Chilmark selectmen boost fire chief’s pay

Board learns of possible easement and archeological delays to Squibnocket Beach project.

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Island surveyor Reid Silva (left foreground) and Squibnocket Road resident Jack Taylor (left background) review an amended plan for the new Squibnocket Beach parking lot with selectman chairman Bill Rossi (right background) and selectman Warren Doty (right foreground). — Rich Saltzberg

Updated Feb. 23 at 5:00 pm

Chilmark Fire Chief David Norton got a 75-percent pay increase Tuesday night at the Chilmark selectmen’s meeting. Selectmen Bill Rossi and Warren Doty voted 2-0 to upgrade Norton’s $37,000 dollar stipend into a $65,000 salary. Selectman Jim Malkin was out of state for the meeting but in a memo stated Norton’s health benefits should continue unabated.

Chief Norton has attended public meetings of the finance committee and the board of selectmen in recent weeks to lobby for better pay, stating that his job has grown busier and more complex than town officials realize, and that his current compensation doesn’t cover the high cost of living on Martha’s Vineyard. Turbulent exchanges punctuated the meetings, with Norton’s allies accusing the selectmen of a lack of respect for the longtime chief.  But on Tuesday evening, the caustic atmosphere of those meetings was absent, as was the usual cadre of Norton supporters.

According to Rossi, the vote on Norton’s compensation wasn’t included in the official agenda, but was added after the 48 hour notice window had closed.

According to the state Attorney General’s website, topics that “may be of particular interest to the public” should be postponed if they aren’t posted 48 hours in advance.

Rossi later told The Times that the Presidents Day holiday undercut the notice period. But because the board was eager to address Norton’s pay, Rossi exercised his right as chairman to entertain topics not reasonably anticipated by the chair.   

In a memo Rossi read into the record, Malkin wrote that after numerous conversations with human resources board chairman Jane “Jennie” Greene, and after a review of the job updates Greene crafted with Norton’s input, he was confident that enough data had been compiled to make a proper pay determination. Malkin backed a salary option of $65,000, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018.

“Further,” he wrote, “to provide communication and coordination between the board of selectmen and the fire chief I believe we should establish a selectmen’s liason for the fire department.” Malkin recommended human resources board member Donald Leopold.

Doty vouched for Leopold, stating he was an active policymaker for the human resources board, but conceded he was unsure if anyone asked Leopold if he was interested in the job.

“I don’t think we’ve asked him,” Rossi said. “It’s a suggestion. We will approach him.”

The recommendation of a fire department intermediary comes at a time when relations between the town and its fire department have grown fraught, not only over Norton’s compensation, but amid revelations the dilapidated fire station may be contaminated with asbestos. The station has been long slated for replacement, but a fruitless 15-year search for a new location has been a significant impediment. A plan to situate a new station in the town hall parking lot appears to be gaining steam and has the department’s support.

Asbestos fears aside, fire department personnel say the building is cramped, stuffy, flood-prone, and graced with “horrible” bathrooms.

Graves and easements

In other business, a public hearing for changes in the configuration of Eversource power lines and utility poles along Squibnocket Road raised more possible delays for the beach project, including the prospect of an archeological survey.
Eversource right-of-way agent Jessica Elder told the board the utility is petitioning to move one pole back 50 feet, erect a new pole, and wire them accordingly. The project is at the request of and financed by homeowners of Squibnocket Farm.

Squibnocket Road residents Tony Orphanos and Jack and Lucy Taylor told the board that the Squibnocket Farm plan was sprung on them at the last minute and asked for consideration of an alternate plan — to use a pre-existing pole and to send the powerline directly underground from it.

“In the interest of kind of simplifying it, helping the viewshed, making it safer,” Orphanos said, and added the Taylors have given an easement for the line to go underground on their property.

“We find ourselves here today feeling a little sheepish because we certainly don’t want to hold up the town project,” Jack Taylor said.

He pitched the alternate plan as a “simple, elegant solution” not just for the personal benefits but for all Islanders, because wires won’t hamper their view when they visit the beach. He also said it would be better for Squibnocket Farm because the pole would be further from ocean and the subterranean aspect would hedge against wind damage.

Orphanos said the plan was still being drafted and Eversource was onboard and planning an alternative design. Both the design and the engineering should be complete in a week or less he said.

Rossi expressed concern over the possible delay the alternate plan might cause, and said John Keene is scheduled to bring equipment in on March 5 to begin excavating work.  

The Squibnocket Farm homeowners will back whatever plan the town selects as long as it doesn’t delay the town’s project,” Haley and Aldrich senior vice president Mark Haley said. Haley’s firm designed the much-litigated bridge to the Squibnocket Farm subdivision. As a warning against delay, he reminded the board, per Chilmark’s agreement with Squibnocket Farm, the revetment cannot be removed until power is reconnected to the subdivision.

Additionally complicating the issue, Linda Coutinho, an Eversource employee who has assisted with the Taylor/Orphanos alternate plan, said she believes the plan is in the clear easement-wise but that the directional drilling needed for burying the power lines would require an archeological survey. Rossi asked if Public Archaeological Laboratory (PAL), a Rhode Island company that has already worked on other aspects of the project, could come swifty.

Haley said he thought they could.

Jack Taylor pointed out the current plan has easement liabilities, namely on the Frescotti property, where a property line extends into the middle of Squibnocket Road. “So in addition to an easement to move the pole, you have to get an easement from him to drill under the road,” he said.

Taylor said in essence, Chilmark may not have clear title to move forward.

“Well, that could be a problem,” Rossi said.

Doty said the board is prepared to accept the original Eversource plan.

“Regardless of anybody’s concern of whether we have the legal right to do it or don’t have the legal right to do it,” he said. Doty later tempered his statement, and said if there was a better plan, the board would consider it.

The board voted unanimously to keep the hearing open until 9 am on Friday, Feb. 23.

Speaking to The Times on Wednesday, Haley said the alternate plan was now the go-to plan, and that PAL was expected to do a survey with two representatives from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gayhead (Aquinnah) in a day or two.

At the outset of the meeting, Rossi, a long-time realtor, announced he’d brokered the sale of a property on Squibnocket Road slated for a pole easement in the Eversource proposal — 16 Squibnocket Road — owned by Hasbro president John Frascotti and Sharon O’ Connor. Rossi said he’d filed a disclosure for the appearance of conflict with the town clerk and that a subsequent ethics committee review found no conflict. He said he also spoke with town counsel and Squibnocket Road residents.
In related business, Island surveyor Reid Silva and conservation committee administrator Chuck Hodgkinson said recent archaeological discoveries had tripped up the design plan for the new Squibnocket Beach parking lot.

“Thirty-three features” of significance, two of which were deemed burial in nature and unmovable, were discovered when topsoil was stripped off a berm along the road edge in preparation for the lot, Silva said.  

Silva and Hodgkinson rolled out an amended design on the table before the selectmen. The amended plan adjusted elevation and changed asphalt/gravel configuration of parking lot so as not to disturb the archaeological features.

The selectmen voted 2-0 to approve the amended plan.