Oak Bluffs rejects land swaps
Lengthy debates over land swap articles at the Oak Bluffs special town meeting Tuesday night forced the postponement of the annual town meeting that was to follow until Wednesday night.
The town's ambitious plans to wrap up the water district annual meeting, special town meeting, and annual town meeting in one marathon session were derailed by the three-hour special town meeting, held in the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center.
Given Tuesday night's low turnout of 229 voters, about 7 percent of the town's 3,117 registered voters, voter registrars were concerned that many might not return for the postponed annual town meeting.
Voters approved all four articles on the warrant at the Oak Bluffs Water District annual meeting in 35 minutes before turning to the 12-article warrant for the special town meeting. Voters approved 10 of the articles but rejected two that would have authorized the Oak Bluffs selectmen to exchange property owned by the town for properties on School Street and Pennacook Avenue.
The evening began with the Oak Bluffs Water District's annual meeting, moderated by Oak Bluffs Selectman Duncan Ross. The first of four articles on the warrant asked voters to approve salaries and wages. Although the subject generated heated debate at Tisbury's annual town meeting last week, the only question asked by an Oak Bluffs voter concerned cost of living increases.
Voters approved the salaries for the superintendent and administrator, who are co-administrators for both Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, without a trickle of dissent, granting them each $52,000 for fiscal year 2007. The water district's fiscal year 2007 $1.5 million budget was approved as well.
An article seeking voters' approval to borrow up to $2.3 million to replace water mains in the Campground brought forth a torrent of questions, however, from residents who wanted to know why they have to foot the bill for a project on private property.
Water commissioner Kevin Johnson and Water Superintendent Deacon Perrotta took turns explaining. Although the Campground is private property, they said, the water district owns and maintains the century-old water mains and is responsible for keeping the infrastructure of the whole district sound.
The motion passed, as did another article asking voters' approval to borrow up to $1.5 million for repairing and replacing water mains on Lake Avenue and Circuit Avenue. Approving the articles will result in a rate increase of 8 percent or an additional $25 on an annual water bill for 20 years.
A few minutes after the water district meeting ended, Moderator David Richardson launched into the special town meeting at 7:10 pm. Among the issues, sewage and land swaps occupied much of the night's discussions, which were delayed by sound system problems that forced speakers to switch back and forth between microphones.
Articles concerning wastewater system improvements and a new sewer assessment bylaw raised several questions from confused voters.
The wastewater commission asked voters to appropriate $3.2 million to pay costs for the planning, engineering and construction of improvements to the town's wastewater treatment facility. Joseph Alosso, chief operator of the Wastewater Department, and Robert Iadiciccio, wastewater commissioner, took turns explaining the need to add a septage component to the wastewater plant's capabilities, which would ultimately save the town money. Voters also will need to approve a corresponding Proposition 2.5 override to pay for it.
A second article proposed a bylaw for setting rates for homeowners and businesses that are tied into the plant. Both articles passed.
After passing several more articles, the meeting's momentum stalled with the first of two proposed land swaps. Article 10 asked voters to swap approximately 7 acres off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road for the Catholic Church property across the street from the town hall on School Street.
Selectman Michael Dutton told voters the swap would present the opportunity to use the School Street property for a new town hall, senior center, affordable housing or other municipal use, at no expense for land to taxpayers. However, selectman Kerry Scott spoke against swapping what is a resident homesite parcel.
"Using the resident homesite land for currency, 7.2 acres that could house up to 21 young families, is too high a price to pay," Ms. Scott said.
A line of voters formed at the microphones to voice their views, the majority of them unfavorable. Attempting to deflect the negative atmosphere, Gregory Coogan, selectman chairman, joked, "Sometimes I think we're portrayed as the 'Evil Empire' up here." He assured voters, "There are a lot of details still to be worked out."
Selectman Roger Wey said he changed his mind after listening to the public comments. "I was in favor of this article before, but not now. We've got to find housing for the future of this town."
After an hour's discussion, selectman Duncan Ross proposed an amendment to the article that would require the selectmen to get final approval from voters at annual town meeting for any negotiations regarding the land exchange. Although voters approved the amendment, the article itself was defeated, failing to achieve a two-thirds majority with a vote of 120 to 81.
A question was raised whether the amendment changed the need for a two-thirds majority to a majority vote, since the amendment to the article took away the selectmen's powers to authorize the land exchange on their own. Town counsel Michael Goldsmith of Reynolds, Rappaport, and Kaplan said he would research the legalities and announce his findings at town meeting.
The other land swap proposal involved the old Oak Bluffs Library building on Pennacook Avenue, plus a one-bedroom deed-restricted building lot in exchange for the former BFI transfer station on Pacific Avenue. Frank Fenner, a Chilmark selectman, owns the property.
Ms. Scott said she opposed this article as well, because there had been no public input on it. She also called into question the reliability of results from a consultant's study regarding possible contamination on the site.
Despite approving an amendment to the article requiring approval at town meeting, the article failed to achieve a two-thirds majority with a vote of 98 to 70.
Voters agreed to reconvene the next night while making their mass exodus at the meeting's end.