Oak Bluffs selectmen made few decisions at their meeting Thursday night, rescheduled from Tuesday due to the blizzard. However, they took the opportunity to discuss the progress of the strategic plan that the board created in October. The town’s financial health, shoreline and beach improvements, improved communication with residents, improved water quality, and several transportation issues were topics of a lengthy discussion.
Town administrator Robert Whritenour said improvement in the town’s financial health was evidenced in the improved bond rating from Standard and Poors. Significant challenges lay ahead, he said, especially balancing the books under the burden of increasing education costs.
Selectmen agreed unanimously that given the increased activity of the planning board and the constraints on town finances, the search for a town planner should be shelved indefinitely. “I think a grant writer is much more important than a town planner right now,” selectman Gail Barmakian said.
“Planning board activity has gone through the roof,” Mr. Whritenour said. “They need administrative support. There’s a lot we can do before bringing in a planner.”
“We’re already paying for a town planner, we’re paying the MVC [Martha’s Vineyard Commission],” planning board chairman Brian Packish told selectmen. “We really need to figure out how much we’re spending for the MVC and what we’re getting for it. There’s a variety of professional services we’ve paid for and we’re not maximizing.”
The most significant development to improve the shoreline and beaches is the North Bluff project, the construction of a seawall and a boardwalk from the harbor to the SSA terminal. Construction should begin this fall, according to Mr. Whritenour. Although $2 million in FEMA funding was rescinded in August, Mr. Whritenour said the $3.6 million grant from the Massachusetts department of energy and environmental affairs dam and seawall fund, and the $1.9 million from the state seaport advisory council, along with cost reduction changes, namely changing the sea wall from concrete to corrugated steel, have enabled the project to move forward.
Improved communication with town residents is being addressed in part with a revamped town web site, which will allow direct communication with town officials and, additionally, be easier for town officials and employees to update. Web site retooling is currently underway.
To improve water quality in town ponds, Ms. Barmakian said, the Lagoon Pond committee, a joint committee between Oak Bluffs and Tisbury officials, is meeting regularly and exploring non-sewering alternatives. She added that sewering around the Lagoon is inevitable to restore the pond standards set by the Clean Water Act. She also told selectmen that shellfish constable David Grunden recently obtained new grant money for the Farm Pond restoration.
Several transportation issues were discussed. Chairmen of the selectmen Greg Coogan said that work to expand bikeways has progressed and that consultants have provided preliminary sketches.
According to selectman Michael Santoro, Vineyard Transit Authority Administrator Angela Grant has been consulted about scheduling and routes for the proposed town park and ride, and details should be finalized by the end of March.
Mr. Santoro also suggested that the board consider placing an excise tax on rental cars. “Only a few of the 200 rental cars are paying excise tax,” he said. “We’re not trying to discourage business, but our roads are taking a beating.”
Ms. Barmakian showed selectmen a petition against downtown parking meters with more than 500 signatures. Selectman Kathy Burton questioned the need for paid parking, noting it was initially suggested when the town was in dire financial straits. Selectman Walter Vail also questioned the wisdom. “It’s not going to be a huge amount of money, and I’m sure we’ll get quite a lot of pushback,” he said.
In other business, selectmen rescheduled the vote to make Canonicus Avenue a one-way street, citing the need for more outreach to the surrounding neighborhood. They will vote on the measure at their meeting Tuesday, Feb. 24.
The board was unanimous in its praise for the work of the highway department and superintendent Richie Combra. Mr. Coogan noted that Oak Bluffs roads were in much better shape than the other down-Island towns. Mr. Santoro complimented NSTAR, and said that the new poles and extensive tree trimming done this summer played a major role in keeping the power on during the storm.
Mr. Whritenour said that damage estimates from the storm are still being completed; however, it appears that the damage to the town was minimal.