West Tisbury selectmen question volume of Agricultural Hall use

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The Ag Hall is a popular island venue for a variety of events. — File photo by Lynn Christoffers

At the West Tisbury selectmen’s meeting on October 29, selectman Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter asked the town zoning inspector to verify that the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society (MVAS) is not scheduling more events at the Agricultural Hall than current zoning allows.

The use of the large barn and the 23-acre grounds, the site of the annual Dukes County Fair, is limited by the town’s zoning bylaw and by an agricultural preservation restriction (APR) placed on the property when the previous owners, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Newhall Woods, sold the land to the MVAS in 1991.

“I do believe they rent it beyond the number of uses they are permitted,” said Mr. Manter, a lifetime member of the Ag Society who resigned from the Ag Society’s board of directors a year ago for personal reasons. “I do not believe they are in violation of the APR, but I believe zoning should be looked at. I do not think they are doing what they agreed to do.”

Selectman Richard Knabel pointed out that town counsel Ronald Rappaport clearly stated the use conditions in a July 1998 letter to selectmen.

“Maybe we could use this opportunity to review the zoning and move it forward,” selectman Cynthia Mitchell said, “to see if the zoning should be amended or changed.”

Turning people away

The Ag Hall is a popular venue for a variety of activities, including weddings, parties, craft fairs, memorial services, dances, dinners, and lectures.

Ag Society board president Dale McClure told The Times in a phone call that Mr. Manter was the group’s use watchdog before he resigned from the board. “I think he is still doing that job now as selectman,” he said.

Mr. McClure said that Mr. Manter’s request could spark a redefinition of how the property is used. “We really want to get the zoning changed to accommodate the needs of the society,” he said. “When we built the place we never dreamed the old story ‘build it and they will come.’ We built it and they are coming. It’s not really a West Tisbury institution. It’s a Vineyard institution. Its like a community center and everybody wants to use it.”

Mr. McClure said one option is to seek a zoning change at town meeting in order to accommodate the MVAS and the town. He added that he would like to see the town create a special zoning district for nonprofits, including the adjacent Polly Hill Arboretum. He agreed that a reinterpretation of the APR may also be required.

“We feel like we are always on the fence,” he said. “We are turning people away we don’t want to turn away.”

The APR limits use of the property to the “full-range” of non-profit and educational activities MVAS “has historically pursued,” as well as limited commercial activities that “relate directly to the non-profit and educational function of MVAS.”

A sharp increase in the number of requests to rent the Agricultural Hall prompted a discussion among the selectmen and Ag Society officials on June 15, 2011, about the possibility of expanding both the number and the types of events allowed.

The Times reported that town officials leaned heavily on a July 8, 1998, legal opinion that Mr. Rappaport provided to Lenny Jason, the acting town zoning officer at the time. Mr. Rappaport concluded that the use of the property is limited by the town zoning bylaws and the APR.

Mr. Rappaport highlighted the controlling language in the APR. The property owner had the right to conduct or permit only the following: “The use of the property, and the construction or placing of buildings or structures, for non-profit and non-profit educational purposes only, and for non-profit agricultural purposes and such limited commercial agricultural purposes as may be directly related to the permitted non-profit and non-profit educational uses of the property.”

Focusing on town bylaws, Mr. Rappaport said the Ag Hall could be used for events that are “customarily incidental to a permitted use.” For example, concerts and similar activities solely for raising funds for the MVAS, provided the impact on the neighborhood is limited.

Addressing the bylaw but not the APR, Mr. Rappaport said, “We are of the opinion that a small number of weddings could be deemed permitted on the property under the bylaw as an incidental use.”

Among other restrictions, he recommended that only five weddings be permitted in a calendar year; only weddings of a MVAS member in good standing for five years be permitted; a member of MVAS be present at each wedding at all times; and at least four weeks’ notice be given to selectmen and the chief of police.

In addition, he said, three additional activities per year, for example the Vineyard Nursing Association auction, a birthday party, and the family Planning Art show could be deemed as incidental uses, he said.

Lots of requests

Eleanor Neubert began working for the Ag Society as the fair manager 30 years ago, a job she still has. She is now also a member of the board and is responsible for booking the use of the hall and grounds. She said that the town has requested a copy of the calendar she uses to book the events.

“We get calls from people who want to hold weddings all the time,” she said, “about 50 or 60 every year, but we can only allow six a year.” All six slots are filled for 2015 and two have been booked for 2016. The hall costs $4,000 for weddings.”

Ms. Neubert said there were six memorial services this year, including the Pat Gregory service that drew an overflow crowd.

There are dozens of events every year that fit within the APR definitions that are sponsored either by the Ag Society or local agricultural groups like Island Grown Initiative, Native Earth teaching farm, MV Horse council, and Slow Food. These include dinners, meetings, lectures, monthly board meetings, horse shows and classes, and the Dukes County Fair.

In addition, this year the West Tisbury Congregational Church used the hall Sunday mornings when their sanctuary was undergoing renovations, and the church also meets there on Easter and on Christmas Eve to accommodate the large crowds.

Annual events held in the hall this year included The Family Planning Art Show, Youth Hockey dinner, Windemere auction, West Tisbury School 8th grade graduation, All-Island library youth reading kickoff, MV Savings Bank dinner, Artisans Festival, town parties for Halloween and the holidays, and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital dinner.