Oak Bluffs planning board balks on new town hall schedule

Oak Bluffs selectmen Tuesday night mourned the loss of town accountant Arthur Gallagher. — Sam Moore

Two weeks ago, the Oak Bluffs Planning Board (OBPB) voted 4 – 1 to move ahead with an aggressive public campaign to survey and inform town residents on the need for a new, or renovated, town hall in support of an initiative by selectmen to place the issue on the annual town meeting warrant voters will confront in April.

Last week, members of the planning board made an abrupt about-face and voted 4-0 Thursday not to endorse bringing plans for a new town hall to town meeting this spring, in favor of a lengthier process of public outreach. That reversal prompted a lively discussion and charges that the planning board was overreaching its mandate.
Planning or overreach

On January 14,  OBPB member Bo Fehl was asked to develop a town hall survey. After using online resources from Harvard University and Carnegie Mellon University, Mr. Fehl said it became clear to him that there wasn’t enough time to do the job properly.

“I found to do a survey correctly involves a tremendous amount of work that is not accomplishable in the tight time frame that we were allotted,” he said, according to a recording of the meeting. “That’s the bottom line. And if it’s not done right, it could potentially do more harm than good.”

Chairman Brian Packish, who cast the dissenting vote on January 14 because he thought the process was too rushed, asked, “How do we create a model that is responsible and honors the work that has been done, and associate the planning board’s name on it? I scratch my head how that could possibly happen by town meeting.”

Mr. Packish cited the fire station and the North Bluff seawall project as examples of projects brought to the planning board in the eleventh hour, which resulted in a rushed process that minimized public input.

Not all board members agreed. Kris Chvatal, who did not vote Thursday because he had to leave for a zoning board of appeals meeting, questioned if the entire survey/outreach campaign was overreach on the part of the planning board.

“I think this is a mistake,” he said. “Our responsibility is the site plan review and it should stay the site plan review. If anybody needs to do outreach, it’s the selectmen and the capital projects committee. They’re the sponsors of this. I don’t see the planning board as being involved. I do think we could do a site plan review in time [for town meeting.]”

Mr. Packish said the OBPB had taken on the outreach campaign at the request of the selectmen.
“I’m sorry I missed that, because I feel like we’re hijacking this,” Mr. Chvatal said. “I think it’s a mistake to take it on, and it’s outside the bounds of what we do.”

Chairman of the selectmen Michael Santoro said that when the selectmen asked the planning board to take over, it was because the planning board seemed like the appropriate board to publicly vet the project before town meeting, not to develop a lengthy survey period.

Mr. Packish said it should have been clear from the start that the outreach process was going to dictate the pace of the project.

Mr. Chvatal said if there was a master plan, then the board was within its scope to take the action at hand, but without it, they should focus on a specific site plan review. “It’s like a carpenter saying he’s an architect,” he said.

Capital projects committee chairman Bill McGrath agreed with Mr. Chvatal. “From my perspective as a capital planner, the town has a zillion needs,” he said. “Some can be done now, some can be done later. Some of the things that need to be done we can afford now, so let’s do that. The money piece [for a new town hall] works.”

Mr. McGrath joked that by the time the town has a new master plan, he’ll no longer be a taxpayer because he won’t live that long. “I think a site plan review is the way you’ll get a lot of information in both directions, and you may end up saying to the selectmen that we shouldn’t do this, or consider making some changes to the plan.”

“We just want to have public hearings, and we want to get it going,” Mr. Santoro said, noting the town hall is woefully not compliant with town building codes.

Mr. Packish said he believed there was a consensus that a new town hall is needed. “I think we can all recognize that our town hall is not providing value to our people,” he said.

Mr. Santoro said the selectmen would not move forward without the endorsement of the planning board.

Do the right thing

Selectman Walter Vail is a staunch proponent of a new town hall, and the plans completed by architects Kennan + Kenny at a cost of $171,000. “To me, town hall is the top priority,” he told The Times in a telephone conversation Tuesday. “Aside from the fact that it’s out of [ADA] compliance, it’s a travesty. We’re elected to do a job, and if I don’t advocate that this is the right thing to do, shame on me.”

Echoing an oft-stated opinion, Mr. Vail said he thinks the new town hall was roundly defeated at the ballot box in 2014 because it was on the ballot with the $8.3 million fire station. Now that the fire station is complete, on time and on budget, and town finances have continued on an upward trend, Mr. Vail said he thought the outcome would be different.

He also noted that building inspector Mark Barbadoro made it clear at the January 14 planning board meeting that one way or another, by the end of the year, town hall was going to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to the tune of about $300,000. “A patchwork job doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It doesn’t solve the problem.”

In a conversation with The Times on Tuesday, Mr. Fehl said he thought the board should move ahead with public meetings to build a consensus. “Not with the politicians in town, but with the people in town,” he said. At the direction of Mr. Packish, Mr. Fehl said he will continue to work on the survey.

On Tuesday, planning board member Ewell Hopkins told The Times that he had reversed his previous enthusiastic vote based on Mr. Fehl’s assessment and his belief that outreach is paramount. “When it became clear that it was really an artificial date to properly accomplishing the task at hand, I agreed to move forward in a new direction,” he said. “I call for a vote as many times as people want to call for a vote on any issue.”