Selectmen approve Oak Bluffs town meeting warrant

Recent storms have battered East Chop bluffs and caused significant erosion. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Oak Bluffs selectmen approved 25 warrant articles for the special and annual town meeting scheduled for Tuesday, April 9. The meeting agenda includes several measures expected to generate spirited debate among voters.

Voters will be asked whether they want to spend money for an engineering study of storm damage on coastal banks, an architectural study for new school administration offices, reinstatement of a stipend for the town’s tree warden. They will also be asked to consider zoning changes governing alterations to coastal banks and wetlands.

The warrant will ask voters to take $75,000 from the town’s stabilization fund for an engineering study of coastal damage from four severe storms, including repairs to East Chop Drive, to the East Chop coastal bank, and erosion to public beaches.

The town has submitted an application for nearly $15 million in federal aid for the storm repairs. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials want to document the extent of the damage and the proposed repairs.

“In order to be eligible for reimbursement, the engineering they require is actually staggering,” town administrator Bob Whritenour told selectmen. “We’re sort of caught. If the town doesn’t put up the engineering money to support the applications, we can’t get the disaster money.”

FEMA reimburses local cities and towns 75 percent of the cost of approved storm repairs. Mr. Whritenour said he has a high degree of confidence the town will get reimbursed for most of the engineering study, but he was less confident about federal funding for extensive storm damage to coastal structures.

“I think you’re on much more shaky ground there,” Mr. Whritenour said. “It’s not a situation where they’re anxious to dole out this money. We’ve had a lot of push back on coastal structures that were already damaged. “I really don’t have a good feeling we’re going to get the full amount we’ve requested.”

The $75,000 cost would come out of the town’s stabilization, or “rainy day” fund, an account to finance unforeseen emergencies. Withdrawing money from the fund requires a two-thirds vote of the town meeting.

Also expected to draw debate is a $45,172 warrant article to fund the town’s share of preliminary architectural plans for an administration building to house the superintendent’s office and regional school administrators. The money would also come from the stabilization fund.

“We don’t have any free cash so the only account we could take it from is the stabilization fund,” Mr. Whritenour said.

“I’m not sure I view this as an emergency,” selectman Walter Vail said.

School committee member Priscilla Sylvia offered a dire assessment of the current administration building. “It is an absolute disaster,” Ms. Sylvia said. “I expect the sides to fall out any day. We had engineering studies done, they warned us to move all the file cabinets to the outer wall, they’re afraid the floor will fall through.”

Also on the warrant is an article reinstating the $1,500 stipend for the town’s tree warden, which was eliminated along with stipends for several other positions when the town faced a financial crisis.

While a majority of the board supports the move, others pointed out that there is no plan to reinstate all the stipends, or create new stipends for town positions that never had them.

“I see a lot of volunteer committee members working very, very hard,” chairman Kathy Burton said. “I don’t know if I want to jump back into what we had before.”

Selectman Gail Barmakian questioned an article submitted by the zoning board of appeals (ZBA) to allow development by special permit in coastal zones and wetlands.

“One of my concerns is it gives the ZBA the power to give a special permit for dredging or filling,” she said. “It allows for a special permit to add to buildings in the shore zone.” Ms. Barmakian, who is also a wastewater commissioner, said that the commission, as well as the conservation commission, is considering regulation that would further restrict development in those zones. She questioned whether the changes would conflict with state and federal regulations.

Voters will also decide whether to prohibit consumption of medical marijuana in public, and whether to declare a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries, at least until the state issues regulations governing who can use, grow, or sell the drug under the new state law that took effect January 1.

Selectmen unanimously approved the warrant, noting that they do not necessarily support all the questions, but want voters to decide the issues on town meeting floor.

Two proposed articles that will not be included on the warrant were submitted by Dukes County, to appropriate $14,148 for the county Integrated Pest Management program and $58,840 for the county Health Care Access Program.

Mr. Whritenour said the amounts are included in the town operating budget, subject to voter approval, but the selectmen are not obligated to spend the appropriation, until they sign an intermunicipal agreement on terms acceptable to them.

“It is my view that these intermunicipal agreements are best reviewed at the board of selectmen level,” Mr. Whritenour said.

Light savings

In other action, the board voted to approve a land management agreement that gives the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank responsibility to maintain a trail between Barnes Road and County Road. Known as Old Holmes Hole Road, the trail was once the thoroughfare between Edgartown and Vineyard Haven, prior to construction of the state highway that now connects the two towns. Selectmen made their approval subject to review by the town’s lawyer.

Highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr. told the board that LED street lights are installed and operational in the area at the foot of Circuit Avenue, and along a stretch of Wing Road near the Oak Bluffs School. He invited comment from the public, including comments on the town’s website.

“Keep in mind that the lights that are up are very energy efficient,” Mr. Combra said. “They are going to cut our electric bill by at least half. It’s a different light, it’s a more sharp white light. The old light had an amber, yellow, softer light.”

The Cape Light Compact installed the lights as a trial at no charge, and if the town approves, will replace all of the town’s street lights at no cost.

Ms. Barmakian said she had received a few negative comments about the new lights. Mr. Combra said they can be shielded or adjusted if needed.

“LED lighting is the wave of the future,” he said. “At some point (the current) lights won’t even be available any more. We’re looking at an opportunity to switch those lights out at no cost.”