West Tisbury will ask voters to fund rising roundabout legal bill

A draft design by Greenman-Pedersen, Inc., for a proposed roundabout at the intersection of Edgartown-Vineyard Haven and Airport and Barnes Roads. — Photo courtesy of MVC

Updated 4 pm, Wednesday

West Tisbury selectmen plan a special town meeting to ask voters to fund the town’s legal battle with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) over the proposed roundabout. A bill from town lawyers for $15,000 has put a hole in the town’s fiscal 2012 legal budget.

But, the funding request for the MVC suit may be mooted by the results of a meeting at 4 pm Thursday, January 12, with their counterparts from Edgartown in West Tisbury to discuss the lawsuit with the lawyer representing the two towns. Yesterday, Edgartown selectman Michael Donaroma said his colleagues have discussed suspending the lawsuit, pending the results of an Island-wide referendum.

In December, West Tisbury and Edgartown jointly hired the Boston law firm of Goulston & Storrs to appeal in Dukes County Superior Court the MVC decision approving the roundabout project at the Blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs. At their January 11 meeting last Wednesday, West Tisbury selectmen reviewed the first legal bills associated with their challenge.

The total bill for the two towns was $30,422, leaving the town share $15,211. At town meeting last April voters approved a fiscal 2012 operating budget that included $45,000 for legal expenses.

Town administrator Jen Rand said last week the legal bill will effectively deplete the budget, and the town will most likely need a special town meeting in the coming weeks to allocate more money for the lawsuit.

“There is no possible way we have the money for this,” Ms. Rand said.

Ms. Rand said she had a phone conversation earlier in the week with selectman chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, who was off-Island and could not attend the meeting. He said selectmen should proceed with caution.

“He suggested two things: one, in light of the fact that the bill is quickly going beyond what we even have the money for, that we stop until we have a special town meeting to appropriate funds,” she said.

“And two, we schedule a special town meeting as soon as possible; two weeks, two-and-a-half weeks, to get the money.”

Ms. Rand said the town now has about $30,000 in its legal budget. She said the latest bill from Goulston & Storrs does not include services rendered answering several other legal questions.

“We are going to be dire straits very quickly,” she said.

Ms. Rand recommended that the special town meeting be asked to both replenish the town legal budget and set limits on how much the town is prepared to pay for the lawsuit moving forward.

Selectman Cynthia Mitchell asked if the town – or more specifically the legal budget – could survive until the annual town meeting in April without having to schedule a special town meeting.

“I really don’t think so. I would be sweating,” Ms. Rand answered.

Ms. Rand said that even without the roundabout suit’s expense, selectmen were probably going to have to ask at the annual town meeting for money for the legal expenses because of other lawsuits.

“At this moment we are already over-commiting ourselves in that budget,” she said.

In the end, selectmen agreed to ask the law firm to present a bill for all the expenses incurred so far by the lawsuit. After receiving that information, selectmen will decide if a special town meeting is necessary.

“Let’s find out these answers. Let’s get an exact figure, or at least as an exact figure as we can get,” Ms. Mitchell said.

Into court

In October the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) voted 7-6 to approve construction of a roundabout in Oak Bluffs. It’s a state plan to build a circular traffic interchange at the Blinker intersection, which is now controlled with four stop signs.

The commission reconsidered their vote in November, but the previous decision stood after the commission deadlocked 6-6. The decision by the commission to approve led to an outpouring of public opposition.

In November, the West Tisbury selectmen voted unanimously to join with Edgartown to appeal the MVC’s decision.

The two-town complaint Richard Renehan, a trial attorney with the Boston firm Goulston & Storrs, filed December 7, charged that the MVC did not make a reasonable decision based on the evidence and exceeded its authority when it approved the development of regional impact (DRI) roundabout project for the intersection of Barnes Road and Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

The challenge alleges the commission voted to approve the project despite widespread opposition and without complete plans. It also alleges the commission disregarded its own regulations and rushed their decision.

MVC attorneys Brian Hurley and Gareth Orsmond of the Boston firm Rackemann, Sawyer & Brewster filed the MVC response on December 27, in Dukes County Superior Court. Among other arguments they assert that the towns have no legal standing to sue. And, they said, the regional planning and regulatory agency’s approval of the roundabout was supported by the testimony and data presented at a public hearing convened by the MVC.

Town split

The cost of the lawsuit will be closely scrutinized in a town that has faced several long and costly legal battles in the past.

Although opponents of the roundabout have been vocal in their opposition it is unclear what the majority of taxpayers who would foot the bill think about the roundabout lawsuit and the associated legal fees. On Wednesday, there was some evidence that two camps are forming.

Two letters read into the record during Wednesday’s meeting reflected the opposing views on the lawsuit.

“I have been meaning to state my opinion to the selectmen that I do not approve of their lawsuit,” Lisa Amols wrote. “I hate to think of my hard earned tax dollars that I pay to the town wasted on what is obviously a waste of my time and money to argue the MVC decision. Not to mention the irony behind the fact that we support the MVC through some of our tax dollars.”

Juleann VanBelle took a different position. “I want to thank you for your efforts on the roundabout,” she wrote. “It was a tricky business making the MVC referral in the first place and took a good amount of conviction and courage.”