Edgartown, West Tisbury call off MVC roundabout lawsuit

Summer traffic inches its way to the blinker intersection. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Edgartown and West Tisbury selectmen agreed Monday to end their lawsuit against the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC). The unanimous decision followed a joint conference call with the Boston law firm representing the two towns in their appeal of the MVC’s decision to approve a roundabout at the Blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs.

What the town officials learned from their lawyers at Goulston & Storrs, at a shared cost of approximately $34,000, is that regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation could move ahead with plans to construct a roundabout.

“It appears we might not achieve the outcome that we may have anticipated,” Edgartown selectman Margaret Serpa said, after emerging from executive session.

She made a motion to end the appeal. Edgartown chairman Art Smadbeck seconded the motion that was then approved. Selectman Michael Donaroma did not attend.

“What counsel told us,” Mr. Smadbeck said, “was they did have discussions with MassDOT (Massachusetts Department of Transportation), and what they said was ‘we’re not bound by anything the MVC would do or not do.’ At this point, their intention is to move ahead, regardless of any outcome of the lawsuit against the MVC.”

Following the Edgartown meeting, Mr. Smadbeck said the town had received a petition to put the roundabout issue to a non-binding vote at the annual town meeting.

“If opponents of the roundabout succeed in putting it on other towns’ ballots, you could have an interesting Island-wide referendum,” Mr. Smadbeck said.

Last week, West Tisbury selectmen agreed unanimously to place a non-binding question on the spring election ballot in April, to gauge town voter support for the construction of a roundabout.

Political not legal

In a telephone conversation with The Times following the joint meeting, West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel said stopping the roundabout can now only be decided by political, not legal pressure. He said it was clear there is no point continuing the suit.

“The attorneys tell us that no matter what the legal outcome of the lawsuit is, the state is not bound by it, and the state is intending to go forward, regardless,” Mr. Knabel said.

Asked why the towns entered into a lawsuit before they fully understood their legal limits, Mr. Knabel, who has spearheaded the opposition to the roundabout project, said the towns had little time. “One of the problems is that there was a very, very short window that had to be respected,” he said. “The MVC’s enabling legislation provides you with 20 days to file an appeal and the amount of work you could do prior to having to file a suit meant you went forward with what you had, and that’s what we did.”

Mr. Knabel said it is clear now that the state is not bound by the MVC and wouldn’t be bound by the outcome of the lawsuit. “And we can’t sue the state,” he said. “There is no permit that’s required for this and therefore they are asserting their sovereign right to do what they want at that intersection, regardless of what anybody else wants.”

Round it goes

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.

On August 4, 2011, the MVC agreed to review the roundabout as a development of regional impact (DRI) in response to a discretionary referral from the West Tisbury selectmen. Under the MVC’s DRI regulations, selectmen from any town can refer a proposed development from another town for DRI review.

The MVC approved the project on October 6, 2011 with conditions for bus stops, landscaping, exterior lighting, and a shared-use path.

The roundabout is proposed for the intersection at Edgartown-Vineyard Haven, Barnes, and Airport roads, which is now controlled with 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.

In December, West Tisbury and Edgartown jointly hired the Boston law firm of Goulston & Storrs to file an appeal in Dukes County Superior Court against the MVC. West Tisbury selectmen have since received the first legal bill for the two towns, totaling about $34,000.

On January 12, selectmen met together in West Tisbury town hall to discuss their lawsuit. The decision to meet, and comments by several selectmen endorsing an Island-wide referendum to address the conflict, fueled speculation that, absent some indication of firm voter support, the town leaders wanted to put a stop to mounting legal bills in a potentially costly legal action.

Earlier this month, Edgartown selectman Michael Donaroma raised the possibility of putting the lawsuit aside pending a response from voters to a non-binding question about the wisdom of the suit to be placed on the spring election ballot in all six Island towns.

Twice burnt

Edgartown and West Tisbury taxpayers were paying for the town’s lawsuit against the MVC and, along with the other four Island towns, were paying for the MVC’s legal defense against the towns.

The bulk of the regional permitting and planning agency’s funding comes from assessments to Island towns, based on equalized property valuations.

In the the budget approved January 19, fiscal year 2013 assessments for Island towns will increase by $19,000 to a total of $813,266.

Edgartown’s assessment is $298,512. West Tisbury taxpayers will contribute $107,373. The MVC budget includes $60,000 for legal fees.

In budget discussions last week, MVC clerk treasurer said the MVC had already received its first bills totaling about $16,000, in connection with its defense against the towns lawsuit challenging the MVC decision.