Oak Bluffs approves beach rake, zoning changes

Voters approved all spending measures and a $28.5 million budget on the heels of an upbeat financial report.

Selectmen listened to comments from voters at the Oak Bluffs annual town meeting, held at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center. - Photo by Sam Moore

Updated 4:30 pm, Wednesday

It took four hours for 245 Oak Bluffs voters to claw through the 35 combined articles on the town meeting and special town meeting warrants at annual town meeting Tuesday night, at the Martha’s Vineyard High School Performing Arts Center.

The anticipated hot-topic issues — a proposed zoning bylaw change to allow for light manufacturing, and the $40,000 purchase of a beach rake — passed with relative ease.

The more spirited debate of the two was over the proposed zoning bylaw change, which would give the Oak Bluffs planning board (OBPB) the ability to issue special permits for light manufacturing on commercially zoned, also known as B-1 and B-2, property.

The initiative behind the bylaw amendment stems from an effort by Oak Bluffs native Eleni Roriz to convert a dilapidated garage at 8 School Street into a craft distillery.

Campground resident John Freeman spoke several times against the measure, saying a distillery located so close to the historic Campground would be problematic. “I’m not sure it’s something we want there,” he said.

Oak Bluffs resident Brian Hall spoke in favor. “The property is currently a swamp,” he said. “These are local people who are going to clean up the property and create some jobs. I’m all for it.”

Building inspector Mark Barbadoro said he was squarely behind the amendment, saying it would help bring much-needed clarity to current zoning bylaws. He also reminded voters that there would a long list of conditions that would have to be met to get a light-manufacturing permit from the OBPB, which include social and economic benefits to community, environment and fiscal impact, solid-waste storage, outdoor lighting, and noise levels. “I’m all for this bill,” he said. “I trust our planning board.”

Renee Balter said that town zoning bylaws needed to address industrial and light-manufacturing zoning, but not at the expense of B-1-zoned land. “We have 4,500 acres in this town; we have 11 acres zoned B-1,” she said. “B-1 is commercial retail, and it should stay that way to survive. I want to see the planning board get to work and get us an industrial zone in this town.”

The measure passed 127 to 32, with 9 voters abstaining, easily capturing the two-thirds majority needed.

Following a slide show by Oak Bluffs Citizens’ Beach Committee founder Richard Seelig, which showed a stark decline in the condition of Pay Beach and Inkwell Beach over the past eight years, voters quickly endorsed a $40,000 expenditure to purchase a beach rake, which would remove cobbles and debris from substandard beach nourishment that was placed on the beaches over the past two years.

“This is not just about a beach rake,” Mr. Seelig said. “This is also to increase awareness of what’s been happening on our beaches and to stimulate discussion.”

Even though state regulations currently forbid the removal of rocks from beaches, and may sideline a permit for the beach rake indefinitely, townspeople clearly saw the vote as an opportunity to express their widespread dissatisfaction about the quality of town beaches.

Conservation agent Liz Durkee said that even though she was against the purchase because of the potential conflict with state laws, the effort by the beach committee had created a productive dialogue among town officials, and illuminated the need for a comprehensive beach management plan. “It’s been a very good conversation,” she said.

Dr. Jason Lew said the proposed town budget was indicative of the priority town officials currently place on town beaches. “We spend $1,000 on beach maintenance of a budget of $28 million; I think that says it all,” he said, to a round of applause. “Why do we need permits to take rocks off the beach when there was a permit needed to put the rocks on it?”

Voters approved three articles on the warrant intended to put an end to a long-running and at times acrimonious battle that has pitted Windemere Road residents against Martha’s Vineyard Hospital (MVH) and Oak Bluffs town officials.

Patrick King, owner of several properties on Windemere Road, spoke in opposition to each of the three articles. His lawsuit against the numerous town officials, MVC commissioners, and MVH was dismissed in U.S. District Court on March 9 for all defendants except MVH.

After the articles were voted down, Mr. King said he would take the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.

“This cleans up something that was not handled properly [when the hospital was built],” planning board chairman Brian Packish said. “The only other option is to take the hospital down.”

The measure will essentially create a swap between the town of Oak Bluffs and MVH. The town will absorb the new Hospital Road (29,000 square feet) as a public way and maintain the road surface, and MVH will take ownership of the land upon which it now sits (28,000 square feet).

Money matters

Voters approved a $28,494,488 operating budget for fiscal year 2017 (FY17), a 4.6 percent increase over the FY16 operating budget. The total includes five amendments to the originally proposed FY17 budget totaling $54,133. Debt payment on the new fire station accounted for a significant part of the budget increase, according to town administrator Robert Whritenour.

“Under any measure of financial success, we’ve had very positive solid numbers,” Mr. Whritenour told town voters, citing the town’s recent high marks from an outside auditing firm and its AA+ bond rating.

Mr. Whritenour presented voters with a slide show that included graphs that showed a significant decline in projected town debit, and continued strengthening of overall town finances, that will allow for more capital investment in town infrastructure.

However, the impact of the presentation was diluted because the poor quality of the projection made the graphs unreadable. Audio and video issues were a constant throughout the evening.

Christine Todd, who wore a path to the microphone over the evening, criticized the town for spending the entire ferry-fee account, $194,184, on police salaries. “Embarkation fees shouldn’t automatically go to the police department; there should be a democratic process on how that money is spent,” she said. “It shouldn’t go to just one organization.”

The audience applauded Ms. Todd’s comment.

Mr. Whritenour explained that the allocation was for public safety, and without it, there would either be layoffs in the police department or a Proposition 2.5 override.

Some big-ticket items that were approved included transfers from the Ambulance Reserve Fund — $120,000 for lease payments on three new police cruisers, $55,000 for a new command vehicle for the fire chief, and $39,000 toward replacing two police motorcycles purchased in 2007.

Ms. Todd used the vote on funding the police cruisers to criticize the intimidating image that the department presents with its fleet of dark-colored vehicles with tinted glass, and an overall lack of engagement with townspeople.

“I’d put us up against any department on the Island,” Chief Erik Blake said. “I don’t think it’s fair to generalize like that. We’re always open to suggestions.”

Oak Bluffs School Vice Principal Carlin Hart said that police presence at the school is “a huge help,” and commended the active engagement of the officers with students. His comment also elicited applause.

Although she tempered her criticism of the OBPD with her support of the department’s overall mission, Ms. Todd also criticized the overall amount the town spends on the department when, in her view, so little is being spent to address the growing opiate addiction problem. As chairman of the Dukes County Commission, she has made the opiate problem a priority.

Ms. Todd saved her sharpest barbs for a proposed increase in the town’s Information Technology (IT) department. The overall $347,737 budget included a $3,000 raise for department head Travis Larsen, bringing his salary to $84,787.

“I’m hard-pressed to approve this for a job that’s not being done,” Ms. Todd said. She went on to state a litany of complaints about the newly launched town website. “It’s an improvement from prehistoric to historic,” she said.

In his response, Mr. Larson said that his purview went far beyond the town’s website, citing the considerable IT requirements for the town’s financial departments, fire department, and police department. He added that updates to webpages are the responsibility of those committees. He said that a part-time assistant could help committee members with that task. “I welcome input if taxpayers think i should be dealing with different issues. I work for you,” he said.

Several people, including FinCom member Steve Auerbach, stood to commend the job Mr. Larsen is doing.

In less contentious matters, voters gave a thumbs-up to an article that will enable a $50,000 outlay for design plans to replace the increasingly porous roof at the Oak Bluffs School. The article also gives the town treasurer the authority to float a bond to pay for the design as well as the construction of the new roof.

Free cash expenditures, including $65,000 for improvements on three town-owned buildings, $20,000 for the Sailing Camp, $15,000 for the Highway Department building, and $30,000 to replace the well-seasoned carpeting in the library, sailed to unanimous approval. An outlay of $22,600 for a study that will look at converting the capped town landfill into a solar array and municipal parking lot, and $33,750 for a lease-purchase program for three town vehicles: an SUV for the assessing department, a pickup truck for the shellfish department, and two small dump trucks for the highway department, also won unanimous votes.

Voters overwhelmingly approved expenditures to benefit the Healthy Aging Task Force: $16,500 for the town’s share of FirstStop MV, a web-based service that connects the elderly with services and resources; and a request for $1,000 for a program that will enable the six Island Councils on Aging to better communicate with one another, and give seniors an easier way to sign up for programs. The Financial Advisory Committee (FinCom) had voted strongly against the expenditures because it said they created a “duplication in services.”

Overall, 6.5 percent of the 3,974 registered Oak Bluffs voters attended annual town meeting.