Shark referendum wins, marijuana moratorium loses in Oak Bluffs


Updated 5:30 pm, Wednesday

Oak Bluffs voters met Tuesday night at town meeting and tackled a series of controversial articles against a backdrop of a town on the financial mend.

Without a hint of objection, and no debate, voters approved a $25.5 million operating budget for the next fiscal year that included modest proposals to restore recreation programs and a limited number of lifeguards on town beaches.

They also authorized $1 million in long-delayed road paving projects, and $426,000 to build a marine fuel facility on Oak Bluffs Harbor.

An article that asked voters to place a one-year moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries passed by a 79 to 42 majority, but fell two votes short of the two-thirds approval needed to pass a zoning amendment and failed.

Voters approved a ban on the use of medical marijuana in public by a wide margin.

Voters approved a non-binding resolution aimed at the annual Monster Shark Tournament that would require all shark tournaments to be catch-and-release events by a vote of 64 to 50.

A total of 203 voters, or 5.7 percent of the town’s 3,531 registered voters, turned out for the combination special and annual town meeting.

Town elections are scheduled today. The only contested election is for a seat on the water district commission. Michael deBettencourt is seeking reelection against challenger George Brown.

Voters will also have a say on the non-binding shark tournament resolution which will have no effect on this year’s Monster Shark contest.

Polls will be open at the Oak Bluffs Library meeting room from 10 am to 7 pm.

No budget battle

Town budgets have often provided a flashpoint for Oak Bluffs town meetings. Not this year. The budget vote followed a presentation by town administrator Bob Whritenour on the town’s fiscal health. Mr. Whritenour told voters that conservative revenue projections and a tight budget will erase the town’s $600,000 free cash deficit, and put the town in the black for the first time in four years.

“We hope to eliminate that free cash deficit, or come very close to it, by July 1, 2013,” Mr. Whritenour said.

With moderate dissent, voters agreed to borrow $975,146 to fund a long list of paving and roadway repair projects delayed over the past five years as the town struggled with budget deficits. The town expects to fund the rest of the $1.7 million project with state highway funds.

Voters spent freely from the ambulance reserve fund, where fees for off-Island ambulance transport and other emergency services accumulate.

Expenditures from the ambulance reserve fund included $118,000 for three police cruisers, $100,000 for Scott Air Packs used in firefighting, and $100,000 for the first lease payment for a new fire truck.

Voters approved $45,172 from the town’s stabilization fund to pay for it’s proportional share of architectural fees and design of a new superintendent’s office building on the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Campus.

The only money article voters defeated was a measure that would have authorized $220,000 to purchase a vacant lot at 16 Circuit Avenue for a small park in the space between Circuit Avenue and Kennebec Avenue.

Fuel fight

In keeping with the town’s fiscal health, voters overwhelmingly agreed to borrow $426,000 to build and operate a town-owned marine fuel facility near the harbor master’s office on Oak Bluffs Harbor. Town officials said fuel sales would provide enough money to pay back the loan, and generate a profit for the town.

The proposal generated strong opposition from businessmen Mark and Mike Wallace, owners of a private marine fuel facility currently closed by order of the town fire department, following a gasoline spill last July.

Harbor master Todd Alexander said it was the second significant spill at the facility requiring lengthy shutdowns in recent years.

“Oak Bluffs is fortunate to have a beautiful and successful marina which brings in just under $1 million every year,” Mr. Alexander said. He told voters that during one three-week period last summer, he logged 59 calls from visiting boaters asking where they could get fuel.

“We had to tell these boats they had to go to Vineyard Haven or Edgartown,” Mr. Alexander said. “It literally means we are sending boats out of our harbor to get fuel, and then expecting them to come back. That’s not why we’re in business.”

Mark and Mike Wallace proposed an alternative. They offered to make necessary repairs and safety improvements, if the town would lease bulkhead space to them, so they could build a new fuel dock. He said he made a similar proposal to the harbor advisory committee three years ago.

“They laughed,” he said. “As a resident and business owner, is it in the best interest of the town to come up with an option to help business, or watch them fall to the side? In order to provide fuel to the harbor, we need help from the town and that has not been forthcoming.”

John Breckenridge, chairman of the harbor advisory committee, said after last summer’s spill, he asked Mark Wallace about his immediate plans.

“The question was asked of the current proprietor, whether they planned on reopening for the summer,” Mr. Breckenridge said. “Let me quote (what Mr. Wallace said). ‘I have bigger fish in the pond to worry about.’ Here we are at the 11th hour with an alternative proposal. Is this going to provide public benefit to the town of Oak Bluffs, or is it going to provide private benefit to a singular individual.”

In response, Mr. Wallace said the quote was “so far from hearsay it’s not even funny.”

Several voters questioned the merit of a town-operated fuel facility.

“People with a $25 million budget shouldn’t be getting into the commodities market,” said Ron Mechur. “We should be doing things like taking care of our schools, paving our roads, doing all the things that private enterprise can’t do.”

Voters were not persuaded. They voted overwhelmingly for the town-owned marina on a voice vote.

Moratorium up in smoke

Voters quickly approved a measure to ban the use of medical marijuana in public, including streets, sidewalks, parks, and beaches.

A zoning measure declaring a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries drew more debate.

The first voter to speak, Geoff Rose, asked that the vote be taken by secret paper ballot. The town meeting defeated that motion on a voice vote.

John Bradford, chairman of the planning board, introduced the article.

“All of the towns in the Commonwealth have been wrestling with the new medical marijuana statute,” Mr. Bradford said. “We’re asking for a one-year moratorium. It’s not required we take a year, but we feel that will give us enough leeway to come up with some decent regulations.”

Mr. Rose spoke against the moratorium.

“I expect that all of you have been affected by a friend or family member’s pain and suffering,” he said. “Is there anyone here that wouldn’t want any and every remedy to be available?”

Jordan Wallace, who is pursuing a license to open a dispensary, noted that the moratorium, as written, would not prevent someone from establishing a commercial marijuana growing facility in Oak Bluffs.

The article fell two votes short of the required two-thirds.

Shark attack

The question of shark fishing surfaced as the last article on the warrant, at about 10:10 pm. Moderator Jesse Law read the non-binding shark referendum question and called for an immediate vote, but opponents of the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament were already lining up at the microphone to debate the measure.

“We’ve discussed this for five or six years, but go ahead,” Mr. Law said.

Despite the moderator’s attempts to keep the debate on the non-binding catch-and-release referendum, voters focused on the tournament, and the crowds of spectators that overwhelmed the police department last year.

“I strongly oppose the town of Oak Bluffs taking on the role of regulating catching a fish,” Chris O’Brien said. “That is not the job of town selectmen. We will be saying goodby to the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament, goodby to the revenue, goodby to the tourism it generates. The town should leave fisheries management in the hands of fisheries managers.”

“There’s all kinds of business,” Barbara Hoyle said. “Like monkey business, and bad business. I don’t know why you want to encourage dope and drinking. You cannot control that many drunk people.”

“We recognize it’s not the type of atmosphere we want,” selectman Michael Santoro said. “It’s gotten out of hand. We don’t think we should punish everyone for this. We’re going to triple the amount of police presence, and that’s being paid for by the shark tournament participants, not the town.”

“Have you done a real analysis of the revenue that comes to the town?” Eleanor Best asked selectmen. “It seems to me the town is full every weekend. I know lots of people who will not go downtown to patronize businesses that weekend. The whole spectacle keeps some people away, and it attracts others.”

The standing vote was close enough to offer some suspense.

Selectmen Kathy Burton and Gail Barmakian voted in favor of the catch-and-release referendum. Selectmen Greg Coogan and Walter Vail joined Mr. Santoro to vote against it.

The 64 to 50 vote reflected about half of the voters who registered at the beginning of the town meeting.

Ponds, windows, rent, and records

Voters approved $507,519 in Community Preservation Act spending, which is funded by a three percent surcharge on property tax, and partially matched by state funds.

Among the approved projects were $84,148 for two projects to restore water quality in Farm Pond, $49,050 for oyster seeding in Sengekontacket Pond to relieve nitrogen pollution, $50,000 to create bike paths, $44,953 to preserve Martha’s Vineyard Museum artifacts relating to Oak Bluffs, $45,000 to catalog and preserve town historical records, $32,000 to restore stained glass windows in Trinity Methodist Church, and $132,000 for the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority rental assistance program.

A measure submitted by Dukes County to spend $15,368 to repair windows in the county courthouse was approved, but not before a sharp comment from voter Bill Alwardt.

“Didn’t the county just find $500,000,” Mr. Alwardt said. “Maybe they should fix their own windows.”

Dukes County officials recently announced that the county enjoyed a $572,000 surplus, a development that came as a surprise to county commissioners and county advisory board members.

This article was updated to clarify that Mark and Mike Wallace proposed leasing town bulkhead space so they could build their own fuel dock, as an alternative to the proposed town-owned facility.