Oak Bluffs selectmen slam the brakes on park and ride

Bowing to neighborhood pressure, selectmen agreed to reevaluate the pilot program.

A possible site for the Oak Bluffs Park and Ride. — Photo by Michael Cummo

In the face of strong neighborhood opposition, Oak Bluffs selectmen Tuesday agreed not to move forward with a proposed park and ride lot on the corner of Pacific Avenue and School Street, behind the Catholic Parish Hall, adjacent to the town hall and library. The decision was warmly received.

A packed library meeting room awaited the selectmen Tuesday night when they convened for their regular meeting. Local residents were present to register their strong opposition to the 80-space lot to be located in their collective backyard. Although the park and ride was not on the agenda, Chairman Greg Coogan addressed it immediately.

“As many of you know, we discussed the park and ride yesterday,” he said, referring to a Monday outreach meeting at town hall. “We had a strong turnout, and it looks like we still do. It was rather obvious that [the church parking lot] was not an ideal choice. I think the overall feeling is that a park and ride is a great idea and the neighbors think it’s at the wrong location.”

After the applause had died down, Selectman Walter Vail added, “I think we have to go back to the drawing board. It was great that so many of you showed up.”

Mr. Coogan said he had spoken to the Vineyard Transit Authority, and that they and the Steamship Authority were still behind the project. “We can look at alternatives,” he said. “You can be assured that we will not be changing things across the street.”

“I’ve had loads and loads of input since we’ve started this discussion,” Selectman Kathy Burton said. “I have heard loud and clear from many phone calls and many letters that we better look somewhere else.”

Selectman Gail Barmakian said that whenever any new location is considered, the neighborhood should be consulted before plans are made. “The recurring theme that comes before this board often is doing something and not letting the neighborhood know,” she said. “Moving forward, we have to understand that we need to go to the neighborhood first.”

Oak Bluffs resident Lee Van Allen said that 16 years ago the town proposed a park and ride and a wastewater treatment facility at the same location, and the neighborhood rallied to defeat those projects. “We vigorously fought those proposals and we were successful,” she said. “We assumed this was a dead issue, and that we would never be faced with this again. I think we really need to make it clear and binding that this will not happen again.”

The selectmen agreed, although no formal vote was taken.

“I was asked yesterday if I thought I was heard, and I said I’d know tomorrow night,” Gretchen Tucker Underwood told the board. “Well, I do feel heard. And just to be clear, we weren’t there out of hostility. We came out of love, because we love our neighborhood and we love the idea of communicating with the people who matter to us.”

Outreach works
Mr. Coogan had called the Monday meeting in response to opposition spearheaded by residents David and Dorothy Underwood at the Feb. 24 and March 10 selectmen’s meetings, and the groundswell of local opposition.

Mr. Coogan was joined on the ad hoc outreach committee by Police Chief Erik Blake, planning department chairman Brian Packish, highway department supervisor Richard Coimbra, business owners Doug Abdelnour and Dennis DaRosa, abutter Renee Balter, town administrator Robert Whritenour, and assistant Alice Butler.

Attempting to diffuse the palpable tension in the room, Mr. Coogan asked for civility, joking that town government is not in fact “the devil incarnate” but “well-intentioned people trying to solve a long-standing problem, and to seek a middle ground.”

While civility did prevail over the next 80 minutes, the attendees made it clear that if there was a middle ground, it was not in their backyard, and there were repeated complaints about the lack of outreach from town officials.

“I live 200 yards away from here, and my neighbor from Atlanta told me about this. There’s so many of us who didn’t know about it,” Gretchen Tucker Underwood, an elected Dukes County commissioner, said. Ms. Underwood added that the parking lot would increase traffic on an already overloaded School Street, that it would exacerbate already troublesome litter and noise problems, and that it would endanger children who play in the area.

“We put the cart way before the horse,” she said. “Our sanity, safety, security, and serenity have not been addressed. Am I in favor of a park and ride? Absolutely. But do it in a way that doesn’t destroy a vital and significant neighborhood.”

“The volume of traffic on Pacific is already mind-numbing,” Chris Hall, a Pacific Street homeowner, said. “To think an 80-spot lot is going to have minimal impact is insulting. People are always speeding on Pacific. It’s only a matter of time until something bad happens. I’m all for a park and ride, but not here.” Mr. Hall also said the park and ride would also inevitably increase the number of intoxicated people who use his porch as a resting place in the summer.

“I’m all for the park and ride, but not in this neighborhood,” David Underwood said, in what became a mantra of the meeting. Mr. Underwood concluded with another mantra, “Take it to the dump.”

While everyone on the panel agreed that the town landfill should be the ultimate location for the town park and ride, highway department supervisor Richard Combra said it’s not a realistic option for another two years.

Audience members were repeatedly reminded that the currently proposed park and ride is a temporary pilot project. However, that did little to assuage them.

Constructive back and forth
Amid the hurly-burly, there was also thoughtful discussion and an open exchange of ideas.

Renee Balter suggested a conceptual change for the park and ride program. “We are a walking town. As a member of the OBA [Oak Bluffs Business Association], we are committed to support [park and ride], but I would urge you to also look at park and walk,” she said. Ms. Balter agreed with Dockside Inn co-owner John Tiernan, who in a March 18 letter to The Times suggested creating parking spaces around Waban Park for a park and walk. “Last August, I took pictures at noon on a sunny day in Ocean Park. It was a great scene, people everywhere, and not a single parking space open,” she said. “I walked down to Waban Park, and not one person was there.” Ms. Balter suggested Viera Park as another park and walk option.

Doug Abdelnour, co-owner of Nancy’s restaurant, was also in favor of a park and walk. “Most of our employees are probably going to walk anyway,” he said. “I’m just concerned about them having a place to park. I get constant complaints from my employees, and I get constant complaints from people in East Chop who say their driveway is partially blocked. I also get complaints from customers. I would hate for people not to come to Oak Bluffs because the parking is so bad.”

Parks commissioner and downtown business owner Amy Billings suggested a totally different solution to ease downtown parking and congestion issues — a trolley service. “A trolley that runs all day, from the hospital to downtown, to the beaches, along New York Avenue, would relieve a lot of parking downtown,” she said. “We’re only talking July and August. For two months, we should be able to come up with a simpler situation.”

Planning board chairman and downtown streetscape committee member Brian Packish suggested that scouting the outskirts of town for potential “spot parking” could add a significant number of parking spaces. “The answer may be to step all the way back and look at spot parking to create 60 to 80 parking spaces,” he said.

Mr. Combra agreed spot parking was a viable option, but warned there will be neighborhood opposition to that as well.

Audience member Sara Crafts asked if the P.A. Club parking lot had been considered. “They did a mini park and ride when the hospital was being built,” she said. “What are they doing during the day?”

Mr. Abdelnour noted that the church parking lot in its current state is underutilized. Chief Blake concurred, saying only 22 stickers were sold for 40 spots last year.

“Sometimes we make decisions to get things moving, and we reach out [to the community], but clearly not enough,” Mr. Coogan said, wrapping up the proceedings. “My hope is that we as a committee can find a way to move forward. Everybody has to realize we try to make decisions best for the town, and no matter where we do something, there will be opposition.”