The arrogance that sometimes accompanies elected power and the unspoken municipal principle that town employees ought never to be held accountable were on full display during a discussion of the Santander Bank roof replacement project at a typically meandering meeting of the Tisbury selectmen last week.
Selectmen Tristan Israel and Larry Gomez were in high dudgeon because they had learned that day that roofers from Pennsylvania were that week replacing the distinctive red clay curved tiles over the bank building’s badly leaking roof with red flat asphalt tiles and they, the selectmen, had known nothing about it until alerted by local residents upset over the change in Main Street aesthetics.
Town building inspector Ken Barwick said the bank had complied with all its permitting requirements, but the two selectmen huffed and puffed — in truth, Mr. Israel did most of the huffing and puffing, and Mr. Gomez mostly nodded — because they said Santander had ignored the historic nature of the building and its roof tiles.
“That’s a complete disregard for the town, they just don’t care,” Mr. Gomez said.
“Too bad Santander bank doesn’t have more sensitivity about the community,” Mr. Israel said.
Santander has 650 branches in the Northeast, and is part of the multinational Santander Group, based in Spain. As we report this week, Santander received a building permit in August signed by Mr. Barwick. It is unlikely that in whatever office the decision was made — Boston or Madrid — the bank intended to slight the people of Martha’s Vineyard. We may assume they just wanted to stop the leaks, and were uninformed about Tisbury sensibilities or the exact composition of the roof tile.
Of course, that would have been up to Mr. Barwick, who seemed surprised by the reaction of the selectmen. He said he would contact bank officials and express the displeasure of town leaders, and ask the bank to think about replacing the original tiles.
Melinda Loberg, chairman of the board of selectmen — seemingly in name only, because Mr. Israel spoke when the spirit moved him, which was often — endorsed that reasonable suggestion.
However, uninformed by the facts, and unwilling to hold the town’s building inspector to account, Mr. Israel and Mr. Gomez used their authority to beat Santander Bank about the head with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC). The cudgel was a 2-0 vote to refer the project for review as a development of regional impact (DRI).
Ms. Loberg did herself no credit by abstaining, rather than voting no to a clear threat made with the insinuation that if the bank kowtowed to their wishes, the referral would disappear.
In doing so, the selectmen made clear that lip service to the contrary, for those intimately familiar with the workings of the regional permitting body, the decision to refer a project for DRI review is the Island form of bureaucratic purgatory, where sinners are sent to repent for their temerity.
The selectmen were correct to express concern about the change in appearance of the bank building, which dates to 1905 and is the most distinctive and pleasing structure in downtown Vineyard Haven, and unarguably merits special attention.
But they were wrong to castigate Santander, which did nothing wrong, and turn to the MVC, not as a planning tool, but as a weapon.
In a Tisbury version of the classic Abbott and Costello sketch “Who’s on first,” (available for viewing on mvtv.org, beginning at minute 1:49 of the 2:24 hour Oct. 4 meeting) the selectmen and Mr. Barwick went around in circles about whether a vote to send the bank to the MVC would result in a stop-work order, even as Hurricane Matthew looked as if it would head north, which could imperil the half-finished roof and the bank interior.
“The point is the bank has put us in this position, number one, in my opinion,” Mr. Israel said. Town administrator Jay Grande, clearly uncomfortable with the discussion, pointed out that the building permit was filed in July.
Mr. Israel said the selectmen don’t know “things like that.”
“I don’t either,” Mr. Grande said, by way of escaping any responsibility.
In an oblique understatement, Ms. Loberg said that just because the selectmen didn’t know about it, “there were people that knew about it.”
Repeatedly, Mr. Israel said it was late in the game, but a referral was the only tool available to the selectmen. The assembled town officials had been taken by surprise.
As we report this week, the building permit application, dated August 4, 2016, only notes: “Remove and replace existing roof with asphalt shingle roof.” Well, here’s the kicker. The MVC DRI checklist (8.2) calls for a referral when there is any demolition or exterior alteration of historic structures, which under the definition includes a building more than a hundred years old. The town ought to have referred the project when it first appeared, but that fact was overlooked.
As he contemplated the town’s option, Mr. Israel acknowledged that “legally they [Santander] did nothing wrong,” but he added, “there’s legally and there’s the character of the town.” Quite true.
It seems to us that it’s Mr. Barwick and the selectmen who need to examine their own checklists when it comes to “disregard for the town” and “sensitivity about the community.”