Tour bus operations run by the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Co. were under fire at the June 13 meeting of Oak Bluffs selectmen for tour hawking, monopolizing parking spaces, and fielding lobster-costumed drivers.
Town administrator Robert Whritenour informed selectmen Tuesday that his office had received repeated complaints about the behavior of vehicular tour operators on Circuit Avenue Extension and other areas downtown. Police Chief Erik Blake told selectmen that he’s had to eject Land and Wharf hawkers in sandwich boards from public parking spaces and send them onto the deck of the Dockside Inn, an affiliated business. Land and Wharf tour vehicles crowd available spaces near incoming ferries, and cause other tour drivers to park in places like crosswalks out of desperation, he said.
“I watched people stand there and hold the space for the next van. And the next van that pulled up had a driver wearing a full lobster suit,” selectman Brian Packish said. He added that he saw one van sit for a full hour in a 15-minute space.
“I don’t know if we can change the conditions on the license, but you know, I would entertain the possibility that we consider it, only because I voted on something that is not happening,” selectman Gail Barmakian said.
Ms. Barmakian said Land and Wharf owners John Tiernan and Caleb Caldwell previously told the selectmen they needed to implement a transportation model that allowed for providing tours to the guests of their hotels, and that in doing so, they would not use town parking spaces.
“I was misled,” she said. “It was a very sincere argument, and I’m insulted.”
No representatives of the company were there. Reached by telephone Wednesday, Mr. Tiernan said he was not invited to the meeting. He would not comment on whether his drivers wear lobster costumes, but he said the accusation that they park for too long in town spaces is misleading.
Other business owners use the spots for more than 15 minutes, Mr. Tiernan said. He claimed that his drivers have never been issued a citation, and that the complaints raised against his tour company amount to a sour-grapes campaign by his rivals. Mr. Tiernan claimed that his competitors all use aged vehicles — old school buses in one case — while he has invested in four 2016 high-top transit vans. He also claimed he is pushing market innovation by being the first Island tour company to have a business agreement with the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, an agreement that he said grants admission to the museum and its lighthouses.
On Wednesday, Mr. Whritenour said he suggested to Mr. Tiernan that he need not attend the meeting because it was actually a department report and not an item on the agenda. He said Mr. Tiernan was scheduled for the next selectmen’s meeting.
“What they have done is they were asking and having you vote on something which they call a municipal street license, but what they were selling you was completely different,” Scott Dario said in reference to the Jan. 10 meeting when the selectmen approved Land and Wharf’s license. Mr. Dario is the owner of Island Transportation, a tour-excursion rival of Land and Wharf. He went on to say that the real motive of Land and Wharf was to leverage an Oak Bluffs license to get a state license that would allow them to collect people for tours from public streets. He argued that any concern Mr. Tiernan showed to the selectmen for congestion in town was a smokescreen.
“For the past three weeks he’s done nothing but park his van there hours on top of hours — being cute, having people stand there while the next van comes in when that van leaves,” he said; “he’s parking at other public areas in which I pay contractually through the Town of Oak Bluffs to have designated parking — which are commercial vehicles — in the same exact trade. It’s kind of an unfair advantage. And I feel like you’ve been duped.”
Chris D’Acunto, owner of multiple Island taxi companies, said livery in general needs a cap in Oak Bluffs.
“You go to any boat, five to 10 spaces are taken up with vans waiting for people to come off, and now you have Uber there too waiting,” he said.
“They’re actually taking a lot of business away from us by planting themselves strategically in front of where two major ferries are coming in,” Sue Bennett of MV Excursions said. “I’ve watched them take a tremendous amount of potential work from both … a very unruly man. He really needs to stop. This has been going on for quite awhile, and I’ve about had it. We need to get in there and park and pick up our people.”
“I mean the lobster suit, it’s ridiculous. I think it cheapens the image of Oak Bluffs,” Mr. Dario said.
“Let’s just bring ’em in,” Ms. Barmakian said.
“Bring ’em in,” selectmen chair Kathy Burton echoed.
In other business, the selectmen unanimously approved a request by the Hall family to paint and patch the Island Theater on June 15 and 16. The owners are under court order to make the building safe.
The selectmen also unanimously approved an Island Grown Initiative–backed farmers market in the library parking lot, and agreed to send a letter to the Massachusetts agricultural commissioner regarding reservations over Eversource herbicide use.
The board had a lengthy discussion about the use of buildings on the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School grounds for a temporary town hall. No decisions were made, though Mr. Packish continued to express concerns with locating there.