Oak Bluffs planning board sends North Bluff seawall project to MVC

Selectmen voted unanimously to accept a new bid from Northern Construction for the North Bluff seawall restoration project. — File photo by Michael Cummo

The Oak Bluffs planning board put its collective foot down last week and in a unanimous 4-0 vote referred the North Bluff seawall/boardwalk project to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) as a development of regional impact (DRI). Board members cited a lack of public input for their decision, as well as concerns that the project would unnecessarily sacrifice a valuable town beach.

The project has been several years in the planning stage, and on Oct. 27 selectmen unanimously voted to accept a $4.9 million bid from Weymouth-based Northern Construction Service to complete it — a steel-sheet seawall and boardwalk from the harbor to the new fishing pier.

The project was scheduled to move into the construction phase this month, with a spring completion date.

“It was a packed meeting, and the lone supporting voice was [selectman] Mike Santoro,” planning board chairman Brian Packish told The Times. “We had a set of plans for everybody to look at. For the direct abutters, it was the first time they had seen the plan.”

“It is the planning board’s right to refer the project [to the MVC],” Mr. Santoro told The Times on Tuesday. “But I take issue with the accusations that we weren’t transparent. This has been discussed many times at open meetings over the past two years.”

Although town administrator Robert Whritenour had previously expressed concern that the delay could jeopardize funding from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which requires the project to be completed by June 30, 2016, in a conversation with The Times on Tuesday, he was optimistic that the delay would not derail the project.  “We’re prepared to make a detailed presentation to the MVC, and I’m sure things will work out.” he said. “We welcome the MVC’s input as well. I don’t think there’s an immediate peril but it’s time sensitive. We don’t have a lot of time to dally.”

In an Oct. 8 email to Mr. Whritenour, conservation agent Liz Durkee wrote, “This project began long before the current Planning Board members were in office. At no time did the Conservation Commission ever hear from the Planning Board seeking information on the project, nor was or is there any protocol for referring projects to the Planning Board. Outreach to various town boards falls on the board hosting the effort. Simply saying you never asked is not proper process.”

Fits and starts

Project manager David Lager, speaking to The Times the day after the selectmen’s Oct. 27 vote, said material delivery would begin in November, assuming a signed contract was received in a timely manner, and that he still expected to meet the project deadline of June 30, 2016.

However, the planning board’s action on Thursday night puts the project in limbo.

The project has been in the works since 2008, when the town was encouraged to address the failing seawall by Kevin Mooney at the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), according to conservation agent Liz Durkee. In 2008, the DCR awarded the town a $65,000 grant for engineering work on the North Bluff.

The MVC has not yet scheduled a hearing on the referral. If the MVC accepts the project as a DRI, MVC staff would review the project, which would then move to public hearings and an eventual vote by the powerful regional planning and permitting body, which could impose a number of conditions on the project. The entire process could take months.

MVC DRI coordinator Paul Foley, in an email dated Nov. 2 in response to an Oct. 30 email from Mr. Packish, said he thinks the project is a DRI, under the “critical open space” provision of the DRI checklist. Critical open space is defined as “undeveloped land, or land used for recreation.”

In a conversation with The Times, Mr. Packish said other points of contention were the aesthetics of the corrugated steel seawall and the plan’s lack of consideration for preserving a town beach. “There’s a widespread feeling that the mean high-water mark is higher than the one shown in the plan,” he said. “With the current plan, a valuable town beach is going to be filled with rock. We should look at preserving the beach as a priority and work back from there. What happened is we started chasing funding and designed the project to the funding. That’s not proper planning.”

Correction – an earlier version of this story attributed a quote to Brian Packish that was from Liz Durkee, regarding an October 8 email to Robert Whritenour.