West Tisbury defeats step toward dredging Mill Pond

At annual town meeting Tuesday, voters narrowly rejected a request for money to design and permit dredging the scenic pond.

Flanked by West Tisbury town officials, moderator Pat Gregory led voters through the warrant. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Following nearly an hour of passionate debate at their annual town meeting Tuesday evening, West Tisbury voters narrowly defeated an article funding design and permitting in preparation for dredging Mill Pond. After moderator Pat Gregory declared a voice vote inconclusive, a show of hands defeated the article, 119-100.

Voters approved money for several projects outside of West Tisbury, including Little League fields, affordable housing, and preservation of the Gay Head Light.

They also gave a green light to measures affecting detached bedrooms, solar energy installations, and fertilizer use.

A total of 221 voters were officially counted as voters and began action on 43 warrant articles shortly after 7 pm. That represents nine percent of West Tisbury’s 2,446 registered voters. The meeting was adjourned at about 9:30 pm.

Town elections are scheduled for Thursday, April 10, but there are no contested races for town offices. Polls are open at the Public Safety Building on State Road from 12 noon to 8 pm.

Mill Pond battle

The carefully worded Mill Pond article asked voters to authorize spending $30,000 from Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds “for design and permitting in preparation for dredging to preserve Mill Pond.” Another $20,000 was pledged in private donations, to complete the $50,000 project. The warrant article also said the design and permitting process would be conducted in tandem with a watershed study approved at last year’s annual town meeting. Earlier in the meeting, voters agreed to spend an additional $15,000 to complete that watershed study, which is an assessment of all the water sources that feed into and drain out of Mill Pond, but does not cover the pond itself. The article said dredging would not proceed without a further vote of the town meeting.

Supporting the article, Anna Alley read a statement for the majority of the members of the town’s Mill Pond Committee, who stood to the side of the West Tisbury School gymnasium. The committee cited two previous studies as evidence that the Mill Pond is filling with sediment and being overtaken by invasive vegetation.

“I’m sure many of you saw the algae blooms last summer,” Ms. Alley said. “It was the worst I’ve ever seen it, and it will continue.”

She said private donors quickly gathered pledges to supplement the CPA funds for the design and permitting. “They need a signal from the town that we do intend to preserve the pond,” she said. “Please vote yes to preserve your pond.”

The Mill Pond issue has deeply divided town voters, and the chasm of public opinion was never better illustrated than the location of the seat committee member Kent Healy chose, all the way on the other side of the auditorium from his committee. Mr. Healy is caretaker of the Mill Pond Dam, a Mill Brook historian, and a respected civil engineer. Across the expanse of passionately committed voters, he offered a spirited dissent. Citing the same two studies, he said the pond is in good health and not getting shallower.

“Making the pond deeper by dredging would only increase leakage into the sand and gravel on the bottom of the pond,” Mr. Healey said. “Dredging is unnecessary to preserve the pond. Dredging would be a messy, expensive, and risky proposition.”

Nancy Dole, speaking for the West Tisbury Historic Commission, urged voters to approve the design and permitting. While expressing her respect for Mr. Healey, she said many disagree with his assessment of the pond’s health.

“Experts in the field don’t agree with him,” Ms. Dole said. “We hope the outcome will be a vote to move ahead. I’m not an engineer, I can’t tell how deep the pond is. But I do know that last summer it was covered with scum.”

Others thought the warrant article put the cart before the horse.

“It’s irresponsible to vote $50,000 for a project that we have not yet approved,” said Nancy Cabot. “If we approve the $50,000, it then becomes ammunition later on down the road, because we’ve already spent $50,000. I would rather the decision about dredging come first.”

The Mill Pond Committee has sparked passionate opposition, and several voters were not shy with their criticism.

“The dredging committee dug in its heels, and has refused to hear different points of view,” said Ebba Hierta. “The biggest whopper of all is that the Mill Pond is filling in. It’s not. The case for dredging does not hold water.”

The atmosphere was suspenseful as vote counters carefully recorded raised hands. When Mr. Gregory, the moderator, announced the tally, the meeting collectively exhaled with a mixture of surprise, disappointment, and relief.

A question of money

At the beginning of the meeting, voters unanimously approved the fiscal year 2015 town budget, after very brief discussion. The $15.9 million spending plan represents an increase of 7 percent over the previous year, according to town accountant Bruce Stone. Before the vote, he said the budget would result in a 6 percent increase in the tax levy, which would amount to a hike of about $160 on property assessed at $500,000.

The unusually large increase is the result of debt on the police station and library, increased operating and staffing costs for the new library, and a large increase in education costs.

Late in the meeting, voters approved using $435,000 from the town’s free cash account, to lessen the impact of the budget increases.

Out of town

West Tisbury voters authorized several substantial expenditures from CPA funds to pay for regional projects.

After much discussion, voters approved $65,000 in CPA funds to rehabilitate affordable housing at 14 Village Court in Tisbury.

“We thought it was a really good value for $65,000, if you think how much it costs to build a rental unit in town,” said Dale Julier, a member of the Community Preservation Committee.

Someone who lives or works in West Tisbury, and earns less than 60 percent of the area wide median income, will be given preference for one of six rental apartments in the building. The Island Housing Trust plans to purchase and fix up the property.

“It’s my understanding that the people who are currently living there will be displaced,” said voter Brian Smith. “We are spending taxpayer dollars to put people out of their homes.”

David Vignault, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, responded. The housing authority owns three other buildings in the complex and would manage the new affordable units. He said two current occupants of the building will qualify for the subsidized apartments and will stay. Others have found new homes, but some will be displaced.

“People are working where they can, and living where they have to,” Mr. Vignault said. “Folks are pretty desperate out there.”

Voters also authorized $80,738 in CPA funds to pay part of the cost of moving the Gay Head Lighthouse in Aquinnah, which is threatened by erosion. They also voted $25,000 in CPA funds to pay a share of the cost to build new baseball fields in Oak Bluffs, which will be used by Little League players from all Island towns.

An article asking voters to authorize $75,000 in CPA funds to replace a fence around the West Tisbury Cemetery drew substantial opposition. After voters challenged the moderator’s ruling on a voice vote, a show of hands resulted in approval of the article, by a margin of 108 to 102.

Land use

Voters approved two complex changes to zoning laws, including a measure limiting the size and design of detached bedrooms to 400 square feet with one lavatory. The measure prohibits a kitchen or cooking facilities.

They also approved a change in zoning laws to promote standards for placement, design, and construction of solar energy installations intended to address public safety, and minimize the impact on scenic, natural and historic resources.

The town meeting approved new regulations governing the use of lawn fertilizer to reduce nitrogen loading and improve water quality.

“It offers a fairly inexpensive way to get a handle on nitrogen,” said Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society. “It sends the right message about this community’s determination to protect our waters, and will quite likely have the effect of reducing the price tag of dealing with the nitrogen problem going forward.”

In other action, the town meeting voted overwhelmingly to change the office of town treasurer from an elected position to an appointed position. The change is contingent on approval at the polls Thursday’s when voters choose town officers.

“Skipper’s” driving habits

One of the first articles before the town meeting provided a measure of comic relief. It asked voters for $33,200 to buy a new police cruiser. Police Chief Dan Rossi approached the microphone.

“I would like to make a motion to postpone the article for the new police cruiser indefinitely,” Chief Rossi said. “The cruiser that’s scheduled to go out of the rotation has close to 90,000 miles on it, but it’s mechanically sound, the body is in good shape. Mainly, Skipper drives it,” he said, referring to Sgt. Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter. “We all know how he drives.”

The motion got a hearty laugh from the crowd, who then voted unanimously to table the article.