Chilmark voters derail Squibnocket Beach plan, 83-81

Following a long and emotional debate, voters rejected a plan to build a new bridge to Squibnocket Farms, and relocate the public parking lot.

A full house at the Chilmark town meeting debated a controversial Squibnocket Beach plan. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Updated 10:35 am, Friday

An $8.7-million Chilmark operating budget, a new police vehicle, oysters and mussels for Chilmark Pond, restoring old gravestones, fixing a rotten door on the fire station. Article after article sailed through the smooth waters of the Chilmark annual town meeting Monday evening on a predictable rhythm of voice votes. There was hardly a whisper of debate or dissent from the 173 voters — just 19 percent of the town’s 917 registered voters — seated in the Chilmark Community Center. The smooth sailing ended when longtime moderator Everett Poole, in a deep voice imbued with an authority earned by many hours at the moderator’s lectern, said simply, “Article 28,” and paused.

A stir rippled through the packed Chilmark Community Center building as voters straightened up in their chairs and readied prepared statements scribbled on note paper. Executive secretary Tim Carroll hustled to lower the big screen and fire up the digital projector for a presentation of a plan to radically change the roadway and parking configuration at Squibnocket Beach.

The debate that followed had all the flavor of a small town political donnybrook and pitted neighbor against neighbor, Islander against wash-ashore, coastal geologist against coastal geologist, against the backdrop of a relentless and rising ocean battering the popular beach precisely two miles, as the crow flies, from where they all sat.

Beaches and bridges

Winter storms have eroded much of the sandy beach, left the boulder revetment crumbling, damaged utility conduits, and all but destroyed the public parking lot and the private access road to the Squibnocket Farms subdivision.

Article 28 asked voters to authorize selectmen to move forward with the development of a plan — negotiated between the town, the Squibnocket Farms Homeowners Association, and the Vineyard Open Land Foundation — that would allow the town to relocate the parking lot, remove the boulder revetment, manage the beach back to its natural state and build a bridge set back from the shoreline to provide access. The agreement would also add about 1,200 feet of beach for public use.

Selectman Warren Doty presented a detailed description of the plan in a presentation projected on a large screen at the front of the Community Center.  “It can’t stay the way it is,” he said. “The selectmen believe this is the best proposal that has worked out, and that’s available. It’s up to the town meeting to decide how you want to go with this.”

Amended argument

Opponents of Article 28 headed off debate on the merits of the plan from the start. Chris Murphy, a member of the town’s conservation commission and former chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, was the first speaker. He moved to amend the article,by replacing it entirely with a plan to establish a new committee, appointed by the town moderator, to study alternatives, and issue a report to selectmen at a later town meeting.

“Despite what the selectmen say, I don’t feel there has been adequate discussion and investigation of the alternatives,” Mr. Murphy said. “None of us want to look at this bridge. It’s not the right answer. At least let’s go look at other answers.”

Opponents of the plan, including some who live in the Blacksmith Valley neighborhood that overlooks the beach, directed withering criticism at selectmen, charging that the town failed to consider other alternatives.

“I have gone to many hearings to try to bring new information,” said voter David Damroth. “I’ve always been told to sit down, we’re not interested.”

Selectmen were mostly silent after the initial presentation, but they did take strong exception to charges that their process was less than transparent.

“That’s nonsense,” selectman Bill Rossi said. “This amendment forgets one important component. Squibnocket Farms really needs to be on board for this project to work. I don’t know if Squibnocket Farms wants to have Blacksmith Valley plan their project for them.”

Most of the speakers who trekked to the microphone opposed the selectmen’s plan, but many defended town officials. Among them was Pamela Goff, former selectman and longtime member of the town’s conservation commission

“They are the only ones who can negotiate deals for us,” Ms. Goff said. “If you don’t like it, vote it down. If you do want to proceed, work with them if you can. You might be throwing out the good, in pursuit of the perfect.”

Hanging over the entire debate was a scenario that would leave the town without additional beach frontage, or a new parking lot. Several times, backers of the plan noted that the Squibnocket Farms Homeowners Association already owns the land and easement rights it needs to construct a bridge, and the group is confident it can get all the necessary building and environmental permits. That prompted a charge of bullying from one voter.

Michelle Lasser, who lives in Squibnocket Farms and is active in the homeowners association, responded to that charge.

“We are not bullies,” Ms. Lasser said. “I’d like to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. If we vote for this amendment, we’re essentially throwing out everything the selectmen have done. It’s very hurtful to hear people say things that are just simply not true.”

Voter Thomas Bena was among the most vocal opponents of the plan. He distributed renderings that showed an alternative roadway protected by a man-made dune, and renderings of the proposed bridge. He referred to ceiling of the Community Center as a point of comparison for the height of the bridge. The plan presented by selectmen described the bridge deck as 15 feet above sea level, about five feet above the current parking lot.

Mr. Doty called the renderings deceptive. Ms. Lasser called them incendiary.

Counting votes

“Unfortunately, we’ve been asked to have a secret ballot,” Mr. Poole said when the time for debate ended. He instructed voters to come forward row by row, check in with the registrars, and mark their choice on a slip of pink paper, a process that took about 30 minutes. Voters immediately broke into a dull roar of speculation. Mr. Poole quietly counted the votes behind the lectern, arranging them into neat piles of 10.

He turned back to the lectern, and waited patiently. The room fell absolutely silent.

“The amendment is carried 83 to 81,” he said. A swing of just one vote would have produced a tie, defeating the amendment.

The article as amended passed on a voice vote.

Now what?

“It’s time for the selectmen to step back to see what this committee does and see what happens next,” Mr. Doty said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We made our proposal and the town meeting said hold on a minute.”

According to Mr. Doty, Mr. Poole intends to wait about a week to name the new committee.

He said the Squibnocket Farms Homeowners Association has not indicated to selectmen whether homeowners intend to move forward on their own with construction of an elevated access roadway.

Other action

The town meeting approved all other articles on the warrant. Chilmark voters went to the polls Wednesday to elect town officers, and act on two Proposition 2.5 override questions that ask whether the town should be allowed to assess an additional $122,000 in taxes to fund Chilmark’s share of the cost to educate students at Martha’s Vineyard Regional School District, and an additional $71,000 for the Up-Island Regional School District.

At the polls

In the wake of Monday’s annual town meeting, 134 of Chilmark’s 917 registered voters went to the polls Wednesday and took care of unfinished business.

Voters by a vote of 102 to 30 approved Question 1, a $122,000 Proposition 2.5 override request to pay for the town’s Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School assessment.

Question 2 on the ballot, a request for $71,000 for the Up Island School District, also passed easily by a vote of 104 to 28.

There were no contests on the ballot. The following town officers were elected: selectman, Warren Doty (99); board of assessors, Elizabeth Oliver (114); board of health, Matthew Poole (120); planning board, Richard Alan Osnoss (105); planning board, Joan Malkin (30); library trustee, Jane D. Kaplan (114). There were no candidates for a seat on the finance advisory committee.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Thomas Bena referred to the proposed bridge as 24 feet high. He said the bridge was 19 feet high.