Tisbury takes fresh look at municipal planning
After 361 years, the town of Tisbury is experiencing the challenges of aging - and growing pains - at the same time. While trying to meet the changing needs and growth in municipal departments and emergency services, town leaders find themselves challenged by the limitations of aging buildings and a scarcity of suitable and available properties for expansion.
The issue of municipal planning came to the forefront during Tisbury's annual town meeting in April. Voters rejected an article put forth by the selectmen and the town's emergency services facility (ESF) committee to purchase 1.5 acres near Oak Grove Cemetery on State Road for $1.65 million for a new fire and ambulance services building. They also voted against spending money on repairing and painting the exterior of the police station.
In addition to voters who said they wanted to keep taxes down, several objected to the town buying property instead of using parcels it already owned. Others expressed reluctance at investing in aging facilities for town departments and emergency services that would likely be undergoing major changes.
Tisbury's town hall, an ancient building, needs frequent extensive maintenance. Photo by Ben Scott
Renewed planning efforts
No one had answers for several questions raised during town meeting discussions. How is the town going to pay for a new facility? If a new fire station is built, what will the town do with the old one? Why not sell the old fire station property first and use the money towards a new one?
Unable to provide a clear picture of where town planning efforts were going, Tisbury's selectmen and planning board agreed to move forward on a municipal needs study to take a fresh look at making the best use of the town's buildings and properties. The planning board recently started work on the study, with a goal to finish collecting data by fall.
"We want to consider not just the emergency services facility, but also take a broader look at all of the major public facilities we have and what we need to do about them, particularly town hall, the town annex, the fire and police stations," said planning board co-chairman Henry Stephenson. "We want to have recommendations - we said at town meeting we would do this before the next town meeting."
In addition to voters who want answers, so does the town's finance and advisory committee (FinCom).
"Individual solutions for individual space considerations don't make sense to the FinCom," said Muriel Mill, the committee's chairman. "Are we piecemealing little things together or are we going to sit down and make a plan?"
The FinCom recently drafted a letter to the selectmen calling for them to formulate a comprehensive town plan with input from town departments, the planning board and FinCom, Ms. Mill said.
A new home for town hall?
About 12 full-time employees work in town hall, including the town administrator, town clerk, tax collector, assessor, and their staffs, in cramped quarters beneath the Katharine Cornell Theatre in what was formerly a Congregationalist church on Spring Street. Built in 1880, the building is in need of major repairs, including steeple stabilization.
About eight other full-time town employees work in departments including building and zoning, health, conservation, zoning board of appeals, and planning board in the town hall annex on West Spring Street, built in 1900. Although Tisbury residents may find it inconvenient to go to town hall for some municipal services and the annex for others, Mr. Stephenson said the division was carefully thought out in terms of traffic and parking.
Recently, the selectmen have cast a wider net when it comes to considering possible sites for relocating town hall. Learning of discussions about possible consolidation of the Island's three Catholic churches in Good Shepherd Parish, the selectmen let Father Michael Nagle know that Tisbury definitely would be interested in St. Augustine's Church and property on Franklin Street.
With 2.29 acres of land, the site offers the possibility of putting many town departments and services under one roof in one convenient downtown Vineyard Haven location. Tisbury lists the total assessed parcel value, including the church, which was built in 1955, at $1,987,800 on the web site Vision Appraisal.
The Fall River Diocese owns St. Augustine's Church, Our Lady Star of the Sea in Oak Bluffs and St. Elizabeth's in Edgartown. Although Father Nagle oversees the three churches as parish priest, he said decisions about the Island properties are up to the Most Reverend George W. Coleman, Bishop of Fall River.
The parish currently is evaluating its future church needs based on one priest taking care of about 650 year-round parishioners and an average of 2,500 in the summer, Father Nagle said. During this information-gathering stage, the parish is discussing many options, which include consolidating the three churches into one or possibly selling all three and building a central church.
"As far as I know, we're far away from selling and buying," Father Nagle said last week. However, he added, "We will keep the town in the loop."
ESF, round two
Forty-two serve in Tisbury's fire department as on call fire fighters, for which they receive a stipend. Built in 1955, their fire station on Beach Street near Five Corners, one of the Island's most congested areas, is in bad condition and beyond repair, according to an engineering study conducted a few years ago.
The station also is too small to house all of the department's trucks and equipment. Five fire trucks, including a new pumper/hazmat truck, plus a small boat and additional equipment, fit in the old station. Before the department's new 41-ft. rescue platform ladder truck arrived in March 2006, the town had to erect a $150,000 pre-engineered garage for its storage. A new oil spill emergency response trailer to be delivered next month will be stored at another place, the old DPW garage next to the town hall annex.
Despite the setback at town meeting, the ESF committee continues to meet. "We heard some of the concerns and objections that were raised at town meeting, and so now we are trying to address those," said Fire Chief John Schilling, who serves on the ESF committee.
This time around, Mr. Schilling said, instead of looking at specific pieces of property, the committee plans to approach site selection based on a response analysis, which breaks down the number of calls the fire department receives and where they exist in a geographical area. In addition, he said, "We're going to go to the Insurance Services Organization [ISO] and ask if there are any issues with where we locate the station." The ISO sets insurance property ratings in communities based on a formula that includes response-time analysis, and a fire department's training, equipment, capacity of trucks, and other factors.
"If we relocate the station in an area that is in the average of, say, an 8-minute response time, does that have any impact on property insurance rates?" Chief Schilling said. "Some people are looking at this and saying, ah, just leave it where it is, or, it doesn't matter where it goes. Well, it does matter where it goes, and I believe we can prove that."
If not, he said, "Either way, we'll have the answers to questions people asked that we didn't have the answers for, and that's our primary focus right now."
A police presence
Built in 1997, Tisbury's police department building, also home to the ambulance department, is relatively new compared to many of Tisbury's municipal facilities. However, it already shows signs of disrepair and deterioration. The building's location next to the Water Street parking lot proves challenging for emergency service providers, who must battle parking lot and Five Corners traffic in responding to calls.
The Planning Board recommends moving the police department out of the downtown area but maintaining a small police presence, perhaps at a desk within the Steamship Authority Terminal. The police department building could then be leased or sold. The FinCom thinks the property has great potential for commercial use, Ms. Mill said.
Police Chief John Cashin said the building is adequate for his department's 12 full-time officers, given that they work shifts and are not all there at the same time.
The Tisbury Police Volunteer Ambulance Service employs three full-time emergency medical technicians, including two paramedics and one EMT intermediate. They rotate two-person shifts seven days a week from 8 am to 6 pm, with help two days a week from part-time personnel or volunteers. While building space for the ambulance department's personnel is not a problem, equipment space is.
"We have a building that is under-structured for our ambulance services," explained ambulance coordinator Jeffrey Pratt. Only one of the department's two ambulances fits in the building. The other is stored at the DPW garage with the fire department's ladder truck.
When it came time to buy a new ambulance, Mr. Pratt struggled to find a smaller-sized one that would fit in the building, because the new models are built on bigger chassis to handle larger engines and more equipment that is required to meet safety and emissions standards.
"There was an urgency for a new emergency services facility prior to the spring town meeting vote, and waiting for a comprehensive town plan won't lessen that urgency," said Mr. Pratt. "We're in a small building in a small parking lot in the most congested part of town, and our call volume is going up. We need to figure out what to do now, because calls to 9-1-1 aren't going to stop."
Municipal study - again
In January 2006 Tisbury's Planning Board released a draft of its downtown and waterfront planning alternatives that included many recommendations for municipal buildings and properties. To view the report, visit the web site www.tisburygov.org and click on "Current Projects" from the menu at left.
Having been down the planning road many times in the past, building and zoning inspector Ken Barwick said he wonders if Tisbury might be "reinventing the wheel" by conducting another facilities needs study. In 2003, he proposed the idea of a consolidated facility that would include all of the departments at town hall and the annex, and perhaps the senior center, a town meeting room, and the police department, as well. Nothing came of his proposal after he gave it to the selectmen, Mr. Barwick said.
Perhaps Chief Schilling's recollections of Tisbury's past planning efforts will add some perspective. "My grandfather was on the new town hall study committee," he said with a laugh.