Rubbish damages landscape in Oak Bluffs

In this file photo taken in the summer of 2014, a half barrel planter next to Oak Bluffs Harbor overflows with litter. — Photo by Barry Stringfellow

Too many people have been trashing Oak Bluffs this summer, and Oak Bluffs highway department superintendent Richard Combra Jr. said he’s had enough.

“In my 13 years as superintendent, I’ve never seen so much littering,” Mr. Combra said in a recent telephone interview with The Times. “This summer was unbelievable. My guys come in at 6 am, they sweep the downtown, then they pick up the beaches, and the next morning, it’s there again. Sometimes, we’ll clean a beach in the morning, and by the afternoon, it’s full of trash.”

A walk around Oak Bluffs on a recent afternoon confirmed Mr. Combra’s assertion. Cigarette butts filled the tree planters on Circuit Avenue and carpeted the beach grass along Seaview Avenue, and food wrappers, beer cans and plastic bags lay a few feet from trash bins at the Steamship Authority. The half-barrel planters in the harbor were brimming with garbage, again with town trash bins, with plenty of room, sitting twenty yards in either direction.

“When I come to work in the morning, the streets are clean. The highway department does a great job,” said Todd Rebello, owner of Oak Bluffs stores Sunsations, The South Beach Store, In the Bluff, and co-owner of The Locker Room. “In no time there’s trash all over the place. I’ve seen people drop trash on the street, standing a few feet from a trash bin. I’ve said things to them, but they just keep walking, so I pick it up. I have to sweep in front of my stores three, four times a day.

“I get to work before the highway department comes through,” said Linda Jean’s owner Marc Hanover. “My entrance is indented, so I guess people hang out there more, but it’s amazing how much trash they leave there, beer bottles, cigarette butts, you name it. I have to clean it up every morning. It’s definitely worse than it used to be. It seems like it gets worse every year.”

Mr. Combra thinks that part of the trash explosion this year is due to increased business this summer, and that Oak Bluffs, the most populated and most visited town on the Island, bears the yeoman’s share of the problem. Some have suggested that more public trash barrels are the simple answer, but Mr. Combra doesn’t agree. “We have ten barrels on the beaches,” he said. “They’re emptied twice a day. That’s literally a ton of trash a day. Sometimes the barrels aren’t even full when we go back in the afternoon, but there’s trash everywhere. I think it’s more people just not picking up after themselves. Extra barrels won’t do any good if people don’t use them. It’s hard to enforce people to use common sense.”

Added trash barrels can also lead to increased illegal dumping. “Look at dumpsters at the harbor.” Mr. Combra said. “They’re supposed to be for boaters only, but sometimes they fill up overnight. I can guarantee you it wasn’t from the boaters.”

Sticker situation

Taking out the trash here involves an extra step. For residents, making runs to the dump, picking up trash stickers and keeping out raccoons and skunks is part of a daily routine. But the vast majority of renters who come here for the first time have never seen a trash sticker. And they most likely don’t come from a place where any trash bag left out overnight will be torn apart by the abundant nocturnal fauna, then further dispersed by a murder of crows that will wake them around 5 am.

“Rental agents have to make things clear to people when they come here,” Mr. Combra said. “I’m not saying this is all on the tourists. We know better than that. But a lot of people don’t know the rules. We have a unique situation here.”

To be fair, the Oak Bluffs town website could use some tweaking. A Google search of “Trash stickers Oak Bluffs” brings up a page with five entries — The Highway Garage, The LDO, Tony’s Market, Our Market and deBettencourt’s — with no addresses. Telling someone to go to deBettencourt’s on this island is like telling someone to go to O’ Briens in Dublin. An informal survey of islanders left at least two scratching their heads as to what the LDO is and where it’s located.

A Google search of “Oak Bluffs trash collection” leads to a much more informative page which explains collection rules, pickup days for each street, and it even clarifies what the the LDO is — Local Drop Off, a.k.a, the dump.

Town officials talk trash

At the Oak Bluffs selectmen’s meeting on August 6, Mr. Combra suggested that an Islandwide commission be created to address the growing litter problem. He also suggested the implementation of a public awareness campaign. “Even some posters on the boats and at the Steamship Authority could help drive the point home,” he said.

The selectmen unanimously agreed it was a topic that warranted further discussion.

Mr. Combra told the Times in an email that he has also requested additional funding in next year’s highway department budget for more frequent street cleaning and trash pickup.

He also believes that increased enforcement of existing laws could help. He said that to the best of his knowledge, there were six tickets written in 2012 for illegal dumping. This year, he didn’t know of any being written.

According to Oak Bluffs police Lieutenant Timothy Williamson, only one person has been cited this summer, “And that was more of a neighborly dispute,” he said.

Pursuant to Mr. Combra’s concerns, Lt. Williamson reviewed the town littering and dumping laws, and even he was surprised at their severity. “I was shocked,” he said. “Illegal dumping is punishable by a fine of not more than $3,000 and not more than $10,000 for subsequent offenses. If a vehicle dumps seven cubic feet or more of garbage, that vehicle can be seized.”

Everyone can help

People who dump their garbage in a public barrel to save $5 on a trash sticker are one phone call or camera click away from a fine of not less than $200. People who drop their garbage by the roadside can end up paying at least $3,000. But only if they’re caught.

“If you see somebody littering or dumping, take a picture, call the cops,” said Mr. Combra.

“If you see an egregious case of littering or dumping, like a dump truck unloading garbage in a field, then calling 911 is appropriate,” said Lt. Williamson. “But for most cases, we’d prefer people call the non-emergency number, 508-693-1212. Like any crime, a cell phone picture or a license plate number will help us. We can’t be everywhere, so this is an area where we really appreciate public assistance,” said Lt. Williamson.

Ultimately, it’s up to individuals and business owners to take care of their own trash, and to hold accountable those who don’t. “I’m going to go get sweepers and put them in all four of my stores,” said Mr. Rebello, a former selectman. “I’m hoping it’ll be contagious.”

“We live here because it’s a beautiful place,” said Mr. Combra. “We do our best to keep it that way, but we need more cooperation from the public.”