West Tisbury residents lambaste film festival land deal

It was standing room only at the meeting of the West Tisbury selectmen on Wednesday night.

Updated 11:45 am, Thursday

After the West Tisbury selectmen added a discussion of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF) property purchase to their regular agenda, they moved the meeting from town hall to a larger space in the Howes House in anticipation that of a larger crowd would attend. It was standing room only Wednesday night as speaker after speaker took aim at plans by festival founder and executive director Thomas Bena of Chilmark to purchase a 12.5-acre property at 694 Old County Road in the heart of the West Tisbury village historic district to construct a new campus.

The MVFF, a nonprofit group that hosts a variety of art events and film screenings around the Island, announced last week in an email appeal to supporters that it is poised and “build a vibrant year-round gathering place for our community, a place where education, art, and inspiration intersect.”

The MVFF has set out to raise $2 million to purchase the farmland and renovate the 1830s house on the property, previously owned by Cynthia Walsh. The closing date for the $1.4 million land purchase is June 22.

Better ideas wanted
No members of the MVFF attended the Wednesday night meeting. In a telephone conversation Thursday morning, Mr. Bena said he didn’t think it would be appropriate to attend because he had not been notified that the MVFF proposal would be on the agenda. He said he was saddened by the community’s reaction to the project.

“I wish people would call me or email me or come to our office,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping the whole planning process looks like. There are already mistruths being spread and I don’t think it would be helpful for me to get online and start saying, well this isn’t true, and, that’s not true, and, you said this, and, I said this — I wish people would come and have a conversation.”

Mr. Bena said he is open to changes. “This is not Stop and Shop saying, This is what we’re building and we’re not changing our plan,” he said. “This is a guy who has a 16 year track record of loving his work and sharing amazing things with the community trying to do more of that, and saying, Let’s have your input.”

He said MVFF has already made a down payment and signed a purchase and sale agreement. “But maybe there’s someone sitting on some other piece of land that everyone thinks is a better piece and they want to tell us about it – now is the time. I’m open to that,” he said, adding that the festival previously looked into purchasing land near the Field Gallery, which he said the selectmen discouraged, and between the Agricultural Society and Polly Hill Arboretum, which he said the Agricultural Society wanted.

“Now we’re here, so let’s have that conversation. Does anyone have any better ideas?”

Full house
The one idea people did have Wednesday night was that the film festival proposal was a bad idea. People did not stop streaming in until 30 minutes into the regular meeting. An adjacent room also filled with meeting attendees.

“Now we know what it takes to bring you all in,” selectman chairman Richard Knabel said to audience laughter.  “Normally we are not blessed with the amount of company that we have.”

Mr. Knabel outlined the issues.

“What we have is a broad outline of what the film festival has in mind,” Mr. Knabel said. “There is no application before the town, this is not a hearing, this is an opportunity to be brought up to speed by people who have spent a lot of time now investigating this further. This is not a debate it is an informational situation.”

If an application is made, there will be a series of public hearings that selectmen would participate in, he said. Mr. Knabel also pointed out that the selectmen are not part of the permitting process. Once an application s presented, the project would be sent to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) for review as a development of regional impact.

Mark Reisman, a resident of Old County Road, led off discussion. Mr. Reisman said a group of West Tisbury residents who are against the project had formed that that already has 50 people, and “who are prepared to fight it with litigation, if necessary.”

Sleaze factor cited
He cited six main points of objection. “The first is that West Tisbury is defined by its respect for the land and for its residential areas that are protected from commercial development,” he said. “ Allowing these operations to come to the Walsh property would obliterate the historic district and adversely affect the property values of many West Tisbury residents.”

“The second is that those behind the development appear to be using means that are sleazy to circumvent local zoning and planning restrictions,” Mr. Reisman said. “They are temping a loophole, claiming they are an educational and agricultural organization.”

“Unless animals are strapped to their seats and forced to watch movies while eating their food, the barn will have a commercial and not an agricultural purpose,” Mr. Reisman said.

He explained that the MVFF will show movies in a 6,000 square foot barn-like structure that is “twice as large as The Grange and slightly larger than the Ag Hall” with plans to build a parking lot that is the largest public lot in West Tisbury.  He added that there would be a commercial kitchen and that food and (likely) alcohol would be sold.

Mr. Reisman called attention to Mr. Bena’s past appearance before the Chilmark planning board where he asked for a moratorium on construction of all buildings over 3,500 square feet.

“Reason number three is that the location poses a logistical nightmare for the town of West Tisbury, as the property is located near the intersection of Old County Road and West Tisbury/Edgartown Road, ” Mr. Reisman said.

“Reason number four is that there are many locations throughout the island that the festival could choose that would not involve ramming the development down the throats of West Tisbury residents,” said Mr. Reisman.

Mr. Reisman questioned why the MVFF could not use the Grange Hall or Ag Hall to show movies. “Reason number five is why the festival would want to move out of Chilmark or why a site in Chilmark has not been selected, as we are told that it serves a great community need in Chilmark,” said Mr. Reisman.

He added, “Why isn’t Chilmark clamoring to hold onto it and to support and develop the festival in Chilmark?”

And reason number six, he said, “Is it would have far-reaching consequences for local government control throughout the Island.”

Loophole and character
Rez Williams, a West Tisbury resident and artist, spoke specifically about the Dover Amendment loophole, which is “protection only for educational and religious non-profit groups.”  Mr. Williams explained the educational goal must be the dominant purpose of the entity for use of the land.

Mr. Williams then cited the MVFF mission statement, which states, “Offering an enriched film program is the primary reason we exist.”

“We seem to have a conflict,” Mr. Williams said.

Jon Hartzband, an abutter, noted that this is Mr. Bena’s third attempt to buy property in West Tisbury. He said he did not think Mr. Bena had ever tried to buy property in Chilmark. Mr. Hartzband said Mr. Bena had referred to the MVFF as a “high functioning business” when Mr. Bena was attempting to purchase a previous property in West Tisbury.

“According to their own web site, last summer they held 65 events, in addition to their March film festival which had over 1,000 people,” Mr. Hartzband said.  “I think this is only going to grow. You don’t spend $1.4 million on a piece of property and then probably $2-to-$3 million in infrastructure to downsize your operation. I’d say the main purpose in buying this property is to expand.  Please help us say no.”

Mr. Hartzband’s comments were met with applause.

Ina Andre, an abutter who with her husband owns Cleveland Farm on Old County Road, spoke in favor of rural character and farms. “We are a for-profit farm and there are at least six other farms in the neighborhood.  Do we need a non-profit farm to compete with farmers in West Tisbury?” Ms. Andre asked..

Ms. Andre said she Googled Mr. Bena and found out he wrote a letter to the Vineyard Gazette in 2012 entitled, “Respect rural character,” which explained why Mr. Bena wanted stricter by-laws in Chilmark.

“This sounds more like a hostile takeover, it does not sound like something a neighbor would do,” said Ms. Andre to more applause.

Ebba Hierta, Chilmark Library director and West Tisbury resident spoke passionately about the commercial aspect of the project. “What they’re proposing here is an entertainment-restaurant complex,” said Ms. Hierta.  “They have never used the word restaurant, but what else is a facility with a commercial kitchen that attempts to sell food to the public?”

“This is a commercial business, make no mistake,” continued Ms. Hierta. “It’s organized under the 501C statute of the tax code, but the National Football League (NFL) also organized itself under the 501C statute.  Does this mean they’re an educational or charitable enterprise? Of course not. It means they have crafty lawyers who found a loophole that allowed this giant entertainment complex to avoid paying taxes.”

Ms. Hierta addressed selectmen directly. “Your town is at stake.  My town is at stake. We need leadership and you’re our leaders,” said Ms. Hierta.  “Reject this Dover claim swiftly – let these people know that if they try to proceed with this, that they will face a long court battle, uphill, all the way. That West Tisbury will not roll over and let them destroy our historic district.” There were more loud applause.

Nancy Dole, secretary of the West Tisbury historic district commission spoke next. “The Walsh property is in the historic district, but I’m sad to say that we are not going to be able to stop this if we feel it’s inappropriate in size, because we only control the first 800 feet, and it’s 2,000 feet deep,” said Ms. Dole.  “We’re not going to have anything to say about it.  That’s not a loophole, it’s just the truth.”

Dean Rosenthal, Dukes County associate commissioner for the homeless and an Edgartown resident had his say. “I wanted to say that we’re neighbors — we also abut West Tisbury,” said Mr. Rosenthal. “It’s a concern for the entire island.  I wanted to say as someone from Edgartown that it’s not just West Tisbury that can be concerned about this. They do a good thing for the community in Chilmark and it does contribute to the island’s culture, but I think it’s worth it to say they did not ask for this fight, but they are getting it.” Applause followed.

Spencer Binney, a direct abutter, provided some lighthearted humor with his comments. “My outdoor shower faces that property, so they might get more than they paid for.” Roaring laughter ensued mixed with applause.

Lynch mob decried
Chris Murphy of Chilmark was the only speaker Wednesday night who did not attack the project. He took issue with the rough treatment.

“Thomas Bena is a friend of mine,” Mr. Murphy said.  “You’re not in the right place. You need to wait until he buys it and then say, ‘Okay here’s what you can do with it, here are the rules you have to live under.’  If he’s foolish enough to put his money down on something that doesn’t work, that’s his problem.”

“You know, you all ought to turn around and take a look in the mirror and say, ‘If I wanted to do a project would I want a lynch mob out there looking at me before I even get started?” Mr. Murphy said. “I’d say, ‘No, I don’t want to be that person,’ and neither should you. We should all take a deep breath and look at what’s being proposed and not get all bent out of shape.  There are plenty of rules in place so we don’t end up with something terrible.”

Mr. Knabel added a final punctuation mark to the meeting with a call for the MVFF to look elsewhere. “The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival has for many years been a valuable and certainly a very popular addition to the vibrant cultural life of the island and it’s my hope that it will continue well into the future,” Mr. Knabel said.

“Having said that, the proposal to locate a permanent home for the festival on the Walsh property is profoundly disturbing to me and obviously to many of you in this room,” Mr. Knabel said.

Mr. Knabel said that the land in question has been farmed on for many years. “I knew Cynthia Walsh quite well,” said Mr. Knabel.  “Her spirit is very much with us, and I have no problem saying she would be aghast at this proposal.”

Mr. Knabel said he expected the situation will become more inflamed if the MVFF moves forward and he called on Tom Bena and Steve Bernier of Chilmark, festival board president, “for the good of all concerned to reconsider their proposal and spare us all the needless and prolonged unpleasantness and expense it will more than likely cause if they choose to go forward.”

The crowd erupted in whistles and applause.