Oak Bluffs selectmen move two long standing issues along

An open house will be held on Feb. 1 to go over revised concepts for a new town hall in Oak Bluffs. — MV Times

After many months of deliberation, the Oak Bluffs selectmen approved regulations governing “takeout food served by mobile food vendors,” better known as food trucks, and to address downtown blight, sent a minimum maintenance by-law to the planning board for, if the timing works, addition to the annual April town meeting warrant. A similar article was dropped at the last minute from the November special town meeting warrant.

Food trucks foiled

The most significant food truck regulation prohibits food trucks from the downtown business district, the harbor area — Seaview Avenue, Seaview Avenue extension and the North Bluff bulkhead — and New York Avenue. Additionally, food trucks are not allowed to operate within 200 feet of any restaurant, unless granted permission by the restaurant owner.

Originally, the regulations stated that food trucks were required to be at least 50 feet away from any road where they’re allowed to operate. After some deliberation, selectmen reduced that distance to 40 feet. The selectmen also amended the permitted hours of operation for trucks other than ice cream trucks and canteen trucks, from 7 am to 9 pm, to 9 am to 10 pm. Food trucks are also prohibited from all residential areas. Selectman Michael Santoro and selectman Greg Coogan opposed the limits on Tuesday. “Where would you want a food cart outside of any of these streets?” asked Mr. Coogan. “This essentially eliminates food trucks from Oak Bluffs.”

Selectman Kathy Burton suggested the baseball fields were one option, as well as the former snack bar on Pay Beach.

“Who came up with these streets and why?” asked Mr. Santoro. “Why are we restricting business like this? We’re essentially eliminating food trucks, unless someone has property big enough to put it back 50 feet. This is discriminating.”

“The impact of these trucks is not little,” said selectman Gail Barmakian. “You’ve got vending, you’ve got noise, so if it’s anywhere near somebody’s house, that’s a problem.”

Mr. Santoro suggested that the mobile food vendor licenses should be decided on a case by case basis.

Ms. Barmakian, Ms. Burton and Walter Vail voted in favor of the new regulations. Mr. Santoro and Mr. Coogan voted against.

There will be three seasonal vendor licenses available this spring, good from May 1 to October 31. One license will be for a food truck at Big Bridge, and two licenses will be allocated for Little Bridge.

Exemptions to these rules may be decided on an individual basis by the selectmen.

Food trucks became a contentious issue after William Coggins, co-owner of Ben and Bill’s Ice Cream and owner of the neighboring lot, 16 Circuit Avenue, petitioned the selectmen last March for permission to put food carts on his empty lot. Mr. Coggins said he invested $40,000 to light and landscape the lot. According to the new rules, he will not be permitted to have food trucks on his lot this year, unless granted special permission by the selectmen.

The yearly license fee a mobile food vendor will be $1,000. All trucks are subject to board of health (BOH) regulations. Signs must be approved by the Oak Bluffs signs committee. Licensees also need to provide evidence of comprehensive liability insurance of no less that $1 million. The new regulations do not apply to mobile food vendors who operate less than four days per calendar year, though they do need to get license from the board of health. The town has used the City of Boston criteria to define the various types of mobile food vendors.

Fighting the blight

Also Tuesday, selectmen passed the issue of the “B-1 and B-2 District Minimum Property Maintenance and Vacant Building Zoning By-law” to the Oak Bluffs planning board. The property maintenance bylaw is intended to fight the “spot blight” in the downtown area, as defined by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).  The bylaw was originally on the warrant for the November town meeting but was dropped at the suggestion of town counsel Ronald Rappaport, who thought it had to be a zoning bylaw, crafted by the town planning board. All members of the planning board were at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We’re hoping we can lob this over to the planning board for them to deliberate and hold public hearings so we can get it on the warrant for the April 8 town meeting,” said Mr. Vail, noting that the selectmen have been working on this delicate issue since last March. “The town is looking for us to take some leadership in how Circuit Avenue and other areas of [the business district] look.”

Mr. Vail was candid about the motivation behind the by-law. “We had to find a way, dittoing what Edgartown is doing, to deal with a property owned by the Hall family that is in terrible need of repair. We have no mechanism to do that other than to ask nicely. I have had conversations personally with Buzzy [Hall] and Ben [Hall] and there has been no movement.”

Selectman Barmakian cited the need for an enforcement mechanism for the by-law, namely fines.

Christine Flynn from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission helped draft the by-law, using similar measures from towns across the Commonwealth as precedent. She said there will be fines that can be compounded on a daily basis for non-compliance. She also noted that the vacant building code would take seasonal businesses into consideration.

Under the proposed by-law, town building inspector James Dunn would have to cite a derelict building for violations, after which, the fines would be enforced.

“The Oak Bluffs Association is behind holding people accountable,” said OBA executive director Christine Todd. “There are plenty of businesses that take pride, that have invested money, and have worked extremely hard. We want a fair standard that takes care of our community.”

“I’m totally in support of this concept,” said Mr. Coogan, to the concurring nods of the majority of the selectmen and the unusually large group of attendees.

“The planning board is going to hold a public meetings before we come up with a concrete article,” said planning board chairman John Bradford. “We want input from everyone when we create this.”

Citing the time crunch to get the by-law on the upcoming town meeting warrant—the final draft is due March 5— Mr. Vail urged Mr. Bradford to get the word out quickly, “by Twitter, or Facebook or any means necessary.”

“The town certainly has a right to ask people who own property to maintain certain standards,” said Steven Auerbach, chairman of the town finance committee. “We don’t want to enforce every chip of paint, but the egregious examples, we should be able to say ‘you have to keep your building looking good,’ and impose steadily increasing fines if the initial fine is ignored.”

In other business, Mr. Auerbach asked that the town note the passing of Pete Seeger. “He was a great American, a wonderful man, a great musician, and a man who stuck to his principles for 94 years,” said Mr. Auerbach.