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Rd., said Mr. Goodale has adamantly expressed he would not sell his property to a dispensary proprietor.
After the meeting, Oak Bluffs police chief Erik Blake told the Times he was pleased the town took the decision into its own hands. He added that even though the Holmes Hole location is on the Tisbury line, he was confident that his department could respond quickly if a problem arose and in addition, all Island police departments have strong reciprocal relationships.
Perhaps owing to Town Administrator Robert Whritenour’s opening presentation that showed a resounding rebound in the town’s finances — and also received several rounds of applause — all capital expenditures on the warrant were approved, almost unanimously, with little or no debate. Mr Whritenour said that all Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 collections beat estimates across the board, in the third year of the town’s five-year fiscal plan. To underscore the dramatic turnaround, Mr. Whritenour said in FY 2011 that free cash was $888,046 in the red, while the estimated total for FY 2013 is $900,000 in the black. Likewise, the general fund in FY 2011 was $434,533 in the hole, and the estimated balance for FY 2013 is $1.5 million to the good, which exceeds estimates by $747,000.
Moving forward, Mr. Whritenour stressed, repeatedly, that the town would exercise strong financial discipline and conservative budgeting. Setting the table for the upcoming capital expenditures on the warrant, he also said that there are times when not spending on infrastructure creates bigger problems. He concluded his presentation by giving credit to the town’s financial team, and special kudos to town accountant Arthur Gallagher.
Voters quickly approved spending $400,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to restore Niantic Park, and then authorized the town to borrow another $350,000 to complete the project. Roger Wey, director of the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging, said that while he was not opposed to the funding, he was concerned that the senior center might lose much-needed parking spaces. Selectman Michael Santoro assured Mr. Wey that the final plans had to be approved by the roads and byways committee as well as the selectmen, and that no senior center parking would be lost.
After town finance committee and capital program committee member Bill McGrath made a presentation that stressed the dire condition of town hall and the Fire/EMS station, and the savings that will be lost by inaction — $1 million per year — town voters approved a $239,150 expenditure to prepare architectural plans for a new town hall, and a $287,000 expenditure to prepare architectural plans for a new fire station. Town officials expect to ask for $6 million for construction of the new town hall, and $7 million for the new fire station at the annual town meeting next spring. Mr. McGrath assured voters that these expenditures would have minimal impact on their taxes. “When cost comes to bear in 2017, it will cost about $31 for a homeowner with a house worth $500,000,” he said. “Now’s the time to jump, now’s the time to bite the bullet and fix the infrastructure of the town.”
Voters also agreed to transfer $130,000 from the ambulance reserve fund for new fire equipment.