Martha’s Vineyard Commission lets its roundabout approval stand

Once again, as he did in the October 6 vote to break a tie and approve the project, MVC chairman Chris Murphy cast the deciding vote. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Updated 3 pm, Tuesday

A motion by Martha’s Vineyard Commission member Lenny Jason to rescind the commission’s earlier approval of the Oak Bluffs roundabout project failed in a 6-6 vote at a meeting November 3.

Six of the commissioners voted in favor of rescission and five against. Once again, as he did in the October 6 vote to break a tie and approve the project, MVC chairman Chris Murphy cast the deciding vote, this time against rescission. Since the motion did not get a simple majority, it failed, and the roundabout project approval is undisturbed.

The tension was palpable among an audience of about 40 packed into the small hearing room. Many of those attending were longstanding opponents of the plan for the Blinker intersection of the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road and the Airport and Barnes roads. When the roll call vote was complete and the votes added up 6-5 in favor of rescission, Mr. Murphy announced he would vote no.

“Well, you’ve got balls,” Mr. Jason told him.

Before calling the vote, Mr. Murphy told commissioners Bill Bennett of Chilmark and Kathy Newman of Aquinnah that MVC counsel had advised that they would be ineligible to participate because they were not present for the October 6 vote. Commissioner Peter Cabana, also present, was ineligible to vote because he was absent for the public hearing.

Christina Brown of Edgartown, Mr. Jason, Mr. Joyce, Ned Orleans of Tisbury, Camille Rose of Aquinnah, and Linda Sibley of West Tisbury voted to rescind the October 6 approval.

John Breckenridge, Erik Hammarlund, Fred Hancock, Mr. Murphy, Holly Stephenson, and Doug Sederholm voted against Mr. Jason’s motion.

The roundabout will be built at the intersection at Edgartown-Vineyard Haven, Barnes, and Airport roads, where there is now a four-way stop and flashing red lights on all approaches.

The Oak Bluffs selectmen approved the roundabout proposal in 2006, following a study of possible options prepared by the MVC and after several public hearings, convened by the town. The project was not referred to the MVC until August this year, as a discretionary referral from the West Tisbury selectmen. The MVC voted to review it as a DRI on August 4.

When asked by The Times last Friday for a comment on the outcome of the roundabout decision, Mr. Murphy said, “If there’s one message that came out of this, I think, it is to the selectmen and town boards to send projects early to the commission and get that out of the way.”

Make your motion

Mr. Murphy asked Mr. Jason to make his motion to rescind the roundabout vote, as scheduled on the meeting agenda, at 8 pm.

“We didn’t really approve a plan; I think we approved a concept,” Mr. Jason said. “I would ask if you would rescind our actions. And perhaps we could reschedule and rehear it, with all the information that’s required.”

Mr. Murphy reminded the audience that he would not take any comments, since the public hearing and record were closed. Oak Bluffs selectmen Greg Coogan and Walter Vail attended, as did West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel, who initiated his board’s referral of the roundabout project to the MVC, and West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell.

Mr. Murphy opened the floor to discussion, and the commissioners debated the matter for about half an hour, with most of them sticking to their original positions, either for or against. The number of voting members changed, because Brian Smith of West Tisbury, who voted against the roundabout, was absent.

Mr. Smith wanted very much to attend the meeting but had longstanding vacation plans, Mr. Murphy told The Times in a phone conversation last Friday. Mr. Murphy said when Mr. Smith told him about the conflict, he spent a day calling the commissioners to see if there might be another date when everyone would be available, but nothing worked.

With Mr. Smith absent, James Joyce of Edgartown appeared to be pivotal in the rescission discussion. He had changed his mind about his vote on October 6 to approve the roundabout. Mr. Joyce said he thought the commission’s vote was made in haste and should have been postponed, because it came at the end of a lengthy meeting and everyone just wanted to go home.

“I don’t see the harm in revisiting this,” Mr. Joyce said. “It certainly would make a lot of people on the Island happy.”

Another round?

Several of the commissioners were of the opinion that enough was enough. They also discussed their reactions to public comment and to an email from MVC executive director Mark London on October 25, instructing them not to talk about the roundabout project or read anything about it.

Mr. Murphy subsequently emailed a memo dated November 2 (available at to the commissioners in which he stated Mr. London consulted him and MVC counsel in the preparation of the email about restrictions on ex-parte communications.

Ms. Stephenson labeled Mr. London’s email “ridiculous” and described it as basically saying, “stick your fingers in your ears.” She also said she felt intimidated by the many negative comments she read and heard about the MVC’s approval of the roundabout.

“However, at that point, I went through and re-read the comments and re-read the letters to the editor, in order to possibly justify changing my vote, and I felt that there was no new information, and no valid excuse for changing my vote in any of the information that was in the newspaper or I heard,” Ms. Stephenson said.

Mr. Sederholm, chairman of the Land Use Planning Committee, took issue with Ms. Stephenson’s criticism of Mr. London’s email.

“It’s not ridiculous and it’s important that the public understands that we’re not supposed to discuss this among ourselves except at this table,” he said. “And we can’t say to the public, geez, I’m not going to listen to you, but we can say, I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to talk about it. We don’t live in a vacuum but we have to respect the process. And respect the process means we try to not take in information that doesn’t come in, in a public hearing.”

Mr. Sederholm also said he disagreed with Mr. Jason. “I think we have done our job; we dealt with the evidence that was presented to us,” he said.

Mr. Sederholm pointed out that the MVC had a lengthy public meeting to decide whether to review the roundabout as a DRI, two long public hearing sessions to review it, and two and a half hours of deliberations before the decision vote.

Mr. Breckenridge said he also thought there had been ample evidence presented during the public hearing process and argued against rescinding the vote.

“I’ve listened carefully to people that I respect, members of my town’s board of selectmen, its chief of police, its highway superintendent, but more importantly, I’ve been very attentive to the people that have presented information in opposition,” Mr. Breckenridge said. “At the end of the day I made a decision. I voted yes on the roundabout and I’m proud of it. I believe that there should be a finality in a vote taken by this group unless it is determined that new and important information was not presented during the public hearing process.”

Mr. Hancock agreed.

“We had a vote last month on this DRI and it was very close, but the matter was decided,” he said. “Since the vote was taken, as far as I know, there is no new evidence that has come to light that wasn’t presented before.

“And I think the worst thing we can do is establish the idea that we can be intimidated by people who just have opinion to offer and will back down on decisions that we’ve made,” Mr. Hancock added. “To me, this is a vote about upholding our decisions.”

Ms. Sibley, who voted against the roundabout, said she had mixed feelings about the possibility of more review.

“I’m extremely distressed how nasty the post-vote debate has been, how personal and mean-spirited and threatening, and sort of town against town with the commission caught in the middle,” she said. “I don’t know that I want to encourage that behavior by opening the whole process up again.”

As a veteran MVC member, Ms. Brown said although she felt conflicted about her vote on the roundabout, she was not affected or influenced by comments from the public.

“I think for most of us, it just kind of goes over our heads,” Ms. Brown said.

“Like most of us, I felt it difficult to make a decision about the roundabout the last time and I still do,” she added. “But I think that revisiting it is a really important thing to do right now and a good thing. I felt that I did not have enough information to make that important decision at the last go-round.”

After the meeting, on his way out Mr. Knabel patted Mr. Jason on the back and told him he did a good job. Opponents to the roundabout gathered in the parking lot and a few commented that they will continue to fight it.

Project history

The $1.4 million roundabout project will involve constructing a single-lane roundabout at the intersection, with pavement reconstruction, sidewalks, drainage, landscaping, and other improvements.

The roundabout’s construction was delayed until recently, when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation accepted the project for funding under the fiscal 2012 transportation improvement program for the MVC.

After the motion to rescind the approval vote failed last week, the commissioners voted to approve a draft written decision with conditions included in their October 6 approval for bus stops, landscaping, exterior lighting, sidewalks and a shared-use path (SUP), drainage, landscaping, and other improvements.