Edgartown assessors squared off with the Katama Airfield commission over tax issues at Monday’s selectmen’s meeting.
Selectmen agreed last month to the terms of a deal with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) that would allow the town to replace one of two hangars at Katama Airfield with a larger hangar. Now, as the town is in the process of preparing a request for proposals (RFP) for the construction, the commission has asked the assessors to clarify the way the property has been taxed and will be in the future.
“The assessors looked at this property and, following Massachusetts’s law, we sent a tax bill,” assessor Lawrence Mercier said Monday. “We have for a number of years now.”
Selectman Michael Donaroma asked the assessors if different parts of the airport property warrant different tax rates.
“In Edgartown, pursuant to your vote two months ago, we tax commercial, residential, and industrial properties the same,” Mr. Mercier said.
According to assessors, 22 percent of the property at Katama Airfield is considered residential because of a manager’s apartment that exists within the current structure. The rest of the property, including the Right Fork Diner and the biplane and glider plane business, is considered commercial property, Mr. Mercier said.
Airfield commission members Mike Creato, Jim Harrison, former chairman Bob Stone, and current chairman Jamie Craig all attended the meeting.
Mr. Stone explained that the airport is being used as a public use airport. “The town owns that property; are you taxing the Chappaquiddick ferry?” Mr. Stone asked selectmen.
“I think what the assessors just told us is that there’s a statutory requirement to assess certain properties in certain ways,” selectman Art Smadbeck said. “And this property is obviously being used in a way that requires them to assess it.”
Airfield commission member Mike Creato asked assessors for further clarification about how the tax structure works. “There’s some confusion about what part of this land is taxable, especially since we’re replacing the hangar with a new hangar,” he said. “I’m not quite sure how we’re selecting particular pieces of real estate to be taxed.”
Mr. Creato told selectmen the town has always received money from the airport, both from a percentage of the rent generated and from the Right Fork Diner.
“We’ve kind of refined that into one flat fee to make the bookkeeping easier,” Mr. Creato said. “But as a general rule, we’ve asked for $20,000 to run the airport, and the town gets about $10,000 back.”
“The restaurant and the big airport, for as long as I was the assessor in West Tisbury, got its own tax bill and paid its own taxes,” principal assessor Jo-Ann Resendes said. “I assume they’re still doing that.”
“The two taxable things would be the red top hangar and the commercial portion of the restaurant,” town administrator Pam Dolby said. “If they’re going to move the office out to the new hangar once it’s built and that office space becomes a part of the restaurant operation, then that would be added to the tax lot of the person who’s leasing the restaurant.”
The town took no action, but Ms. Dolby said she would work to make an adjustment to the outgoing RFP.
In other business Monday, selectmen heard from members of the Chappaquiddick Wireless Committee who are still struggling to get cell phone coverage on Chappy.
The committee has previously told selectmen that DAS (a distributed antenna system) would dramatically improve mobile phone coverage without a conventional tower on Chappaquiddick.
The town awarded a joint contract in June 2012 to Grain Communications and Broadband Service Group to build and manage the system, which relies on small antennas set on poles, but the developers have been unable to attract any mobile carriers to sign up.
Committee member Georgiana Greenough said she has sent out 30 RFPs to a variety of carriers over the course of several months, all to no avail.
“Our latest proposal, that we want to run by you today, is we’re going to take this list of 30 developers and contact either all of them or the ones that make the most sense,” Ms. Greenough said. “We want to try and get to someone with some power in the company to try and ask a list of questions, the first one being, ‘can you please tell us exactly why you do not want to do anything with Chappaquiddick.’”
Earlier proposals to use town-owned property for a conventional cell tower has met stiff resistance from Chappaquiddick residents.
“It appears what’s been tried is not working,” Selectman Margaret Serpa said. “We’ve written to the senators and representatives, and there’s been nothing.”
Last January, selectmen voted to write then Senator John Kerry and Senator Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Representative Bill Keating, State Senator Dan Wolf, and State Representative Tim Madden.
Echoing Ms. Serpa’s sentiments, Mr. Smadbeck said the DAS system didn’t appear to make financial sense. “It appears we’re not going to get anybody to build a DAS system apparently because it’s not economical,” he said.
Mr. Smadbeck suggested the committee expand the parameters of their RFPs to include cell towers. “I think we’ve given it the good old college try,” he said. “The point is, do you want to just give up because we’re not able to get a DAS system, or do you want to put an RFP out that includes a normal cell tower?”
Committee member Bob Clay said he doesn’t think there’s support for a cell tower on Chappaquiddick. “I’m not saying that there isn’t any support, but speaking for a majority of the committee on Chappy, I think there’s a real problem with where we’d locate it,” he said. “We’re concerned the town is going to get into a protracted battle, which is going to divide the community and divide Chappy from the town if the town is going to push this.”
Other committee members in attendance included Fran Clay, Claire Thatcher, Roger Becker, Margaret Knight, Peter Wells, and Will Geresy.
Mr. Geresy expressed his concerns with the lack of progress in getting better cell reception on Chappy as well as inner-committee collusion practices.
“We’re having meetings without giving proper notice and we’re having secret meetings about what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re excluding certain members from the committee from participating. We have a problem.”
Mr. Geresy said the need for improving cell reception is necessary both for personal as well as public safety reasons. “If we continue on the process of continuous iterations of looking at new technologies and hoping that new technology will come along, were just pushing this thing farther and farther out,” he said. “I think the best thing to do is put an RFP out, don’t restrict it to DAS, see what comes back in, and then we evaluate it.”
Mr. Donaroma suggested that the committee expand the terms of the RFP. “As a contractor myself, when you’re asked to do something that makes economically no sense, you just don’t answer if it’s just not going to work,” he said. “This is a business that gets its money from the useage. What we’re suggesting here is trying to open up the RFP so we can get more input, we’re getting nowhere fast.”