Oak Bluffs summer taxpayer forum gives seasonal residents a voice

The Oak Bluffs selectmen's annual summer informational meeting held in the Oak Bluffs Library conference room attracted a full house Tuesday night. — Photo by Janet Hefler

Oak Bluffs selectmen hosted their annual meeting for seasonal home and property owners Tuesday night. The almost three-hour event attracted a standing-room only crowd in the Oak Bluffs library meeting room where seasonal taxpayers aired their concerns and complaints.

Parking changes at Niantic Park, beach conditions, and a proposed oyster farm off Eastville Beach were the hot-button topics, underscored by expressions of frustration over a lack of communication with town officials.

On the topic of beaches, Suesan Stovall called attention to the town’s much-maligned efforts to replenish sand at Inkwell Beach and Pay Beach with dredge spoils from the Lagoon Pond channel, and the condition of town beaches in general. Although the material was expected to bleach out by summer, by spring it was still dark and clay-like, prompting protests from some Oak Bluffs residents. The highway department began removing the spoils in May.

Ms. Stovall said she visited Inkwell Beach on Monday and it was still black and dirty, and was like asphalt. “It’s disgraceful that our beach looks like this and hurts my feet when I walk on it,” she said.

Richard Seelig, who owns a house near the beach, told the selectmen a group of people concerned about the issue have formed the Oak Bluffs Citizens Beach Committee and would like to act as an advisory body to the selectmen. We appreciate the highway’s department’s efforts to remove the material in May,” he added. “We hope if by next spring the sea hasn’t taken away the rest of it, we can somehow find a way to do that.”

Selectman chairman Greg Coogan suggested that the committee get on the selectmen’s agenda for a future meeting to discuss their ideas.

We’re happy to have a committee formed; it’s helpful to us,” park commissioner Amy Billings said.

Several residents who live near Niantic Park said they were not aware that the selectmen were close to approving a final design for renovating the ark. Most of their concerns focused on parking.

The proposed renovation will include new basketball courts, new playground equipment, new fencing and lighting, additional sidewalks and parking, and new public bathrooms that will accommodate families with children and the disabled.

Evan Martinson raised questions about the plan to remove some spaces by the basketball court that is used by the senior center and return those to grass, and to creating a row of paved diagonal parking across Niantic Avenue, as well as eliminating on-street parking. Tamar Kaissar said she and her husband, Tal, are concerned about children’s safety if traffic flow is changed on Wamsutta Avenue.

Our goal was to create as many spaces as we could, as safely as possible, to incorporate walkways, and to make it safe for the kids,” Ms. Billings said. She suggested that concerned residents attend the park commission’s public meeting on August 18.

Although the selectmen had planned to consider final approval for an aquaculture license for Dan and Greg Martino to farm oysters off Eastville Beach, Mr. Coogan said they took it off Tuesday night’s agenda, pending approval from the state’s Department of Marine Fisheries.

The selectmen gave their approval in March on the condition that the oyster cage buoys must not interfere with recreation. Several Eastville Beach residents attended that meeting to oppose the project, and about a dozen were at Tuesday night’s forum to do the same.

Siblings Amy, Jack, Pat, and Wendy Ludwig, who grew up in Pennsylvania and still enjoy their family’s home on Beach Road, were among them. Eastville is still the one beach we can access with boats and swimming — it would be a shame to have part of that use taken away,” Amy Ludwig said, adding that the farm would obstruct navigable water and present a safety issue for windsurfers and small boats.

Wendy Ludwig showed photographs of the area in question, with arrows indicating where the oyster farm would be. This may be best site Oak Bluffs has to offer for this type of venture, but that doesn’t make it a good choice,” Pat Ludwig said. “We’re prepared to fight it.”

The Ludwigs said they were not aware of the issue when it came up last winter and that they didn’t feel they were able to participate in the public discussion.

Several people complained about a lack of notification and communication with the town. The selectmen agreed it is an issue they will work to resolve, most likely by sending emails to home and property owners who sign up.

Earlier in the forum, before opening the floor to questions and comments from the audience, Mr. Coogan called on town administrator Robert Whritenour and several town department heads to talk about their work over the past year.

We’ve got a number of projects that we’re trying to draw the entire community into, not just the folks that are here in the winter, but also the folks that are here in the summer and spring and fall, and get your viewpoints on things,” said Mr. Whritenour, first up on the program.

One of the town’s major focuses has been improvements to finances since 2011, when Oak Bluffs had an “absolutely unacceptable” deficit of $435,533 in the general fund alone, Mr. Whritenour said.

You need to know that since that time, your town leaders have been working extremely hard to eliminate what we had in this town with structural deficits where we were spending more money than we were taking in; there’s just no other way to put it,” he said.

Although it sounds simple to fix, it was a complicated process, Mr. Whritenour added. What made the biggest impact was that the town developed a team approach to finances, involving the selectmen, finance committee, town administrator, town departments, and also the voters. Working with a plan over three years, we have turned that around to the point where last year, we had a $1.5 million general fund balance,” he said.

Mr. Whritenour said the town’s major priority now is trying to create long-term fiscal stability, which will help address some of the major challenges Oak Bluffs faces, including addressing coastal infrastructure projects, such as replenishing beach sand, replacing the North Bluff seawall, and repairing East Chop Bluff.

Mr. Whritenour encouraged everyone to take part in a survey about Oak Bluffs, available online at obdowntown.com.

Police chief Erik Blake, highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr., Oak Bluffs library director Sondra Murphy, shellfish constable Dave Grunden, and Oak Bluffs School assistant principal Carlin Hart also provided reports.

In other business, the selectmen held a hearing regarding a dog complaint against Karen Coffey and Daniel Koch for an incident on July 8 in which their two dogs attacked another dog, for the second time. The selectmen voted unanimously to approve Animal Control Officer Anthony Ben David’s recommendations to place a $200 bond on each dog, and require the owners to keep the dogs in a fenced pen at home, and on a leash no longer than three feet and muzzled when in public.

The selectmen also voted to approve a license for Lucy Abbot, who plans to open a used furniture business, Take a Seat, on Dukes County Avenue, and to reappoint Ms. Billings as the park commission’s representative on the town’s Community Preservation Committee.