Oak Bluffs will grapple with home business permits next year

Oak Bluffs town hall. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

While little of note was accomplished at the final Oak Bluffs selectmen’s meeting of 2013, it was clear, after a long and spirited discussion, that the thorny issue of home business permits will remain to be confronted in 2014.

Home-based businesses have been a source of conflict in Oak Bluffs for many years. The problem resurfaced this summer when Greg Packish, owner of a lot on County Rd., filed a complaint about his abutter, Mark Crossland, with building inspector James Dunn.

Mr. Crossland, an established businessman in the community, has operated Crossland Landscape from his home in a residential district on County Road for the past 31 years, without a permit. Mr. Packish maintains the business overflow from Mr. Crossland’s property is inhibiting his ability to sell the wooded lot, which he contends is necessary to pay for care for his elderly mother needs.

At the meeting on Tuesday night, Mr. Crossland was back before the selectmen for a public hearing, seeking an exemption from the home-based business bylaw. As he has in the past, selectman Michael Santoro recused himself because of his business association with Mr. Crossland.

A number of people were there to support Mr. Crossland. An abutter and fellow landscaper testified that Mr. Crossland’s business was not an imposition of any kind. A homeowner who lives across County Road said the same.

Douglas Dowling, engineer and surveyor with Smith and Dowling, who was retained by Mr. Packish, used aerial photos and maps to show that Mr. Crossland was encroaching on Mr. Packish’s property as well as the “no cut, no build zone” designated by the Meadow View Farms homeowners association.

“Mr. Crossland has been there 31 years. He is in many ways a success story,” said Mr. Dowling. “But his property is in a residential district, and it looks not at all residential.”

The home-based business permit allows a businesses to operate in a residential zone as long as it’s mostly invisible to neighbors. The bylaw states, “Such business shall not exhibit any exterior indication of its presence or variation from residential appearance.” There are restrictions on the number and size of vehicles on the property and the number of employees the business may have. It also states, “No offensive noise, vibration, smoke, dust, heat or glare shall be produced.” The law only applies to parcels under two acres. Mr. Crossland’s property is 1.75 acres.

It was established that Mr. Crossland has, in addition to his house, a barn that he rents out, two quonset huts, six trucks and two Bobcats. Mr. Crossland said that the Bobcats — small backhoes — are usually left at job sites. And, he said, he had planted shrubbery on the property line to hide his equipment from view. “In three years, you won’t see anything,” he said. Mr. Crossland also indicated he was willing to install a screen. But Mr. Packish was not mollified, saying he’d already lost potential buyers due to Mr. Crossland’s home business.

“What could you live with?” selectman Gail Barmakian asked Mr. Packish. “What’s your biggest objection?”

“I don’t want any commercial business out there,” said an agitated Mr. Packish. “I’ve been at this two years. I can’t believe nothing’s been done.”

“How many trucks go in and out?” asked Ms. Barmakian.

“It doesn’t matter how many trucks. There shouldn’t be a business there, period,” said Mr. Packish.

“I have a similar situation in my own neighborhood,” said Oak Bluffs resident Peter Palches. “I do know it’s an impossible situation that the selectmen are faced with. When a business takes a foothold and is successful, and we hope they are successful, they grow. The problem gets worse, not better. To have businesses that just continue to grow in residential neighborhoods will be a problem that doesn’t end.” Mr. Palches hoped that in this case, a negotiated settlement could be worked out by a mediator that would give both parties a chance to live together peacefully.

“This used to go before the zoning board. How it got here I’ll never know,” said Ms. Barmakian.

“It was a town meeting vote,” said Oak Bluffs resident Priscilla Sylvia, referring to a vote at the 2006 town meeting that shifted the authority for home business permit exemptions from the zoning board of appeals to the selectmen.

It wasn’t until the end of the conversation that Oak Bluffs building inspector James Dunn was asked to weigh in. “This [home-based business permit] was written for small businesses,” he said. “It was never meant to regulate a business the size of Mark’s. When they grow, they’re expected to move. By the time you get [this big] you should be somewhere else. You should want to be somewhere else,” he said, addressing Mr. Crossland.

In a previous interview with the Times, Mr. Dunn said that he receives numerous complaints about landscape companies and construction companies, and that a contractor’s yard, which the town can rent to businessmen at a fair price, could be a solution for conflicts like the one with Mr. Crossland.

“This is a very difficult decision for a number of reasons,” said selectman Greg Coogan. “We have a problem in town, we all realize that. Mark’s not the only one. It’s a really difficult decision. Part of our job is going to be to mitigate the problems here. It’s not going to be a simple solution. Everybody would like it to be black and white, but it’s not going to be black and white.”

The selectmen agreed the matter warranted further study. They also agreed to meet with Mr. Dunn to examine and refine the criteria for home-based businesses before the next annual meeting on April 8, 2014.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Mr. Dunn. “I welcome a meeting.”

East Chop Bluff on offer

In other business, the East Chop Association again asked the town of Oak Bluffs to assume ownership of the East Chop Bluff, to better the chances of obtaining Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy and winter storm Nemo. The bluff was offered to the town three years ago, but town counsel Ron Rappaport advised against taking ownership, citing excessive liability to the town. “That probably has cost us at least four million dollars in FEMA money,” said chairman of the selectmen Walter Vail.

Despite efforts by town officials to tap into FEMA money to repair the bluff, FEMA has not been receptive because the bluff is technically private property. Town administrator Robert Whritenour has been in touch with FEMA officials in Boston, who agreed to revisit the issue. Mr. Whritenour said the East Chop Bluff scored very low on a grant application to the state’s dam and seawall program, due to the ownership issue.

The selectmen agreed to revisit the issue with Mr. Rappaport. “It’s a big undertaking, it’s not simple,” said selectmen Gail Barmakian. “We really need to be careful.”

“Right now we have a $4 million dollar grant request from the Massachusetts Office of Environmental Affairs that will probably be denied because of private ownership,” said Craig Dripps, President of the East Chop Association. “This is ongoing. Nemo and Sandy weren’t the end of the problem. They were the beginning.”