Chilmark nixes $3.9 million Home Port buy
Chilmark voters rejected decisively a proposal that the town buy for $3.9 million the Home Port restaurant property. Two hundred nineteen voters required nearly two and a half hours of debate over the special town meeting's one-article warrant Monday evening before spurning the Home Port offer 90-119. Approval of the purchase required a two-thirds majority, so 146 yes votes were needed to carry the question.
Voters said no despite an alluring pair of sweeteners made before debate on the purchase began. Town moderator Everett Poole read a Nov. 17 letter from John Keene, in which he offered that if the town bought the Home Port property - which includes several parcels, some bordering on Menemsha Creek - his Keene Construction company would remove the restaurant building and clear and grade the land at no cost to the town. No estimate was made of the cost of modifying the site by the town study committee charged with investigating the proposal, but considerable expense was generally considered inevitable.
And, J. B. Riggs Parker, the selectman who officially favored the purchase, announced that several Chilmarkers had pledged a total $250,000, "with no strings attached," toward the purchase and that, in addition, he thought "others may offer substantial sums."
Asked by Sam Feldman later in the meeting, before the final vote was cast, if he "had anything else up his sleeve," Mr. Parker said icily that he did not.
Selectman Warren Doty opposed the purchase, saying it "doesn't fit the town's needs" and arguing that it was overpriced by between $500,000 and $1.5 million. Frank Fenner, the third selectman and an owner of the Galley restaurant across the road from the Home Port, has carefully avoided participating in the selectmen's deliberations over the Home Port deal, but he told the meeting that in his non-official capacity, he thought the property was a good buy, indeed an "opportunity of a lifetime."
Opposition generally fell into three categories. There were several voters, many of them younger, who said affordable housing was more important to the town as a whole than an expensive Menemsha property, for which the town had no plan of use. A fire station or emergency services building, plus the town's affordable housing project, now moving toward the financing and construction phase, had greater claims on the public treasury, these critics said. Clarissa Allen said the purchase would "not be a good allocation of resources."
Several voters urged the meeting to consider the impact of such a purchase on the tax rate, which although low nevertheless results in big tax bills for property owners whose Chilmark holdings have rocketed up in value. In the past few years, the town has assumed significant debt for the new school, the dump cap, the reconstruction of town hall, and has committed itself to projects which will require significant taxpayer support, for instance a new fire barn and the Middle Line housing plan. The town has a reputation for frugality, one voter said, and ought to keep it.
The third group of opponents were skeptical because of the lack of a plan for the use of the property. The Home Port study committee, established by the selectmen in September to consider the purchase offer made by the restaurant's owners, catalogued a wide variety of possible uses, suggested by townspeople, but made no recommendations as to which might be preferred or what each might cost. Mary Breslauer argued that the lack of a plan and a timetable was a grave deficiency, and she urged an amendment that would require prompt development of a plan to be approved by voters, if the purchase were agreed to.
Following Ms. Breslauer's lead, Frank Yeomans proposed an amendment to the purchase article that would require that if the town bought the land, no commercial activity would be allowed and the selectmen would have to come back to voters in six months with a plan for its use, which voters must approve. The amendment was agreed to with the added twist, suggested by Ms. Breslauer, that not only a use plan but a financing plan must be brought before voters. A further amendment, proposed by Nan Doty, wife of the selectman, added that the voters' approval of the selectmen's financing and use plans six months hence must be by two-thirds majority. Town counsel Ron Rappaport later told the meeting that that evening's meeting could not bind the voters in some future meeting, but that because the amendments to the purchase question merely expressed the intention of the current meeting, they were all right.
Trina Kingsbury led off the evening's debate. Ms Kingsbury supported the purchase, arguing that the Home Port property would make a dandy place for a boat ramp and parking for evening ice cream excursions. The building, she said, could be used for children's projects, and she reminded voters that, as Hilary Rodham Clinton has said, "It takes a village to raise a child" and, as Ms. Kingsbury embroidered the New York Senator's aphorism, "it would take an idiot" not to accept the Home Port offer.
Mr. Doty countered, "I'll be the idiot." He said buying the Home Port was not part of the town's plans, but that other important capital expenses were, including the fire barn and the Middle Line project. He said the selectmen and finance committee had worked diligently to manage expenses so that the town enjoyed an exceptionally low tax rate. He said the Home Port purchase was not consistent with that careful financial management. He added that despite the rule of thumb suggestion that a typical taxpayer would $110 a year to finance the Home Port purchase, he and his wife, owners of two properties more valuable than the rule of thumb model would pay more like $4,500 over the same 20-year life of the loan.
Mr. Parker looked at prudent financial management differently. He said "opportunities do not honor schedules," but he said he believed it is "fiscally responsible to make a wise purchase when a wise purchase is available."
Deb Hancock, a Chilmarker through and through whose late father was a Chilmark selectman for decades, also supported the purchase, although she said she was "talking herself out of huge commission." She is a real estate broker. She said she has spoken with buyers who, she says, appear ready to buy the property if the town does not. She said it would likely go to someone who planned a house, not a business, and that residential use was the "highest and best value." She reviewed several recent sales in Menemsha and at nearby Quitsa, deals which were signed within a few days of the property being offered. She said she thought the $3.9 million price tag was a great value.
If the town rejects the Home Port deal, it will be in the position so many Islanders have found themselves in over the years, saying, "We could have, we should have, but we didn't."
Chilmark doesn't lack for voters with significant financial skills, and Edward Miller, a retired financier and a member of the Martha's Vineyard Hospital board, suggested that Ms. Hancock negotiate a "put" with one of her potential buyers at an attractive price but one perhaps greater than the town was offered, so that if the town bought the land, then couldn't settle on what to do with it, the deal would be "put to" the backstop buyer. The meeting, hours deep into amendments and amendments to amendments, did not take up Mr. Miller's suggestion.
Jonathan Mayhew, a former selectman, announced that he too fell into the "idiot group." Mr. Mayhew descends from an ancient Island family and some of its real estate holding have descended upon him, along with their current extravagant real estate values and consequent big tax bills. But Mr. Mayhew is a commercial fisherman, and restraining the growth of taxes was a key part of his opposition. He added that those who thought buying the Home Port might lead to its use in some way to revive commercial shellfish and finfish industries in Menemsha were mistaken.
Mr. Mayhew's brother Gregory, a fisherman too, and a former state representative from the Vineyard, also argued against the purchase. He said he'd inherited land worth perhaps $50,000, but that as values had inflated he'd become "a multi-millionaire on paper, with the emphasis on on-paper." As the value has increased, so have the taxes, and paying them on the proceeds of a commercial fishing business has become difficult. He said he thought it would be desirable if his children could get Chilmark youth lots.
Lenny Jason, the county commissioner and Chilmark building and zoning inspector, supported the purchase. He called Menemsha "the very essence of our community" and said it deserved protection or it would decline into a mere destination for the "jet set", whom he described as "wine-drinking, cheese-eating people" who came just to watch the sunset.
Tuesday, as the meeting postmortems were conducted, efforts to have the town acquire the property, perhaps with a larger and defined private donation component continued. One source, unwilling to be named because the future direction of the purchase effort is unclear, said he thought it likely that the question will come before voters again.