MVC blesses Oak Bluffs bowling alley development

Photo by Ralph Stewart

In a unanimous 9-0 vote on March 6, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) approved, with conditions, the new bowling alley/entertainment center to be built on Uncas Avenue in Oak Bluffs by developer Sam Dunn.

“I think this is a model project for a lot of reasons,” said commissioner John Breckenridge of Oak Bluffs. “This project can, in a lot of ways, set the tone for the town of Oak Bluffs. It’s good for the town, and it’s good for our economy as a whole.”

“I think this project is going to be good for the Island,” said commissioner Christina Brown of Edgartown. “I think our back and forth has been all for the good. Thank you, Mr. Dunn.”

“I’m very pleased with the decision,” Mr. Dunn said after the vote. “It validates the soundness of this project.”

Since the public hearings began on February 6, the MVC discussed possible conditions for approval that have included hours of operation, parking, affordable housing, additional de-nitrification, noise and light mitigation, and landscaping. The project was unanimously recommended, with conditions, to the full commission at Land Use Planning Committee (LUPC) meeting on March 3.

As currently designed, the 13,500-square-foot project on Uncas Avenue will have 10 bowling lanes, a bar, a restaurant, two golf simulators, a game room, an event room, and two apartments that would qualify as affordable housing. Mr. Dunn estimates the cost of construction at $2.5 million.

Prickly proceedings

Since the first of two packed hearings on February 6, emotions have run high. Abutting homeowners opposed to the project were the vocal majority at the February 6 hearing, while advocates for the project were in full cry at the February 20 hearing.

The controversy surrounding the project escalated after the February 20 hearing, when MVTV microphones picked up commissioner Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, making an off-the-cuff remark as the commission recessed just after Mr. Dunn’s hearing. Once aware of the kerfuffle caused by Ms. Sibley’s aside, MVTV took the hearing off its website and edited her comment out, which further inflamed the debate. A clip containing her comment was posted on Youtube by a Times reader. To date it has had nearly 1,200 views.

In a subsequent interview with the Times, Ms. Sibley steadfastly maintained she was joking and felt certain that Mr. Dunn would have taken it that way. Mr. Dunn was nonplussed, writing in an email to the Times, “I doubt she meant anything by it because I have always found her to be fair and objective.”

Benefits vs. Detriments

Before the final vote, as is custom, MVC Chairman Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs went down the MVC checklist of benefits and detriments of the project.

– Wastewater and stormwater disposal — both benefits. After reviewing the proposed FAST denitrification system, Sheri Caseau, MVC water planner concluded “It [nitrogen level] stays well within the thresholds of the commission’s water quality policy.”

– Providing open space — benefit. Open space is not required in the B1 district, but it is provided in the developer’s plan. “The building height and overall size are considerably less than zoning allows,” Mr. Breckenridge said.

– Lighting — benefit. The project requires little exterior lighting.

– Energy consumption — benefit. The structure meets Massachusetts Stretch Energy Code which provides for energy efficient alternatives.

– Traffic — benefit. In response to abutter concerns, the MVC retained C3 Consulting Group to prepare a second Traffic Impact Assessment (TIA), beyond the study already done by the commission. The second study concluded, “The intersections of Circuit Avenue and Uncas Avenue as well as Pocasset Avenue and Uncas Avenue will operate at acceptable levels of service.” Regarding the much-debated topic of parking, the study concluded, “Parking supply satisfies the expected parking demand.” Mr. Dunn has planned 32 parking spaces, four more parking spaces than the required minimum, according to the town zoning requirement. He also agreed to purchase year round MVTA passes for employees who agreed not to drive to work.

– Affordable housing — “I think we can all agree this is a big benefit,” said Mr. Hancock. The project comes with two new affordable housing apartments, to be leased to applicants who earn 80 percent or less of the Dukes County the average median income (AMI).

– Increase in town tax base — benefit. The property will generate $10,612 in annual property tax value. Meal taxes will also add to town coffers.

– Economic impact — benefit. “This takes a currently derelict property and creates a viable business that is an additional attraction to the town during the shoulder seasons,” Ms. Sibley said. Once in operation, the Mr. Dunn estimates the bowling alley/entertainment center will employ 20 to 25 people, roughly half of them on a full-time basis.

– Appropriate and essential — benefit. Commissioner Tripp Barnes of Tisbury cited Mr. Dunn’s past record of building Island-appropriate, successful commercial enterprises.

– Scenic value — “A definite benefit,” Mr. Hancock said, with especially strong agreement from his fellow commissioners.

– Impact on abutters — “A slight detriment,” Mr. Hancock said,  since it was not clear whether the development would have a positive or negative impact on abutters’ property values.  

– Noise — “Of everything we talked about, this is the biggest detriment of the project,” Mr. Hancock said. After the first public hearing, where Mr. Dunn agreed there would be no amplified live music, the commission asked for an independent acoustic study.

Mr. Dunn enlisted acoustical consultants Cavanaugh Tocci Associates, the same firm that developed the successful sound mitigation protocol for Dreamland after abutters had expressed similar concerns. Cavanaugh Tocci Associates responded with a plan for the abutting wall with a Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating of 62, per the guidelines of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). According to the ASTM, at STC 50, loud sounds like musical instruments can be faintly heard and 99 percent of the population is not annoyed. Anything over 60 is considered “superior soundproofing, most sounds inaudible.” Mr. Dunn estimated the additional sound mitigation measures will cost around $25,000.

In his offer to the commission, Mr. Dunn stated that he would take whatever actions were necessary to achieve STC 62 on the abutting wall. Although some on the commission weighed how to define the condition more specifically, at one point confusing decibels with STC, the full commission agreed to Mr. Dunn’s original wording, adding that testing would be required if and when the building is in operation.

Mr. Dunn noted that Oak Bluffs town noise statutes, cited by Attorney Ellen Kaplan in her motion to intervene on behalf of a group of 10 abutters, actually helped his case, since abutters were requesting that the bowling alley be inaudible or barely audible from a distance of five feet, whereas the town bylaw states, “Noise that is plainly audible at a distance of 150 feet from the vehicle, or premises from which it originates shall constitute prima facie evidence of violation of this bylaw.”

Also to address sound and light mitigation, per the recommendation of the Oak Bluffs planning committee on January 23, Mr. Dunn agreed to plant honey locust trees along the border residential district border. In the motion to intervene, Ms. Kaplan states, “Applicant has not made any proposals to deal with these deciduous trees which will likely deposit leaves onto the neighbor’s properties.”

In the end, commissioner Hancock, acknowledging the extensive measures Mr. Dunn has agreed to take to mitigate noise, said the noise potential was a “slight detriment.”

Drunken misbehavior

Another major point of contention was the full bar, and the increased likelihood of drunken misbehavior. Some of those opposed suggested a compromise of beer and wine only.

“We have an absolute obligation to address the request for a beer and wine license,” said commissioner Sibley. “We have not actually been presented with any studies or statistics that demonstrates that people are more rowdy after hard drinks than beer. Secondly, this is clearly the responsibility of the town.”

Mr. Dunn had previously volunteered to make last call for food and drink at 10:30 on weeknights and 11:30 on weekends. Town law states that, if he is granted a liquor license, he could make last call at 1 am.

Mr. Dunn made no offer to add additional security at closing time, as requested by opponents. Ms. Kaplan states in her motion, “Currently Oak Bluffs police concentrate their efforts in the Harbor and Circuit Avenue…A new bar in the proposed location will draw the bar scene further into the residential neighborhoods of Oak Bluffs and will divide the police presence.”

In a phone call with the Times, Oak Bluffs police chief Erik Blake said, “I look forward to hearing what Mr. Dunn has to say when he goes in front of the selectmen,” adding that he has been monitoring the bowling alley developments closely. “Will we be called to that area? I’m sure we will. He’s also talking about ending food and drink service before the town really gets going. From what I’ve seen, they don’t look like they’re building a bar with a bowling alley attached. But if it turned into something that got out of hand, the selectmen can act quickly to revoke or amend the license.”

Next frame

Mr. Dunn still has to get MVC approval for the final exterior lighting and landscaping plans.

On March 25 he will go before the Oak Bluffs selectmen to apply for a liquor license, something he deems as essential to the viability of the project. He will also have to go before the Oak Bluffs planning board again, since changes have been made by the MVC since the board’s previous unanimous approval.

“If all goes well, we’re hoping to break ground May 1,” Mr. Dunn said. There is a construction moratorium in downtown Oak Bluffs from June 1 to September 15, however Mr. Dunn has been informed by town officials that it would not pertain to the Uncas Ave. location.

The commission will vote on the formal language of the written decision next Thursday, March 20. Opponents may appeal the MVC’s decision in Dukes County Superior Court within 21 days after receiving the written decision by certified mail. Although MVC rulings are rarely overturned, an appeal could significantly delay construction of the project.

Ms. Kaplan did not return repeated calls from the Times.