Martha’s Vineyard Commission member challenges roundabout vote

Traffic backed up on a summer day. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

The roundabout project hit a speed bump when the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) met on October 20 to discuss a written decision on the October 6 vote to approve the project. Dukes County Commission appointee Leonard Jason Jr. of Chilmark cut the discussion short with the announcement he will make a motion to rescind the MVC’s October 6 vote to approve the project when the MVC next meets Thursday, November 3.

As a result, MVC chairman Chris Murphy, who cast the tie-breaking vote in the 7-6 decision, tabled further discussion on the written decision pending the outcome of the next round in the long-running battle.

The roundabout is proposed for the intersection at Edgartown-Vineyard Haven, Barnes, and Airport roads, which presently uses a four-way stop system and flashing red lights on all approaches. The $1.4 million project involves constructing a single-lane roundabout at the intersection, with pavement reconstruction, sidewalks, drainage, landscaping, and other improvements.

The MVC approved the project with conditions for bus stops, landscaping, exterior lighting, and a shared-use path (SUP).

Mr. Jason, the building inspector for Edgartown and Chilmark and a veteran county and MVC commissioner, has been a vocal opponent of the roundabout project throughout the DRI review process.

Drawing the line

In a phone conversation Tuesday, The Times asked Mr. Jason what prompted his actions at last week’s meeting.

“This is our last opportunity to reverse our decision,” he said.

Mr. Jason denied his plan to ask for a rescission of the vote is a tactic to delay the project, which is under a deadline for funding.

“I see this as my last hope,” he said. “I think it was the wrong decision. I’m just trying to follow the process the chairman suggested.”

Mr. Jason said he originally planned to ask that one of the commissioners make a motion to reconsider the October 6 vote.

“I couldn’t make it, because I was in the minority,” he said. “Chris [Murphy] said at the meeting he wouldn’t accept a motion to reconsider the vote because it wasn’t proper, that he had talked to a few people in advance and looked at Robert’s Rules of Order.”

In a discussion at The Times offices Monday, Mr. Murphy explained his position.

“A vote to reconsider has to be made at the same meeting that the vote was taken, and the motion has to come from someone who was in the majority,” he explained. “Otherwise it’s pointless. If it was a seven to six vote, unless somebody in the seven says I’m considering changing my mind, then why would you assume that we’d keep asking all night; nothing would change.”

Mr. Murphy said Mr. Jason argued that the MVC’s discussion of the written decision last week constituted an extension of the October 6 meeting at which the vote was taken.

“I said no, that I wasn’t comfortable with that,” Mr. Murphy said. “It just didn’t meet the fairness test, because some of the people that originally voted it weren’t there, and didn’t know that we were going to vote it.”

Holly Stephenson and Ned Orleans were absent from last week’s meeting.

What happens next

Mr. Murphy said he advised Mr. Jason that the correct alternative would be to make a motion to rescind the October 6 vote at the MVC’s next meeting, provided he gave advance notice to the commissioners. Mr. Jason promptly announced he would do so on November 3. The meeting starts at 8 pm at the MVC building.

If the vote is rescinded, Mr. Murphy said it would not necessarily put the roundabout project’s DRI review back at square one nor kill the project. The commissioners would have the option to go back and reconsider the project’s detriments and benefits based on oral and written testimony from the public hearing once again.

“But if there is a rescission voted, then the next step would be somebody making a motion two minutes later, and we would be back where we were three weeks ago, just at 11 o’clock,” Mr. Murphy pointed out. “We’d be debating it all over again and then there would be a vote. And the motion could be different. It might be a motion to disapprove.”

Public pressure

The MVC’s decision to approve the roundabout on October 6 elicited a flood of reader comments on The Times website and in Letters to the Editor, mostly from the project’s opponents. Today’s issue of The Times includes an op-ed article by Mr. Knabel in which he urges the commissioners to rescind their vote to approve the roundabout and to reconsider the project once again.

When asked by The Times if public pressure from the roundabout’s opponents was a factor in his attempt to reverse the MVC’s decision, Mr. Jason said it was not.

“People have asked me how we can stop it,” he added. “I think it’s a little late, unless we can change our decision.”

Mr. Murphy said although he has not encountered a lot of public pressure in regard to the roundabout vote, some of the commissioners have.

“The comments I’m getting are just about 50-50,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of real nice love notes, saying thanks, you did a good job, thanks for supporting Oak Bluffs, and a couple of people saying, you’re out of your mind, what are you doing, how can you do this.”

MVC commissioner Doug Sederholm of Chilmark ran the roundabout public hearing as the land use planning committee chairman. In a phone conversation with The Times Tuesday, he said he also has received comments from people, which come with the job of serving on the MVC.

“I do believe it is the duty of each commissioner to weigh all of the evidence that was presented at the public hearing and give it serious consideration,” Mr. Sederholm said. “I believe that’s what the commission did in the first vote, and I would hope that will be the case in any subsequent vote on the project. What you hear on the street from the public or read in the newspaper isn’t supposed to be part of what weighs into our deliberations and decisions.”

The initial October 6 vote to approve the project with conditions resulted in a tie. John Breckenridge of Oak Bluffs, Erik Hammarlund of West Tisbury, Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs, James Joyce of Edgartown, Doug Sederholm of Chilmark, and Holly Stephenson of Tisbury voted yes.

Mr. Jason, Christina Brown of Edgartown, Ned Orleans of Tisbury, Camille Rose of Aquinnah, Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, and Brian Smith of West Tisbury voted no.

Mr. Murphy cast the deciding favorable vote in his role as chairman.

A long process

The roundabout project began as a proposal approved by the Oak Bluffs selectmen in 2006, following a study of possible options prepared by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) and after several public hearings convened by the town. Oak Bluffs public safety officials and the MVC’s Joint Transportation Committee, which includes representatives from all Island towns, supported the proposal.

The roundabout’s construction was delayed until recently, when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) accepted the project for funding under the fiscal 2012 transportation improvement program (TIP) for the MVC. MassDOT paid the cost of the roundabout design and will fund part of its construction, with the rest paid for by the federal government.

MassDOT held a 25 percent design hearing on the roundabout in April. The West Tisbury selectmen voted in August to refer the project to the MVC for review as a development of regional impact (DRI), at selectman Richard Knabel’s recommendation.

Once back in the limelight, the roundabout sparked strong protest from a group of about 25 Island residents led by Tilton Rental business owner Sandra Lippens, whose property abuts the proposed roundabout area, Madeline Fisher of Edgartown, and Clarence “Trip” Barnes, owner of a moving and storage business in Tisbury.

The MVC voted August 4 to review the roundabout as a DRI and to speed up the process to avoid any funding and construction delays. Construction is to begin next spring. MassDOT officials warned that the project must get underway within the fiscal year that ends September 30, 2012, in order to use the TIP funds.

The MVC held a public hearing September 1 and a continued session on September 22.

This article was revised on 10/27/11 to reflect the following correction: Madeline Fisher lives in Edgartown, not on property in Oak Bluffs that abuts the roundabout location.