Vineyard Medical Care hits snag in Oak Bluffs move

The Island’s only walk-in clinic wants to move to a neighborhood off Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, but formidable zoning problems loom.

The Vineyard Medical Care building is over 100 years old.

After more than 30 years of operating out of a converted house at 364 State Road opposite Cronig’s Market, Vineyard Medical Care (VMC), formerly Vineyard Medical Services, is looking to move to 2 Ryans Way in Oak Bluffs, just off Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road. Until recently, the location housed the Martha’s Vineyard Chiropractic Center, and was owned by chiropractor Dr. John Campbell for over 30 years.

On the surface, it looks like a good fit — one medical office taking over from another. The Ryans Way location would provide VMC much-needed space and technology upgrades, and would be more centrally located than the 100-year-old building on State Road. The for-profit entity would also add money to town coffers.

However, the prognosis for the move has been clouded by a thicket of zoning complications that came to light at a public hearing Tuesday night in front of Oak Bluffs selectmen. After a long discussion peppered with public comment, selectmen voted to continue the hearing at their next meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 25, at 5:45 pm, and to seek advice from town counsel during the interim.

Good for the Island

VMC owner Michael Loberg, retired scientist and member of the Tisbury board of health, told The Times that the move to Oak Bluffs would provide much more space and flexibility to expand staff and better serve the community.

“We have the opportunity to move into what I consider to be the best medical office on the Island,” he said. “It’s much larger than our current location, it’s got a dedicated clinical lab, x-ray facilities, five exam rooms all on one floor, and it’s electronically very modern.”

Mr. Loberg said the larger facility would also reduce patient waiting time at VMC: “We will be looking to improve office efficiency and thereby reduce patient waiting time, particularly in the summer, where the added space will be most readily felt.”

Mr. Loberg pointed out that the new location would also provide housing for three employees — a big asset in recruiting and retaining medical staff — and that its close proximity to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, Island Elderly Housing, and the YMCA will help create a centrally located campus of health and human services.

Zoning complications

Dr. Campbell’s property is located in a residential district. He began practicing there in 1982, and he was granted a home business permit in 2007.

Mr. Loberg applied for the same home business permit on August 29, and on Sept. 1, his attorney, Erik Hammarlund, wrote the selectmen to request a hearing at their Sept. 29 meeting. “The proposed business would not represent an expansion of use beyond which already, legally exists,” his letter stated.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Hammarlund said even though the Ryans Way property is zoned residential, “it doesn’t actually function as a residential district.” He pointed out that a number of nonprofit and for-profit businesses are in the vicinity, and that the chiropractic business had been in operation for many years. “It’s a rare bird, it’s zoned residential, but you have churches, the Y, the Masonic Temple all in the vicinity,” he said. Mr. Hammarlund also asserted that the clinic would create less traffic than Dr. Campbell’s practice, “who saw as many as 60 patients a day, with a lot of traffic going in and out.”

Chairman of the selectmen Gail Barmakian disagreed. “Your business is going to be a lot more intense than Dr. Campbell’s has been in the past year. I’m pretty sure he was only open three days a week.”

Ms. Barmakian and building inspector Mark Barbadoro stated that the heart of the matter is that town bylaw clearly states that a home business permit expires when the property is sold. To operate out of the location, the VMC had to be granted a new home business permit, one of the few permits selectmen can grant.

Reiterating points he made to Mr. Hammarlund in his Sept. 1 email, Mr. Barbadoro said, “Of the 14 requirements to grant a home-based business permit, this application meets none of them.”

As examples, Mr. Barbadoro pointed out that the building would not be inhabited by the owner, Mr. Loberg. The business would not be a secondary use of the building, it would not be limited to five persons working on the premises at any time, and the business would not be contained in less than 750 square feet.

“I don’t know how the application got this far,” chairman of the planning board Brian Packish said. “The owner needs to occupy the residence. What this is is an attempt to rezone the property and throw everything against the wall.”

“We begged the attorney to please read the bylaw and see that you don’t comply with any of the bylaw conditions, and then we outlined an alternate process that could bring to bear the pre-existing-condition use,” town administrator Robert Whritenour said. “But the decision was, No, we want to bring this before the board of selectmen. That’s why we’re here.”

Ms. Barmakian also said that the three-bedroom septic for the property would not be sufficient for a medical practice.

Mr. Loberg said if the purchase goes through, an upgraded denitrification system would be installed.

“I don’t see any ambiguity,” abutting homeowner and zoning board of appeals member Kris Chvatal said. “There’s no mechanism for the board of selectmen to waive these requirements.”

Selectman Walter Vail spoke in favor: “This is a business that would be ideal for that site; I’d love to find a way for it to happen. It is a very important business, and it will pay taxes to the town. It makes perfect sense to have that business there.”

A number of residents were on hand to endorse the VMC move. “I live on that street. I see them as assets to the neighborhood, and to the Island,” Emma Green-Beach said.

“It’s tough, the [VMC] is a great asset to our community,” Mr. Packish told The Times on Wednesday. “But 15 people have already been told they can’t put commercial business there. They were told, You can’t do it, and here’s why. What do you say to them?”
This is one of the great Island medical resources,” Mr. Loberg said on Wednesday. “This is an enormous asset, and I’d hate to see it shoveled away and repurposed. I take the point that the regulatory points don’t mesh, but there’s no external change to that environment.”

Game changer

Speaking to The Times on Tuesday, Dr. Gerry Yukevich, VMC physician, said the VMC move to Oak Bluffs would be a game changer. “It will improve our efficiency tremendously,” he said. “People won’t have to wait as long, and we’ll have more space to see patients. We’re more centrally located, so it’ll be more accessible to people from other parts of the Island. We’re elbow to elbow here, and it’s getting cramped. It feels like a rabbit warren sometimes, especially since we’ve added more practitioners. We need the space to expand.”

Since buying VMC in 2014, then known as Vineyard Medical Services, Mr. Loberg has added three staff members and launched the Vineyard Center for Clinical Research (VCCR), which is primarily focused on detection and treatment of Lyme disease. VCCR director of operations Lena Prisco told The Times the new location would be a big shot in the arm for the VCCR. “The new facility, particularly on the research side, is very exciting,” she said. “We’ve been working in an antiquated space. We have half a lab in the basement and the other half on the first floor. It’ll be nice to have it all together. It will allow us to expand our research activity for Lyme disease.”

Ms. Prisco said the bigger space will make room for biochemical analyzers, which better enables researchers to look for various Lyme disease “markers.”

“We have a lot of people on the Island chronically affected, and this would allow us to possibly implement long-term treatment protocols,” she said. “Without being able to determine those markers, we’re kind of stymied with what we have.”

In addition to expanding research, Ms. Prisco said, she envisions a dedicated Lyme disease clinic at the new location: “We could collect for clinical trials at the same time as we treat people. If someone comes in with a tick bite, they won’t have to sit around and wait for a doctor, they’ll just go straight to the clinic.”