Edgartown voters will decide the future of the Yellow House

Edgartown would like to buy the "Yellow House" property on the corner of Main and South Summer streets. —File photo, Michelle Gross

Edgartown’s community preservation committee (CPC) will ask voters to appropriate $1.5 million of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to buy the house and part of the land at 66 South Summer Street, at the corner of Main, abutting the town hall. Edgartonians have called it the Yellow House, and fretted over its ultimate disposition, for years.

Built in 1850, but vacant for several years, the building is now in disrepair. The $1.5 million, allowed for open space and historic preservation purposes, comes from a combination of town real estate tax payments and state contributions. In an article at April’s annual town meeting, the town will be asked to spend another $1.5 million to buy the parking lot, also on the property, which is owned by the Benjamin Hall family; the house and parking lot together are assessed at $2,385,800.

The CPC plan is for the town to renovate the property and lease it and to convert what remains of the parcel into public parking.

The Hall family plan to restore the property got stuck in 2003, when the town refused to allow the removal of a large shade tree on the highly visible Main Street side of the property. The Halls contended that the tree obstructed their renovation plans.

The history between the owners and the town is long and fraught. On Thursday, Benjamin Hall Jr. attended the CPC hearing on behalf of his family. He began by saying that the town was presenting to the public what he called “alternative facts” about the property. He said his family had tried unsuccessfully to find a buyer who would use it in a manner that would enhance the town’s business district. No prospective buyer was willing to tackle a project that had come under such contentious oversight by the town.

“That is one of the most valuable pieces of property on Martha’s Vineyard, aside from waterfront property,” he told the CPC. He said the building would “cost a fortune to restore,” far more than the $3 million the town imagines.

And, he said, he had asked the town’s historic district commission several times over the years exactly what the family had to do to fix the structure: “They still haven’t told us.”

Town counsel Ronald Rappaport attended Thursday’s hearing along with about a dozen interested persons, some commenting on the historic relevance of the house and the cost to restore it, and one who suggested that the CPC focus on what’s best for the town rather than on the “bitter past.”

Mr. Hall questioned the validity of the public hearing, saying that the selectmen had not voted on the request.

“So the board of selectmen have not authorized you to submit that request…. Please act in accord with the law,” Mr. Hall told the CPC. “I find it very odd that they would hold a hearing on a request that was never authorized to be made by the board of selectmen.”

A CPC member countered that the town administrator had “signed off” on the request.

Town administrator Pam Dolby told the hearing that she had been asked annually by the selectmen to furnish the paperwork for CPC projects, and that she had done so for the Yellow House project as well.

Margaret Serpa, a selectman and chairman of the CPC, said the CPC convened the hearing to propose that it be taken up as articles at the annual town meeting.

“We’ll give the town a chance to vote on it,” Ms. Serpa said.

“Given that the Halls have had ample opportunity to take some action, and they haven’t, it should be moved forward,” committee member Alan Wilson said.

Next, selectmen will decide whether to add the related articles to the town meeting warrant.