Edgartown rejects taking mini-park, approves paving

Voters said yes to a $32 million budget and no to any changes in the police-chief job search.

Longtime Edgartown town moderator Philip Jeff Norton Jr. did his best to help voters move briskly through town business. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Edgartown voters gathered for their annual town meeting Tuesday night, and barely blinked when it came time to approve an $32,074,908 operating budget for the next fiscal year, but they were in no mood to write a check to take the so-called mini-park, a postage-stamp-size plot of land adjacent to town hall.

A total of 249 of Edgartown 3,148 registered voters, or about 8 percent, gathered at the Old Whaling Church to take up the town’s annual business, and a budget up 4 percent over the previous year.

For the most part, longtime town moderator Philip “Jeff” Norton moved voters through the warrant articles at a brisk pace. But he could not avoid several speed bumps.

Requests to change the way the town goes about hiring its police chief, pave Meeting House Way, and fund a taking or purchase of the mini-park put the brakes on meeting momentum.

The meeting began with voters standing for the Pledge of Allegiance led by a local troop of Cub Scouts. Dock builder and poet Steve Ewing read a humorous poem about the winter just past.

Mr. Norton and voters made short work of all 12 articles on a special town meeting warrant, voting to approve all unanimously. Then they really got down to work.

Mini-park sparks debate

By a count of 108 to 66, voters said no to a request to purchase or take by eminent domain the small piece of land owned by the Hall family. The town currently leases the property.

Ben Hall Jr. spoke out vehemently against the article. He provided voters with a lengthy history lesson of the mini-park land, and described how his family and the town have dealt with it over the years. He said that maintaining the longstanding lease between Edgartown and his family was the best option going forward.

Mr. Hall said the estimate that the cost to the town would be $2.1 million was likely low. He said the final price tag would be more.

Voter Katrina Nevin asked selectmen for an explanation of why they had decided to try to take the property. Selectmen Margaret Serpa responded that the selectmen had placed the article on the warrant at the request of the conservation committee. Pressed by Ms. Nevin, Ms. Serpa did not elaborate on the reasons it was in the town’s best interest to take the park. No members of the conservation commission spoke in favor of the deal, and it melted away.

To pave or not

Voters agreed, 158 to 32, to pave Meeting House Way. The road connects West Tisbury Road to Herring Creek Road, and is a convenient route to South Beach, but for the washboard nature of a good portion of the dirt road.

Several voters that live along Meeting House Way pointed out how poor the air quality in the area was due to the dust the road generated. Other voters living nearby expressed concern that the pavement would ruin Meeting House Way’s rural character, invite speeders, and clog the road with beach traffic.

The vote to appropriate $775,000 required a two-thirds majority. Approval is still contingent on approval of a ballot question in the Thursday election.

A motion to amend the article to install speed bumps in lieu of asphalt was defeated after Highway Superintendent Stuart Fuller cited studies that found motorists tended to travel faster in the stretches between speed bumps than they did on unimpeded roadway.

An amendment to insure that a request to build a bicycle path along Meeting House Way would be placed on next year’s warrant succeeded.

Chief search

The longest pause of the night came about when Peter Look addressed the police budget line item. Mr. Look questioned the process by which the town hires its police chief.

Currently, that responsibility falls to the selectmen. They are currently in the process of replacing Chief Tony Bettencourt, who retired this year.

Mr. Look said the hunt for a candidate was “a process with little, if any, public input,” and that it “desperately needed the light of day.”

Mr. Look submitted a motion asking the town to create a citizen’s advisory committee.

Selectmen Chairman Arthur Smadbeck said that current hiring methods worked well and helped produce the best police department on the Vineyard, and that the selectmen had no interest in Mr. Look’s motion.

Mr. Look made a second motion, in which he asked that the vote on his proposed amendment be taken by paper or “Australian” ballot. He cited voter fear — that people wouldn’t vote their conscience if their positions were publicly known — as justification for the request.

After nearly an hour of queuing and counting, Mr. Look’s motion to create a committee failed 149 to 97.

Mr. Look was not done with the police. A request for an appropriation of $35,000 for overtime and equipment for the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force spurred an accusation by Mr. Look of police surveillance in Edgartown though the use of hidden cameras. Voters unanimously approved the article with little discussion.

A batch of spending requests by the Community Preservation Act committee, for items ranging from the restoration of gravestones and whaling logs to the refurbishment of an antique hand tub, prompted a comment from Mr. Norton when an audience member asked if an 1830s portrait of Ichabod Norton, also offered up for restoration, was any relation to the moderator.

“My uncle,” he said.

The meeting concluded at 10:30 pm.