Oak Bluffs planning board plans new town hall outreach campaign

Board members approved a two-pronged effort to inform townspeople of potential options, and to gauge public opinion.

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Renderings from the proposed new Oak Bluffs town hall. — Illustration courtesy Town of Oak Bluffs

Updated Tuesday, January 19, 3:27 p.m.

Before a standing-room-only crowd last Thursday night, the Oak Bluffs Planning Board (OBPB) outlined an aggressive public campaign to survey and to inform town residents on the need for a new or renovated town hall.

The 75-minute discussion took place in a town hall meeting room with missing and stained ceiling tiles, wires dangling from above, a stained floor, a dozen desktop computer towers from the previous millennium collecting dust in a corner, and a hole in the wall that is only partially covered by a map of Cottage City.

Although opinions on a solution varied, no one who spoke disagreed about the need for a new building, or significant improvements to the existing town hall, the former Oak Bluffs School, built in 1926.

Disabled access lacking
Building inspector Mark Barbadoro, who is also the town’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator, told the board he was neutral about the need for a new building, but that the current building is “way out of ADA compliance,” and was cited as such almost 20 years ago. He provided a January 1997 letter addressed to former Oak Bluffs building inspector Richard Mavro from the Massachusetts Office on Disability, which specified numerous instances of noncompliance, including handicapped parking that was marked on the street but still had a curb, improper door knobs, and inaccessible bathrooms. Mr. Mavro responded that the violations would be fixed and an elevator would be installed.

Fast-forward 19 years — there is no elevator. Mr. Barbadoro said that the replaced door handles were of inferior quality, and the bathrooms are not only still out of compliance, but that a fetid smell is so ingrained in the 50-year-old tile grout that no amount of cleaning can remedy the offensive odor.

“This room we’re meeting in is also out of compliance,” Mr. Barbadoro said. “The doorway has a one-inch lip. Most of you probably haven’t noticed, but for a person in a wheelchair, it can be a problem.”

Mr. Barbadoro also said the lack of an elevator was one of many additional ADA violations. “If you had a tax collector in a wheelchair, there’s no way they could get from their office to downstairs where the records are kept,” he said.

Mr. Barbadoro estimated the cost of installing an elevator in town hall to be roughly $150,000.

“I don’t care if we build a new building or not, but we need to address accessibility,” Mr. Barbadoro said, and that irrespective of the town hall referendum, an ADA consultant should be brought to town hall as soon as possible.

In a conversation with The Times on Monday, Mr. Barbadoro said the town could possibly substitute a less expensive chair lift for an elevator, with a variance from the state Architectural Access Board (AAB). He estimated the total cost of making town hall ADA-compliant to be in the neighborhood of $300,000. “I’m determined to have the town hall ADA-compliant by the end of the year,” he said.

Information is key
At Thursday’s meeting, selectman Walter Vail urged the board to consider plans for a new town hall drawn up by by Falmouth-based Keenan + Kenny architects.

In 2013, Oak Bluffs town meeting voters approved a $239,000 expenditure for a study and design of a new town hall. In October 2013, principals John Keenan and Antonia Kenny presented selectmen with plans for a new 20,261-square-foot town hall, nearly double the size of the current town hall, with a price tag of $6,359,750.

At 2014 annual town meeting, voters overwhelmingly approved a new $8.3 million fire station and a new $6.4 million town hall. But at the ballot box a few weeks later, the new fire station passed by a scant six votes, and the new town hall was crushed.

Last month, the architects told selectmen the estimated the cost of the project has gone up roughly $200,000.

Of the $239,000 appropriated in 2013 for a study and plans, $171,000 has been spent to date, according to town accountant Arthur Gallagher.

Lack of outreach and lingering fiscal fears from the dark days of 2008 were repeated themes on Thursday night. “I think if the public is informed, they will see we need it,” Mr. Vail said, adding that a faulty heating system with potential carbon dioxide issues and an exposed electrical box near the main entrance were two dangerous liabilities. “The cost is only going to go up, and if we act now, we can borrow at very low interest rates, which the town can afford,” he said. “In the end, it’s a no-brainer.”

“Our town hall resembles an abandoned building,” Oak Bluffs resident Skip Finley said. “But I don’t think you’re going to get much from a survey unless the people are informed. It’s very important they know the history.”

Mr. Finley suggested the reason a new town hall was solidly defeated at the ballot box in 2014 was because voters were being asked to approve two major projects concurrently, and now that the new Fire/EMS station has come in on time and under budget, and the town’s fiscal health continues to improve, voters will have more confidence. “When I hear this conversation, I always hear people say we shouldn’t spend that kind of money,” he said.

Selectman Greg Coogan said the town already spent money on experts who concluded that it was much more cost-efficient to tear down the current town hall and build a new one on the same location.
“It’s long overdue, and it’s time to get rid of it,” he said. “I don’t deny the value of a survey, but I think it needs to happen fairly quickly,” Mr. Coogan said the Feb. 19 deadline to submit warrant articles for annual town meeting in April is fast approaching.

“I have no desire to drag this out,” planning board chairman Brian Packish said. “This is the first meeting, and we’ve done a lot of work and a lot of outreach already, but we need to do more. Outreach can’t hurt us unless we don’t do it.”

Mr. Finley said that a another cause of the town meeting/town election vote discrepancy was that the majority of voters did not attend town meeting and missed a compelling PowerPoint presentation by capital improvement committee chairman Bill McGrath.  “A lot of the people at the ballot box weren’t at town meeting to see Bill’s presentation,” Mr. Finley said. “There was an information gap.”

Mr. Packish acknowledged that after Mr. McGrath’s PowerPoint presentation, he was inclined to vote for a new town hall.

Mr. McGrath said he would post his presentation on YouTube, which he did immediately after the meeting.
Planning board member Ewell Hopkins advocated the board act quickly and decisively to get the word out, and to hear what voters have to say. He also advocated putting a new town hall on the 2016 town meeting warrant.  “There’s a tremendous amount of work that’s already been done, and a lot of people don’t know about it,” he said. “Education before taking a survey strikes a chord.” Mr. Hopkins urged the board to develop a survey and educational package in one week, and begin outreach immediately thereafter.

Mr. Packish said that outreach should take precedence over town meeting warrant deadlines. “I’m saying let’s step back and have the discussion in an open and honest way,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot more effective and probably just as quick as ramming it down people’s throats.”

“I don’t think selling this is a good idea,” planning board member Bo Fehl said. “Nobody is fighting that we need a new town hall. I like the bubble-up process,” he said.

In a 4-1 vote, with Mr. Packish dissenting, the board voted to have Mr. McGrath work with board member Erik Albert to create an online survey and education package, to be prepared in a week, and to be available to the public in 30 days. Once the information is analyzed, the board could make a decision on the warrant article at the Feb. 25 planning board meeting.

Although that meeting is six days past warrant submission deadline, town administrator Robert Whritenour said that a “placeholder” article could be inserted to allow the board the extra time.

“We’ve got a week, we got a plan,” Mr. Hopkins said.

“I think it’s rushed and the timeline is beyond ambitious,” Mr. Packish said.

The planning board will hold an open meeting to finalize the public opinion survey on Thursday, January 21, at 5 p.m. in the upstairs meeting room at the Oak Bluffs Public Library. The board will also take public comment at its next meeting on January 28, in the town hall meeting room. Public information sessions will also be held in the coming weeks.