Oak Bluffs taps brakes

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Oak Bluffs political and business leaders have been hard at work developing plans and strategies to reinvigorate their town, and improve on the qualities and attractions that make the downtown district popular with visitors and Island residents.

There is much to like about Oak Bluffs. It has a lively and inviting harbor; public beaches a short walk from town; Ocean Park and its picturesque bandstand; and the ready availability of a slice of pizza or ice cream cone, which makes the perfect accompaniment for an evening stroll up Circuit Avenue for some people-watching — and there is always plenty to watch.

Last summer the Oak Bluffs Downtown Streetscape Master Plan Committee surveyed visitors, seasonal residents, and Islanders to help identify the town’s strengths and weaknesses. A report by consultants from Horsley Witten Group, presented in September to the public, identified a number of areas of concern. Among other topics, parking was high on the list.

It is not a concern unique to Oak Bluffs. Edgartown, Vineyard Haven, and Chilmark have all sought answers to the problem of too many drivers vying for a limited number of parking spaces. There is no perfect solution, and each town has its unique set of challenges.

Edgartown and Tisbury established park and ride lots to help siphon off local employees, and in the case of Vineyard Haven, provide parking for long- and short-term ferry travelers. Chilmark continues to wrestle with sunset gridlock that begins in the late afternoon. An underutilized shuttle service has not made a dent in the nonstop rotation of vehicles through Menemsha.

Oak Bluffs has proposed the creation of a park and ride lot on land already owned by the town at the corner of Pacific Avenue and School Street, behind the Catholic Parish Hall and adjacent to the town hall and library. The proposed park and ride route would run between that lot and Ocean Park downtown.

Last month, under pressure to meet Vineyard Transit Authority schedule printing schedules, selectmen moved quickly to put the plan into effect. Too many details were left unresolved. Most important among these: addressing the concerns of neighbors who understandably do not want to have their peace and tranquility affected by vehicles coming and going late into the night.

The goal is laudable. The challenge is to find the right formula, one that balances and assuages all concerns. Employers need to be on board so they will encourage employees, perhaps with incentives, to park in the lot.

Employees need to be able to count on regular and predictable shuttle service. Neighbors need to know what to expect and be assured that problems will be readily addressed.

Last week, selectmen discussed the need to form a committee of all stakeholders. They were right to tap the brakes. A poorly thought-out park and ride that results in empty buses traveling back and forth from an underused lot is no solution to the Circuit Avenue crawl of cars.

On a separate but related topic, in place of a decrepit building this summer, Oak Bluffs will boast a new bowling alley and sports bar/restaurant that will bring jobs and entertainment to upper Circuit Avenue. The developers have asked to be allowed to hook into the town’s sewer system, and offered to pay to run a sewer line from Circuit Avenue to their building.

The bowling alley is not on a street approved for sewer hookups. Wastewater commissioners have pointed to the current limited plant capacity and planned future expansion. They have expressed concern about reserving capacity for homes and businesses that have a right to hook up and setting precedents.

Those issues will always be present. The three-member wastewater commission has the authority to issue a special permit to allow the hookup and benefit a new year-round business that would help bear a share of the wastewater system cost. The alternative is an advanced and costly septic system designed to reduce nitrogen, the original proposal presented to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

For any number of reasons there are those who would be happy to inflict every bit of pain on this project, and co-developers Sam Dunn and Robert Sawyer, before the first ball rolls down the alley. It is one of the Island’s quainter customs.

Putting personalities and old grievances aside, the question the wastewater commissioners and town leaders ought to answer is would it be better for the town and the environment to dump the bowling alley wastewater into the ground at the top of Circuit Avenue or into a pipe and a system designed for just that purpose.