The Edgartown Community Preservation Committee scheduled a hearing for Thursday, December 4, to review proposals for projects funded by the Community Preservation Act, including a $2.1 million plan to gain control of Alfred and Marjory Hall Park, known by most as the mini-park, in the center of the Main Street business district. The hearing is scheduled for 4 pm at town hall.
The town has leased the vacant land from the Hall family or a trust controlled by the family since 1979. It is a tiny oasis for tired shoppers, a spot to sit with an ice cream cone or a brown bag lunch, and a base for local organizations holding charitable bake sales or raffles.
This is at least the fourth time in the past two decades that town officials have taken steps to purchase or take the land by eminent domain, according to town records.
The application for funds came from the town conservation commission and has the support of selectman Margaret Serpa, who is also chairman of the Community Preservation Committee (CPC). The CPC evaluates applications and chooses projects to present to voters at town meeting.
“I think it should belong to the town,” Ms. Serpa said. “Town meeting will decide.”
But the owners of the property say the valuable real estate is not for sale.
“It’s interesting that we have to read about it in the paper,” said Benjamin Hall Jr., an attorney
who represents the Hall family, in a phone interview with The Times. “If they plan on buying it, they should have a conversation with us.”
While Mr. Hall declined to put a value on the property, he said $2.1 million is not a sufficient amount. Several town officials who did not want to be quoted said they assume the only way the town can acquire the property is through eminent domain, a legal procedure that allows a town to take ownership of private property for a public use, after paying a fair price to the owner. Putting a value on property taken by eminent domain is tricky business, and it sometimes sparks costly litigation.
In 1990, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) approved the Hall family’s plan to build a new theater on the property. Though all local building and zoning permits were in place, the theater was never built. In recent years, the Hall family has discussed other uses, which would require a new round of permitting.
“Downtown Edgartown on Main Street is some of the most valuable property on the Island,” Mr. Hall said. He added that his family has discussed the possibility of creating new retail space in a two-story structure on the rear part of the lot, and has, “sketched out possible use of the upper stories for hotel rooms or suites. It’s just never appeared to be exactly the right time to step into that particular use,” he said. He said that when and if the project is built, the trust hopes to grant an easement to the town so that the front part of the lot remains in use as a park open to the public, in exchange for some form of tax break.
At Edgartown town hall, a two-inch-thick file of leases, proposals, billing records, and sharp correspondence traces the history of the mini-park.
The tiny lot, just .16 acres, 1,680 square feet, was once the site of the Playhouse Theater, a movie house also once known as the Elm Theater. The building burned down in 1961. The lot has been vacant since. It is currently assessed at $1,645,300.
According to town records, Edgartown first leased the land from Alfred Hall in 1979 for an amount equal to the real estate taxes owed.
In 1980, the town paid base rent of $1,000, and additional rent in the form of an amount equal to the real estate taxes owed. Over the next two decades, the base rent increased, until 2002, when the owners set the amount at $10,000. In 2002 and 2003, the town paid only $5,000 in base rent, but in 2004, paid $14,235 to cover back rent, and agreed to a new five-year lease.
The new lease, which began in 2005, began with a base rent of $11,301, and increased to $14,801 in 2009. In 2011, the town agreed to a lease covering the years 2010 to 2015, which began with a base rent of $15,751, increasing each year until it ends next year with a base rent of $22,491. Every year, the town paid additional rent equal to the amount of real estate taxes owed. The tax bill has ranged from $2,569 to $5,667, as property valuation rose and fell over the years.
The current lease is signed by Ms. Serpa, Art Smadbeck, and Michael Donaroma, all members of the current board of selectmen, who also held office when the lease was signed in 2011. The property is now owned by the Playhouse Theater Realty Trust, a trust controlled by members of the Hall family, according to Benjamin Hall Jr., who must all agree on actions taken by the trust. The lease is signed by Charlotte Hall, as a member of the trust.
Record of dissent
Under the most recent leases, the town is responsible for all maintenance of the park, outlined in nearly two pages of detail, including the height and circumference of nearly every tree and shrub on the property.
A 2001 letter to the town conservation commission, signed by Benjamin “Buzzy” Hall, sharply chastised the town for what he called the town’s “negligence and inaction,” in maintaining the park.
“The sums for rent have been and are so ridiculously low, that I cannot believe you would risk being asked not to use the park anymore,” Mr. Hall wrote. “I continue to be distressed at the failure of the town, through your board, to keep the premises maintained and safe as set forth under the agreement.”
Even the name of the park has been a point of contention. While it is known informally by most people as the mini-park, several clauses in the leases insist that the town refer to it only as the Alfred and Marjorie Hall Park, and not by any other name.
As early as 1982, according to town records, town officials considered taking the park by eminent domain.
The prospect of an eminent domain taking has surfaced several times over the years, most recently at the 2005 annual town meeting. A warrant article that year asked voters to appropriate a sum of money to purchase or take the property by eminent domain, to be held in the care of the conservation commission. The article authorized the town to accept gifts or donations to fund the transaction, and authorized the town to borrow money to pay for the mini-park.
But voters weren’t having it. After some discussion, they voted to send the article to a study committee, and the issue did not come up again at the 2006 annual town meeting.
“This comes up every few years,” Mr. Hall said. He said the funds would be better spent on other uses allowed by the Community Preservation Act (CPA). “That could really go a long way, $2.1 million could go a long way toward a lot of families, whether it’s rental subsidies, or affordable housing.”
While the question of whether the town would negotiate a purchase price or take the property by eminent domain has yet to be decided at this point, the CPA specifically allows CPA funds to be used for eminent domain takings, provided the sale meets all the other requirements of the act.
Katherine Roth, associate director of the statewide CPA Coalition, could recall only one other case, a CPA project in Newton, where it happened.
“It’s very rare,” she said. “It’s not often done under CPA.”