Results of a survey of downtown Oak Bluffs show that the business heart of the town badly needs renewal. The Downtown Inventory Survey, the second step in the application process for revitalization funds from state and federal agencies, contained enough bad news to suggest that the town’s application for money to spruce up might be rewarded with good news.
Alice Boyd of Bailey Boyd Associates presented the survey results to town selectmen Tuesday evening. Summarizing the findings, she said, “The final statistics showed a compelling need for a downtown revitalization program.” Ms. Boyd oversees numerous grant applications to be submitted by the town.
Ms. Boyd explained that to qualify for funds from the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development and from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, at least 25 percent of the structures in the downtown area had to be designated in “poor” or “fair” condition. Of 93 properties evaluated in Oak Bluffs, 49 percent of them received a rating of “fair” or “poor.”
“This was a much higher number than I anticipated,” Ms. Boyd said. “Public infrastructure fared slightly better. Sidewalks, curbing, and landscaping scored low, but sewer and water infrastructure increased the overall score.”
Ms. Boyd explained that the downtown revitalization funds can be distributed as grants or no interest loans to owners under designated income thresholds. For owners above those thresholds, matching grants can be made available. The money can also be invested in downtown infrastructure.
The next step in the downtown revitalization project is for the town to put out a request for proposals (RFP) for an urban planning consultant to work with a yet-to-be-named Downtown Initiative Committee (DIC). Ms. Boyd said that it was crucial for the DIC to hold frequent public forums to build consensus in the town. “The communities that have done this have made incredible improvement,” she said.
Chairman of the selectmen Walter Vail said he hoped to have a minimum maintenance bylaw on the warrant for the April town meeting. “The planning board has to get out there and get some meetings going,” he said.
In what appears to be a resolution of a long-simmering dispute, the selectmen were informed that landscaper Mark Crossland had withdrawn his application for a “contractor’s yard” exemption from the town’s home business bylaws. Building Inspector James Dunn said that Mr. Crossland has promised to move his heavy equipment to the Martha’s Vineyard Airport business park within the next two month.
Mr. Crossland has operated Crossland Landscape from his home, which is in a residential district off County Rd., for the past 31 years without a home-based business permit. Greg Packish, who owns an abutting lot to Mr. Crossland, filed a complaint with Mr. Dunn in May, saying the business overflow from Mr. Crossland’s property was inhibiting his ability to sell his property.
The premise of the home-based business permit is to allow home businesses to operate in a residential zone, as long as the business is mostly invisible to neighbors. There are restrictions on the number and size of vehicles on the property and the number of employees the business may have.
Mr. Crossland made two appearances before the selectmen to make his case for the special permit exemption, saying that moving his business or addressing the violations would cause him undue hardship.
Both times the selectmen asked for more time to study the matter.
A unique wrinkle in the Oak Bluffs home-based business exemption procedure is that the final decision rests with the selectmen, not the zoning board of appeals, as it does in most towns.
A vote at the 2006 town meeting shifted the authority for home business permit exemptions from the zoning board of appeals to the selectmen. The selectmen at Tuesday night’s meeting — minus Mr. Santoro, who had recused himself — agreed that an article should be drafted for April town meeting that gives the deciding authority on home business exemptions back to the zoning board of appeals.
Mr. Crossland’s decision spared the selectmen from a difficult decision. But the dispute between Mr. Crossland and Mr. Packish illuminated a grey area which has been a source of conflict in Oak Bluffs for many years, and in the opinion of building inspector James Dunn, is only going to become more frequent as the Island population grows and ambiguities in the bylaws remain
Mr. Crossland declined to comment on the matter.
In other business, town administrator Robert Whirtenour informed the selectmen that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has agreed to reconsider their ruling made on October 16, 2013, that made East Chop Bluff ineligible for Hurricane Sandy Disaster Assistance.
Mr. Vail called for the organization of a coastal water quality committee to create a comprehensive plan to spur restoration efforts on Sengenkentacket Pond and Lagoon Pond. The committee would be comprised of town officials from Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury, as well as representatives from the wastewater commission, the conservation commission and members of the riparian societies for Sengekontacket Pond and Lagoon Pond. “Talk is cheap, we need to do more than that now,” said Mr. Vail.
In another effort to create inter-Island cooperation, Mr. Vail said he met with Chief Erik Blake about the creation of an all Island taxi commission. Chief Blake reported that the idea was well received by other police chiefs on the Island. Mr. Vail said a commission could initiate a consistent rate structure and improve of the appearance of Island taxis. He noted that Nantucket recently changed to metered taxis and a similar move should be considered here.