Oak Bluffs battles summer litter surge

An Oak Bluffs street sweeper makes an early morning pass along Kennebec Avenue Tuesday. — Photo by Michael Cummo

When members of the Oak Bluffs Downtown Streetscape Master Plan Committee (DSMPC) began their inaugural outreach campaign on July 23 and 24, the message from town taxpayers and tourists alike was that the town needs to clean up its act.

“An overriding theme was that cleaning and repairing the downtown should be a top priority,” committee member and Oak Bluffs selectman Gail Barmakian told The Times at the conclusion of the two-day public survey. “People were saying that we have to clean it up.”

Another committee member, Brian Packish, said, “Overall, town cleanliness was definitely a big issue.”

The issue is also trending on social media, where residents on the closed Facebook page “Islanders Talk” recently posted pictures of piles of litter sitting beside trash cans, of public restrooms with overflowing trashcans and even hypodermic needles on the restroom floor.

Last year, the problem was so bad that highway department supervisor Richard Combra Jr. made a plea for help to the board of selectmen at their August 6 meeting. “In my 13 years as superintendent, I’ve never seen so much littering,” he said. “It’s definitely worse than it used to be. It seems like it gets worse every year. It’s gotten out of out of hand.”

Mr. Combra asked the selectmen to consider a public awareness campaign to help battle the problem. “We live here because it’s a beautiful place,” he said. “We do our best to keep it that way, but we need more cooperation from the public.”

The selectmen unanimously agreed that the topic warranted further discussion. A year later, the problem persists. “I don’t think it’s gotten any worse since last year,” Mr. Combra said, surveying Circuit Ave early Tuesday morning. “But it needs to get a lot better.”

On Tuesday, The Times joined highway department workers for their morning rounds.

Every day is trash day

At 6:30 am Tuesday morning, Mr. Combra and his crew were on Circuit Ave., making their daily assault on the trash that always awaits them from the night before. Two crew members in screaming yellow highway department shirts were cleaning Healy Square, where plastic cups and paper plates and all manner of trash sat in and around the flower beds, even though trash cans were just a few feet away.

“It’s frustrating,” Mr. Combra said. “If this was late September you’d hardly see any of this. But when you think about how many people are walking around during the summer, it’s probably as many as Fenway Park. Maybe we need a few people just picking up around town.”

The nightlife that draws so many tourists to town also presents the biggest challenge to the highway department.

“We have the most take-out restaurants and the most nightlife on the Island,” Mr. Combra said. “It’s part of the character of the town and that’s great. But for some people it’s not a high priority to put their trash in a barrel.”

As Mr. Combra circled in his truck from Circuit Ave. to Kennebec Ave., he pointed out more trash from the night before, much of it within throwing distance of a town waste bin. He stopped at Giordanos, the popular pizza take-out window and family restaurant, where paper plates and napkins were left on tables from the night before. “They work hard to keep their sidewalks clean, and look,” he said of the Giordanos. “And this is much better than usual.”

The highway department’s job is even more difficult this summer because one of the two trash collecting trucks has been out of service for the last three peak weeks — the peak of the summer litter surge.

While litter is part of the problem, sidewalks that are old and grimy and freckled with black spots also add to the dingy appearance.

Mr. Combra subcontracts a power washing company to clean the Circuit Avenue sidewalks once a month in July and August. This morning, they had turned their jets on the sidewalk that borders Healy Square.

“It looks good right now, but in three or four days, it’ll be pretty much the way it was,” he said. Then he pointed to a soiled section of sidewalk in front of the Game Room. “That was power washed a few days ago, and you can hardly tell the difference. You can only do so much with 75-year-old concrete. Maybe this new downtown committee can help us get new sidewalks.”

Beach trash

“Mark Rivers, our recreation director, has done a great job with keeping the beaches clean,” Mr. Combra said. “The lifeguards have also been a big help.”

“I get a full trash bag off the Inkwell and Pay Beach every morning,” Mr. Rivers told The Times. “Trash was also a big problem in Niantic Park. People were filling them up with their own trash to save the five-dollar sticker, and there was trash everywhere. So I removed the barrels. At first some people weren’t too happy about it, but it worked.”

Mr. Rivers said he puts out bins to accommodate basketball league play and makes sweeps of the park twice a day. He said he was perplexed at the growing phenomena of people leaving trash next to the trash cans, and not in them.

Mr. Combra said his department is responsible for 60 waste bins around town during the summer. While he doesn’t think more barrels will improve the situation downtown, he would like to see a few on State Beach. “We have eight barrels near the Inkwell and as you can see, it really helps. I know they’re big on the carry-in carry-out policy at State Beach, but I don’t think it works that well. No matter how many barrels you have, they don’t work if people don’t use them.”

Merchants weigh in

Many Circuit Avenue merchants think Mr. Combra and the highway department are doing a commendable job, especially given their limited resources.

“It doesn’t seem as bad as last year,” Mark Hanover, owner of Linda Jean’s restaurant, said. “I’m here at 5:30 in the morning, so I see what the highway department has to deal with. It amazes me how many people throw stuff on the ground,” he said. “The thing that really amazes me is the piles of trash that are next to the cans which have plenty of room in them. I mean, come on people, really?”

“I think Richie is doing a great job, especially with his limited resources — I don’t know how he stays so calm,” said Renee Balter, former president of the Oak Bluffs Association (OBA). “A busy town has trash. The town does a good job with it. The tone starts with the condition of the buildings. What does it say when there’s a building at the entrance to the town that’s literally crumbling? It’s so sad. I remember when people used to line up around the corner to see movies. There’s a big audience within walking distance of downtown. People don’t come here on vacation to watch Netflix. This town can support a movie theater.”

“There’s no easy remedy,” said Christine Todd, current president of the OBA. “It takes business owners and citizens working together. I don’t think this should be a situation where there’s finger pointing. People who care need to be part of the solution, whether it’s picking up a piece of trash or showing up at selectmen’s meetings.”

“I think the downtown business owners have to step up,” Erik Albert, owner of the Oak Bluffs Inn, said. “If the flower box around a tree on Circuit Avenue is falling apart, that’s on the town. If it’s filled with cigarette butts and litter, the surrounding businesses have to step up. If the sidewalk is chipped, that’s on the town. If that same sidewalk is greasy and black with dirt, the adjacent business owner should be responsible. It’s about setting a tone. It’s all about pride in our town. And I think a lot of people have that.”

“As a business owner, I want the town to be as clean as we want it to be, but the problem is bigger than the capacity that exists to fix it,” said Laurie Welch, owner of Basics and Eastaway clothing stores, who has been doing business on Circuit Ave for 33 years. ”The highway department is outstretched. They need some extra help. If the downtown was an amusement park and the ticket office was at the Steamship, think how many janitorial personnel would be on duty. We need to come together in a really big way or it’s just going to say the way it is.

Ms. Welch is also optimistic that change is in the air. “I know some people said they don’t want change. They said that when Ed Coogan put in the trees on Circuit Ave. Now there’s a new wave of energy and it’s pivotal to embrace it and not beat them down,” she said of the budding momentum of the DSMPC. “If they have the energy, let’s support them and help them run with it.”

The new energy is on display at the DSMPC Facebook page. While it’s an open forum where people can unleash their complaints, it’s currently dominated by expressions of civic pride, pictures that celebrate the town’s beauty, and a pervasive tone of optimism. It’s been online for less than a month, and it has over 1,000 “likes.”

Downtown detritus has been a hot-button topic for decades. The most recent Oak Bluffs Master Plan, a 92-page document completed in 1998, states on page one, “The vast majority of residents surveyed placed priority attention on the beaches, air and water quality, [and on] cleaning up all areas of town.” The plan goes on to state that the top policy priority for the town should be “to manage downtown trash better.”

To remedy the problem, the plan suggests, “Town should supply more trash barrels on Circuit Ave, nice ones, ideally no more than 20 feet apart. Consider pledging business owners to clean sidewalks in front of their businesses and recommend Selectmen enforce existing by-law requiring businesses to keep sidewalks and alleyways free of trash.”