Oak Bluffs to break ground for fire/EMS station Monday

Michael Cummo

Updated 11:20 a.m., 11/21/2014

Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour brought good news to the selectmen at their regular meeting on Tuesday evening. “I’m pleased to announce that all approvals and permits are in place for the new fire/EMS station,” he said. “There will be a public groundbreaking ceremony on Monday, November 24, at 2 pm. I encourage anyone who can make it to attend. We don’t do a lot of groundbreakings around here.”

Mr. Whritenour’s announcement followed several weeks of scrambling by public officials. That came to a head at last Thursday’s planning board meeting, where a standing room only crowd gathered to see if the 17 months of planning and permitting and the years of lobbying for the $8.3 million fire/EMS station would finally come to fruition. Two weeks prior, the project had been cast in uncertainty when town building inspector Mark Barbadoro discovered that the project lacked the necessary site plan review and was in non-compliance with town zoning bylaws.

Alarming oversight

The situation came to light on the morning of October 31, when Mr. Barbadoro asked planning board chairman Brian Packish for the board’s site plan review, in order to process the construction permits.

“I told him ‘It’s funny you should ask because we don’t have one,’” Mr. Packish told The Times in a phone call. “I’d been asking for a site plan review since early spring and the town administrator and the building inspector told me it didn’t need one. I met with project manager Joe Sullivan and he told me he’d been asking about the site plan review since January. How can you possibly read section 10.4 in the zoning bylaws and say a new fire station doesn’t need a site plan review?”

Mr. Barbadoro contacted town counsel Michael Goldsmith immediately after his conversation with Mr. Packish. In an email exchange obtained by The Times, he wrote, “Section 10.4.1 item 1 of the Zoning Bylaw requires that ‘construction… over 500 square feet requires Site Plan Review by the Planning Board.’ It has come to my attention that the fire station has not been reviewed by the planning board…My concern is that if we do not obtain a valid site plan decision then I will have no legal document to enforce and if something goes wrong the town would have difficulty in court as a result. I do not want to stand in the way of progress but I want to make sure that the town is protected. Please let me know if you are aware of any exception.”

Mr. Goldsmith replied in an email that he knew of no exceptions to the bylaw and wrote that  town administrator Robert Whritenour should be apprised of the situation, “ASAP.”

“As you know Jim Dunn provided us with his opinion that site plan review was not required for this project,” Mr. Whritenour stated in an email to Mr. Packish, later that morning. “Otherwise we would have been in front of your Board last spring. If Jim was wrong that’s fine, but obviously that creates a problem now as the project has already been bid. I would certainly appreciate some time on your agenda for a review of the plan on November 13.”

In a comment emailed to The Times following publication of this story, former building inspector Jim Dunn said a plan review would have taken place after final plans and permit application had been received by the building department. “The final package for the fire station was submitted to the building department in August, about a week before my last day on August 12,” Mr. Dunn said in an email to The Times Friday.  “The package was never opened or reviewed. No decisions, recommendations or opinions were ever made by me.”

Pulled out of the fire

Mr. Packish accommodated Mr. Whritenour’s request and put the site plan review at the top of last Thursday night’s agenda. Mr. Whritenour was the first to speak. “We apologize to the planning board,” he said. “We’ve been working on these plans for over a year now and we should have been in front of you guys six months ago, but we really were unaware. I think we’ve been struggling a lot with the whole site plan and review process. Thankfully, after working with Mark Barbadoro and Brian [Packish], I think we have a good handle on everything now.”

Mr. Whritenour turned the presentation over to John Keenan and Antonia Kenny, principals in the Falmouth architectural firm Keenan and Kenny Ltd. After an hour of questions and discussion, the board approved the fire/EMS station with four conditions, two of them — a reconfigured wall around the generator and eight additional white pines on the north border — addressed sound mitigation for abutters. A bicycle rack requested by board member Erik Albert was also accommodated. The board also requested that the exhaust fan in the vehicle bay be pointed skyward, instead of horizontally at the abutting properties. Ms. Kenny said engineers had advised against it, but she agreed to re-investigate.

The board’s unanimous, somewhat tempered, approval gave the final go-ahead for construction of the long-awaited 20,250-square-foot fire/EMS station.

Emerging energy
In a later conversation with The Times, Mr. Packish said the outcome of the site plan review was never really in doubt. “Our hands were pretty well tied,” he said. “Legally, the planning board has 60 days to vet a project. We had seven days. But the last thing you want to do is show the process being ineffective at this final hour.”

Mr. Packish said concerns remain about compromises made in the name of expedience, particularly with parking. “When you think about a Sunday radio check or a pancake breakfast, or an EMT class, 15 spaces isn’t going to do it. When there’s a fire, it’s pretty safe to say that with 12 bays for emergency vehicles, 15 parking spaces isn’t enough. I’ve never seen people carpool when they respond to an alarm and I haven’t seen many come skidding in on their bicycle either.”

Aside from the site plan snafu, the quick, coordinated response of town officials underscored what some officials describe as emerging level of competence and cooperation in town government. “The town is making tremendous strides getting the right people in the right jobs,” capital programs committee chairman Bill McGrath told The Times.The process works. The planning board was fabulous. I know they spent a good week talking to people on the building committee. I can tell you the next time we build another building in town we’ll be going before the planning board early in the process.”

“Everyone was, to a person, very pleased with the way the planning board accommodated and how well Brian ran things,” building committee member and selectman Walter Vail told The Times in a phone call on Tuesday. “We’ll have a better town with the planning board taking a more active role. No doubt we should have acted on this sooner. We’ve all learned something through this.”

Although Mr. Packish was skeptical that experienced town officials were unaware of the planning board’s intended role in the process, he said the turmoil of the past few weeks was ultimately productive for the town  “As a result of this, we have better cooperation between the planning board, the new building inspector, the ZBA and some of the other departments,” he said. “As this dialogue continues, the hope is we’re going to create a better process and do some things differently in Oak Bluffs.”

Mr. Packish said that moving forward, the planning board will place a high priority on outreach, with increased social media presence and boots-on-the-ground consensus building. “On the local level, the state level, and the national level, outreach is the key to getting things done and to creating change.

The most dangerous words in the English language are ‘we’ve always done it that way.’ We’ve heard that way too much in Oak Bluffs.”

Update: This story was updated to reflect comments by former building inspector Jim Dunn who said in an email to The Times Friday that “No decisions, recommendations or opinions were ever made by me.”