Beach Road reconstruction plans spur zoning discussion

State plans to reconstruct a portion of Beach Road in Vineyard Haven bypass zoning obstacles, critics say.

The Mass Department of Transportation plans a makeover of Beach Road. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) is planning a complete overhaul of a congested section of an important Martha’s Vineyard transportation artery over the next several years. MassDOT plans to add sidewalks and bike lanes to a section of Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, from the Wind’s Up watersports shop to Five Corners.

While any improvement is welcome, local officials and several property owners said that without significant changes in existing town zoning regulations, the town could be left with a brand-new roadway, but the same limited access to the waterfront, dilapidated structures and vacant lots, for years to come. One question raised is whether zoning bylaws now prevent the type of waterfront development they were intended to encourage.

The $1 million MassDOT road project is in a preliminary design phase. It is expected to receive federal funding in 2017.

Local town and Island officials are working with MassDOT on a plan to transform what is now a jumbled collection of sidewalks, shoulders, utility infrastructure, and a bike path that ends abruptly, into a smooth passageway for motorists, bicyclists and walkers.

The project faces legal and design obstacles, mostly triggered by the narrow roadway.

The width of the state’s right of way is only 40 feet at its narrowest point, where the roadway is flanked by the Packer Company’s concrete retaining wall on one side, and the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard buildings on the other side. Squeezing utilities, sidewalks, bike lanes, and vehicle travel lanes into that space will require variances from required state roadway standards. Alternatively, MassDOT could negotiate with dozens of landowners for easements in order to acquire enough space to meet the design standards.

Tisbury town meeting voters have authorized the town to pursue land rights for the project.

Zoned in

The stretch of Beach Road under consideration includes a mix of retail and construction businesses, along with office space. These include Hinckley lumber and Ace Hardware, West Marine, Tisbury Marketplace, Granite City Electric Supply and Vineyard Scripts pharmacy.

There are three major marine facilities: Gannon and Benjamin boatyard, Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard and the R.M. Packer Company, Inc. Owner Ralph Packer owns the Shell gas station, in addition to marine shipping operations and fuel storage on large shoreline parcels on both sides of Beach Road.

At annual town meeting in 1996, Tisbury voters approved new zoning bylaws that created a Waterfront and Commercial District. The boundaries of the two districts are complicated, but in general the waterfront district encompasses the land 100 feet back from Vineyard Haven Harbor, and 100 feet back from Lagoon Pond. The thin zoning district stretches from the Steamship Authority terminal to the drawbridge, and back to Maciel Marine on Lagoon Pond.

The new bylaws stipulated that any development within the district must be marine or harbor related. The bylaw specifically mentions aquaculture facilities, commercial fishing and fish processing, boatyards, facilities for tugboats and other vessels involved in port operations, and marine terminals. It also allows a wildlife refuge or park that promotes public enjoyment of the harbor.

Though the waterfront zoning was intended to encourage marine uses, it was also meant to preserve the working waterfront. There was fear at the time of the zoning changes, that developers would buy out marine businesses, and use the land for other kinds of development.

“The purpose of the zoning was largely to protect the existing business that were on the shore, and prevent them from being driven out,” Henry Stephenson, co-chairman of the Tisbury planning board, told The Times.

In nearly two decades since the zoning changes took effect, not a single marine based development of any kind has been built, and some point directly to the waterfront zoning district as the reason.

“It doesn’t achieve the goal of having better access to the water,” Mr. Stephenson said. He advocates a big picture approach. “You need a much broader look at the land uses along the shore to see how those pieces fit together,” Mr. Stephenson said. “When you get to Five Corners, what do you do? If you’re building Beach Road straight down to Five Corners, you should be looking at a link to the ferry while you’re at it. There is an overlay of issues that have to be addressed.”

Piecemeal plans

Planning board co-chairman Daniel Seidman says he is frustrated with the zoning regulations that govern development on Beach Road.

“In the past, things have been done piecemeal,” Mr. Seidman said. “It’s been more reactive than proactive. It’s nice to say there is a road and there are bike paths, but if it doesn’t help the town in general, we’re just doing piecemeal work.”

The planning board is about to embark on a “visioning” process. The process will take the form of facilitated public workshops, hearings, and efforts to raise awareness about planning issues.

Mr. Seidman said that unless the public is engaged from the start, it will be difficult to determine what people want Tisbury to look like, and how to plan a path to get there. He cited Beach Road as an example.

“There’s no town buy-in for what you see there,” Mr. Seidman said. “That’s why nothing has been done. If there’s no town buy-in to the solution, it will simply accumulate dust.”

It appears that is exactly what happened to the last plan the town created, in January 2006.

A 21-page document titled “Downtown and the Waterfront Planning Alternatives,” listed eight specific proposals to “reinforce the town center, open up access to the harbor, relieve traffic congestion, improve the economy and restore a more comfortable village atmosphere.”

The proposals include creating a harborwalk, reorganizing vehicle access in and out of the Steamship Authority terminal, and establishing a pedestrian system linking downtown to the waterfront.

The only recommendations implemented, however, were to move the fire station out of downtown, and reconfigure the town-owned parking lot between Stop & Shop and the police station, a plan that has been the target of much criticism.

A lot in play

Ernie Boch Jr., a seasonal resident of Edgartown and owner of a group of successful auto dealerships, is starting with a blank slate. Owner of an undeveloped lot on Beach Road near Five Corners, he said the waterfront zoning regulations are the reason the prime waterfront property has sat vacant for more than a decade.

“Boch Park,” as it was known, was the subject of a protracted legal battle between the town of Tisbury and Mr. Boch’s father, who purchased the property in 1987, when he created a valet parking lot on the property.

A long derelict shop, known as the Entwistle building, sits on one corner of the lot. It is condemned and due to be demolished. A large part of the property lies in the commercial district, and could be developed into retail, office space, or housing. But some of the lot lies in the waterfront district and is restricted to marine use under current zoning.

“I would love to develop it into something nice and cool and useful,” Mr. Boch said in a phone interview with The Times on Tuesday. “It’s a beautiful little harbor. The idea that you have to use it for marine use limits what you can do. It needs something to bring it into the 21st century. What are you going to do, add another dock?”

Mr. Boch, who has earned a reputation as a generous philanthropist, said the restrictive zoning puts the town at risk for a lawsuit, though he stressed he has no intention of taking any legal action. “It’s going to happen, it will happen,” he said. “Somebody will sue them and wind up building something that nobody likes. If they continue with these policies, that’s what is going to happen. I would never do that, but somebody will.”

He called on the town to take the lead in drawing interest from developers on his property, and others along Beach Road.

“If they truly want to develop that, they should ask for plans, they should be proactive, they should go on offense, not defense,” Mr. Boch said.

Power play

Sam Dunn, an architect and builder who developed Tisbury Marketplace, is alarmed at the lack of overall planning for Beach Road. He says the zoning ordinance that limits development to marine use is a well intentioned 20 year test that failed.

“You can declare the harbor is going to be a working harbor, you can’t just will it to happen,” Mr. Dunn said. “It has to be changed. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon the idea of boatyards. I think there should be some zoning that mixes in some other uses that would be compatible.”

The MassDOT process of negotiating land rights with dozens of property owners seems daunting to Mr. Dunn and others involved in the project. “You’ve got to have a very thick skin, a lot of time, and a lot of money,” Mr. Dunn said.

He said there are alternatives, that include extending sidewalks only from Five Corners to the Shell gas station, which would avoid the bottleneck to the east. He said the project should include a plan to bury utility lines in an underground conduit.

“Just throw the money at putting the power lines underground, instead of this incredibly cumbersome plan to get property from many different property owners,” Mr. Dunn said.

Ralph Packer, who owns several parcels along Beach Road, also advocates putting utilities underground. “If the electrical collar is put underground, we would do whatever is necessary to facilitate an easement,” he said. He said that he had submitted the offer in writing to Tisbury selectmen and the town’s department of public works.

Mr. Packer was among the group of planners and property owners who worked on the zoning ordinance two decades ago.

“We’re not interested in seeing motels and hotels along the beach,” he said. “We’re probably one of the last working harbors. Nantucket is completely a recreational harbor. The south side of the Cape is all recreational. Not everybody is happy, but I think we all try to live within what it was created for. Once in a while you might like to do something different, but I do not think the waterside district is a hindrance.”