As we roll into 2016, we pause to take a look back at 2015 — the good and the bad, the progress and the gridlock, the moments of triumph and the tragic losses, that The Times has reported on in the past 12 months.
The year 2015 was a banner year for Island infrastructure. Twelve years in the making, the $40 million Lagoon Bridge finally opened. There was no grand opening, no speeches or champagne corks popping — just a slight delay in traffic while workers from Middlesex Construction moved some cones and barrels from one side of Beach Road to the other.
The new $8.3 million Nelson W. Amaral Fire/EMS Station, at the corner of Wing and County Roads in Oak Bluffs, was completed on time and on budget. After years of working out of a drafty, rodent-riddled, outdated structure, the new 20,250-square-foot station, named after an Oak Bluffs fire department icon who served the department for 54 years and was chief for 34 of those years, Oak Bluffs now has a modern facility that can serve the town, and the Island, with 21st century technology. At the opening ceremony, Chief John Rose first thanked the taxpayers of Oak Bluffs. In 2014, town voters approved the $8,288,000 debt exclusion to finance the new station by a scant six votes (421-415).
Following two and a half years of planning and a fundraising effort that collected more than $3 million, the Gay Head Lighthouse was relighted, after being moved inland 129 feet from the site it had occupied since 1844. More than a century of erosion had left the beacon precariously close to the edge of the cliff. Somewhat appropriately, the lighting took place on a stormy day, and the 100 or so hearty attendees stayed huddled under a tent during the torrential downpour.
After a long process of fits and starts between Oak Bluffs town officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the choked channel that connects Sengekontacket Pond to Nantucket Sound at Little Bridge was finally dredged, and the dredge spoils were moved to fortify Pay Beach and the Inkwell. Not everyone was pleased with the Little Bridge dredge spoils, but virtually everyone agreed that it was far superior to the dredge spoils that came from the Lagoon drawbridge construction in early 2014, which had metallic objects and an aroma redolent of the La Brea tar pits.
Another large navigational project begun as 2015 drains away is the dredging of Menemsha channel. The length of the Menemsha Creek channel from the Vineyard Sound entrance into Menemsha Pond is being dredged to provide a safe passage into the pond anchorage, designated a harbor of refuge. Approximately 60,000 cubic yards of sandy sediment will be pumped to replenish sand lost to erosion and storm damage along Lobsterville Beach in Aquinnah.
The work was scheduled to begin in October 2014, but delays in securing the necessary state and federal permits, and inter-town squabbling between Chilmark and Aquinnah town officials, contributed to the delay. The town of Aquinnah and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) both favored the dredging project as a way to improve the health of the pond by increasing water circulation, and to allow vessels access to Menemsha Pond. Chilmark officials worried about the effect on the scallop fishery and the potential for more and larger boats to use the channel to enter the pond. In the end, those town concerns were not enough to outweigh the Army Corps mandate to protect navigation through the federal channel.
2015 was not kind to some other public-sector projects.
The new Edgartown Library will not open in 2015 as planned; completion of the $11 million library is overdue by almost a year. A series of construction delays related in part to last winter’s whopping snowfall delayed equipment delivery, and to water filling the excavation site early on in construction, set the project back. It is expected to open in late winter 2016.
The Oak Bluffs North Bluff seawall — a $5.6 million corrugated steel seawall and boardwalk — remains stalled at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC). The project was scheduled to move into the construction phase in November with a spring completion date. However, in November the Oak Bluffs planning board referred the project to the MVC as a development of regional impact (DRI), citing a lack of public input as well as concerns that the project would unnecessarily sacrifice a valuable town beach. The MVC will meet and possibly vote on the project on Jan. 7. The DRI hearings marked another in a series of unexpected delays that have bedeviled the project since $5.6 million in state funding — $3.6 million from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) dam and seawall fund, and $2 million from the state Seaport Advisory Council — was approved in June. Both grants may be lost if the project is not completed, or close to it, by June 30, 2016, according to town administrator Robert Whritenour.
The demand for affordable housing continued to grow in 2015. The All-Island Planning Board was created this year in large part to find a regional solution for the growing crisis. The good news: By year’s end, the Island Housing Trust (IHT) will have created nine new rental apartments, and started work on six apartments at 6 Water Street in Vineyard Haven, and on one single-family house on Richmond Avenue in Oak Bluffs that will be completed by the end of 2016.
The bad news: The waiting list for affordable rental housing at the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA) will have 237 individuals and families on it by year’s end. There will be 409 on the waiting list for upcoming housing lotteries.
The year 2015 was also a breakthrough year for recreational infrastructure. After over a year of planning and fundraising that tapped every source from state funds to lemonade stands, and a community build that tapped the sweat equity of Islanders on a five-day “dawn till well after dusk” schedule, the new Niantic Park Playground became a reality in October.
Two iconic movie houses came back to life, thanks to the dogged persistence of Mark Snider, founder of the Martha’s Vineyard Theater Foundation (MVTF) and co-owner of Winnetu Oceanside Resort in Edgartown. After extensive negotiations with Ben Hall Jr., attorney for Lucky 7 Realty Trust and co-owner of the Capawock Theater in Vineyard Haven and the Strand Theater in Oak Bluffs, and a whirlwind fundraising effort, Mr. Snider made good on the bold prediction he made early in the year to revive the long-dormant and beloved theaters. With the help of Martha’s Vineyard Film Society director Richard Paradise, and a long list of Vineyard luminaries, including Carly Simon, Mr. Snider made it happen — the Capawock opened on May 30 and the Strand Theater opened on June 20. The Capawock remains open year-round.
Progress is also visible at the Island Theater, the 100-year-old movie house on Circuit Avenue that has been a source of contretemps between Oak Bluffs town officials and owners Ben Hall Jr. and Brian Hall for years. Pedestrian safety barriers and construction barriers have been erected, and Brian Hall told The Times on Tuesday that he expects a new roof to be completed within two weeks. After the roof is complete, the exterior walls will get a new coat of paint when weather permits, he said.
Tenpin bowling came back to the Island for the first time in over 40 years when the Barn Bowl and Bistro in Oak Bluffs opened this June. The establishment also had a culinary coup when well-known Chef Albert Lattanzi signed on as its new year-round executive chef in October. Chef Lattanzi was chef and owner of Lattanzi’s for 20 years, the popular Italian restaurant and pizzeria in Edgartown where the popular Italian restaurant Isola now operates.
LoFT, a new bar/lounge/adult game room in Oak Bluffs, created by Vineyard restaurateur J.B. Blau, also opened its doors in 2015.
2015 was not a good year for tribal proponents of a casino on Wampanoag tribal land in Aquinnah. On Dec. 22, U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV denied a request by lawyers for the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) to reconsider his ruling that the tribe cannot turn its long-uncompleted community center into a gambling hall. The tribe is expected to file an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in 2016.
The Island’s pulse
Dr. Jeffrey Zack, director of emergency medicine at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, told The Times that overall, the patients he sees in the ER are skewing older. “When I first started practicing, it was very rare to see someone over 90 years old,” he said. “Now I see someone in their 90s just about every day; it’s amazing.”
Dr. Zack said that with the addition of hospitalists, doctors who only tend to patients in the hospital, more patients have been able to stay at MVH, rather than be transported to Boston.
Not surprisingly, overdoses trended up in 2015. “We’ve seen a lot more overdoses this year than last year, particularly with heroin,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot more strains [of heroin] spiked with fentanyl, which is the equivalent of playing Russian roulette.”
According to MVH staff psychiatrist and addiction specialist Dr. Charles Silberstein, an exact number of 2015 overdose deaths is difficult to ascertain, in part because some Islanders have died off-Island where heroin can be cheaper and more accessible. Also, sometimes these deaths can be listed as “respiratory failure” because that is the end result of an overdose.
“Individuals may have periods of abstinence,” Dr. Silberstein wrote in an email to The Times. “Then when they return to use, they are more sensitive to the toxic effects of the drug.”
Dr. Silberstein said in 2015 the Island averaged one overdose death per month. “Two young mothers in the past year,” he wrote. “So sad.”
On a positive note, Dr. Zack says there’s been a sharp drop in pediatric psychiatric-related admissions at the emergency room. “I’d say the number is down by 50 percent,” he said. “I think part of the reason is the improved counseling in schools that helps keep the high-risk kids out of the hospital.”Getting around
2015 was a mostly good year for transportation in and around the Island. According to Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) administrator Angie Grant, it was the best summer ever for the VTA, with over 330,000 riders. Ridership was up eight percent in July, two percent in August, and a whopping 15 percent in September. Since the beginning of the fiscal year, July 1, VTA ridership is up 5.6 percent. Ms. Grant said the four new 30-foot Midi buses helped accommodate the increase.
The Steamship Authority (SSA) transported over 83,000 more passengers to the Island in 2015 than in 2014, an increase of 4 percent. Truck traffic was up 3 percent, and autos ticked up a little over 1 percent.
2015 was a great year for independent snowplow drivers.
However, it was a bad year for the Tisbury department of public works and its departed supervisor Glenn Mauk, who resigned in June after only 18 months on the job, amid a barrage of criticism from Tisbury residents over substandard snow removal.
It was a turbulent year at Martha’s Vineyard Airport. A long-running court battle between the Dukes County commissioners and their appointed airport commission ended with a legal victory that reaffirmed the airport commission’s authority over airport affairs. The county commissioners used their appointing authority to remake the airport commission, which jettisoned embattled airport manager Sean Flynn.
Sports highlights aplenty
The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) girls’ varsity tennis made history in 2015 by going undefeated, 22-0, and winning the Division 3 girls’ tennis state championship. The Boston Globe named first-year Coach Nina Bramhall Division 3 girls tennis coach of the year.
The MVRHS boys varsity soccer team went 12-3-2 in the regular season, and made it to the semifinal round of the MIAA South Division III state tournament, where they lost to Norton 2-0. Senior Jason Lages broke the school record for goals scored in a single season — 35 goals, with 17 assists.
In football, the Vineyarders brought home the Island Cup with a 7-0 victory over the Nantucket Whalers, marking the team’s 12th victory in a row over Nantucket. It was also retiring Coach Don Herman’s last victory, after 28 years at the helm.
MVRHS junior Finn Simpkins was named an All-Scholastic athlete by the Boston Globe for his performance on the varsity golf team. Finn shot 72 at the state tournament this year for second place, and is a two-time Eastern Athletic Conference All-Star.
In Little League action, the A’s rode the bat of Hoffie “Big Papi” Hearn and the glove of Tobey Roberts to become the 2015 Martha’s Vineyard major Little League champions, with an 8-7 comeback win over the Red Sox.
2015 was a tough year for school principals. One month before the start of the 2015-16 school year, MVRHS principal Gil Traverso resigned. Mr. Traverso had just completed the first year of a three-year contract that was effective August 1, 2014, and paid him $140,000 annually. He cited housing costs as the major reason for his departure. John Rizzo, the newly hired principal at Oak Bluffs School, unexpectedly resigned on Dec. 22 in order to join his wife in Hawaii. Mr. Rizzo was hired following a search process that winnowed a pool of 30 applicants down to two finalists; in June Superintendent Matt D’Andrea selected Mr. Rizzo to fill the job left vacant when Richie Smith was named assistant superintendent. Mr. Rizzo’s contract called for him to earn an annual salary of $120,000.
Highly regarded Oak Bluffs librarian Sondra Murphy tendered her resignation in 2015, also citing housing costs as the major factor in her departure.