Oak Bluffs building inspector declares Island Theatre unsafe

Building inspector James Dunn will seek a professional survey to assess the condition of the Circuit Avenue building.

The Island theater is in need of structural repairs. — File photo by Nelson Sigelman

In a move that took town officials and the building owner by surprise, this week outgoing Oak Bluffs building inspector James Dunn prepared to declare the Island theater building at the foot of Circuit Avenue unsafe, setting the stage for its possible demolition by the town, or a lawsuit over its fate.

Tuesday morning, Island Theatre co-owner Brian Hall walked into Mr. Dunn’s office to inquire about building permits needed for ongoing repairs to the roof. Mr. Dunn told Mr. Hall that he was preparing an order to demolish the building.

On Wednesday, in a conversation with the Times, Mr. Dunn indicated he was taking a slightly different tack. That afternoon, Mr. Dunn presented a “make safe or demolish and remove” notice to Brian and Benjamin Hall, co-owners of the theater.

“To be fair, we’re going to establish a board of survey to make this decision,” Mr. Dunn said in a memo to town officials dated June 18. “Although we have some reports and conversations regarding the building’s structural integrity or lack thereof, we are putting together a report following the standard procedures for a Board of Survey which requires individual reports from an engineer, wiring inspector, plumbing/gas inspector, the fire chief, a disinterested party and the building inspector. Once completed, this should not take more than a week, I will issue a report based on the conditions cited in the reports.”

In a later conversation with the Times, Mr. Dunn said the Board of Survey has successfully resolved similar situations in residential districts and he felt confident the survey could be done in a week.


Brian Hall said he was blindsided by Mr. Dunn’s action. “This is a complete 180 from what he told me before,” Mr. Hall said in a phone call with The Times on Tuesday. “I asked him if there was any way I could convince him not to send the letter, and he said, ‘No, I’ve made the decision.’ He said it was because repairs were taking too long and that he was going along with the first engineer’s [John Lolley] assessment of the building instead of the second assessment done by Reid Silva.”

Mr. Hall said the demolition order also surprised him because Mr. Dunn recently gave him assurances that he would get a 30-day extension on the summer outdoor construction moratorium for the B-1 district, which began June 1.

“I feel the building is unsafe,” Mr. Dunn said in a phone call with the Times on Tuesday. “I have talked to Brian many times about his building and the Thai restaurant. We make verbal agreements, I go back 30 days later and nothing is done.”

Differing assessments

The Island theater hasn’t shown a movie since August 2012. Winter storm damage that year to the roof and associated water issues created a long and growing list of needed repairs. The sight of the decaying building at the gateway to downtown Oak Bluffs has been a source of frustration for town officials and residents.

Last summer, John Lolley, a civil and structural engineering consultant with 41 years of experience, was engaged by the Halls to make recommendations on repairing a rotted truss. Upon closer inspection, he found critical structural flaws throughout the theater and recommended demolition. “They built the columns and infilled the walls, which means the walls and columns are not connected,” Mr. Lolley said in a June 4 interview with the Times. “I could see daylight coming through some of the cracks. In my opinion, that building was never sound to begin with.”

After Mr. Lolley’s departure, Mr. Hall hired Reid Silva of  Vineyard Land Surveying and Engineering. According to Mr. Hall, he provided the way forward.

“Reid Silva and I and Jim Dunn got together in March,” Mr. Hall said.  “Reid said he disagreed with John Lolley’s comments that this building is dangerous. This building’s not going to come down. He didn’t put his stamp to it, but he said if you tie into these concrete columns and cement in some steel ties that it’s good.”

In a previous interview with the Times, Mr. Silva said he was engaged to make recommendations on fortifying the truss and that he made no official recommendations regarding wall reinforcement.

“That’s not true,” Mr. Hall said on Tuesday. “I paid him extra money to write a letter recommending his solution.” Mr. Hall provided a copy of the letter to The Times. Although Mr. Silva does make recommendations on repairing the walls, he makes no judgement as to the safety of the building.

Mr. Hall challenged the legitimacy of Mr. Lolley’s assessment.

“He [Mr. Lolley] only had verbal communication with Jim Dunn,” he said.

Mr. Hall also questioned if Mr. Dunn has inspected the building since their March meeting with Mr. Silva at that location.

Mr. Dunn said that the building’s condition in March was cause enough for concern. “Water was running down the walls. It was a foot deep in the [orchestra pit] and frozen solid. Generally, overall condition of the structure is very poor. We don’t know where the mortar or the concrete blocks were made. It could have been done with beach sand the same as the crumbling pilings at town hall. Do I think it will fall over tomorrow? Probably not, but I say that very guardedly.”

“This is not a vendetta against the Hall family,” Mr. Dunn said. “Personally, I like Brian, but the building in my view is dangerous.”

Safety at issue

Mr. Dunn’s “make safe or demolish” order puts the town and the Halls on a collision course. The Halls can appeal the order to Superior Court.

Mr. Dunn, who is set to retire at the end of this month, took action without consulting town officials.

Greg Coogan, chairman of the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen, said on Tuesday that he was unaware of the building inspector’s plans.

“The law states that in an issue of public safety, Jim Dunn, not the selectmen, has the final say,” town administrator Robert Whritenour said. “It’s unfortunate that it has come to this, but the town has to take some kind of action, especially if the building is considered dangerous.”
“The order says that the building has deteriorated to the point where it is unsafe and must be demolished or made safe immediately. We choose option two,” Brian Hall said. “But if we choose that option, it takes time to get an engineer who can make it safe. To procure the contractor and the materials will take a while. If we had to knock down the building immediately, we’d have to cordon off a large part of Circuit Avenue. If people are really worried about walls falling on the street, a high fence would have to surround the theater, in some places 20 feet from the wall, the cab stand would be gone, half of New York Ave would be lost. It’s patently ridiculous.”

Mr. Hall questioned if safety is really the issue at hand.

“This is about cosmetics, it’s not about safety,” he said. “Just because something’s an eyesore, it’s not a reason to tear it down, especially when it’s based on verbal comments that another engineer disagreed with. That building is not falling over unless someone takes a wrecking ball to it.”

The wrecking ball would be just fine with selectman Walter Vail, who’s consistently been the board’s most outspoken critic of the Hall family’s property management.

“I was in favor of taking it down,” Mr. Vail said. “I still feel that way. This has gone on way too long. I’m not terribly sympathetic to Brian. I’m not about to go against what Jim Dunn says. There’s at least one engineer that thinks it’s unsafe. That’s enough for me.”