Oak Bluffs voters to deliberate on several hot-button issues at town meeting

Townspeople will weigh in on a new town hall, a plastic bag ban, moped rentals, and may even decide the fate of the Island theater.

The Island theater is in need of structural repairs. — File photo by Nelson Sigelman

updated March 22, 5:25 pm

The annual town meeting warrant that Oak Bluffs selectmen unanimously approved at their regular meeting on March 14 stands to spark some spirited debate on April 11.

Voters will be asked to approve a free cash expenditure of $200,000 to make the Island Theater structurally safe, or tear it down. Initially, the appropriation was solely to pay for the installation of steel bracing in the interior of the building to prevent collapse. However, selectmen amended the warrant article to include the option of razing the decrepit building.

Selectman Walter Vail proposed the demolition option. “I think we ought to have a full discussion about which way everybody would like to go,” he said.

Chairman of the selectmen Gail Barmakian disagreed. “It’s a can of worms,” she said. “I would not want to put this town at risk for starting something that can’t be finished or have a hole in the ground with a fence around it.”

Ms. Barmakian also expressed concern that a decision to raze the building would lead to more costly legal fees for the town, given the historically litigious nature of Island theater co-owner, attorney Ben Hall.

The town will file a lien on the co-owners Ben and Brian Hall to recover the costs of whatever action the voters endorse.

The crumbling, vacant building was deemed “dangerous” on Dec. 2 by a board of survey (BOS) assembled by Oak Bluffs building inspector Mark Barbadoro. The vote gave Mr. Barbadoro the authority to order the building demolished, per state law.

Mr. Barbadoro told selectmen he was getting pressure from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to “remedy the situation.” In a conversation with The Times on Friday, Mr. Barbadoro said the state inspector has threatened to close off Circuit Ave. and Lake Ave. if the situation isn’t resolved by summer. “It’s out of my hands at that point,” Mr. Barbadoro said. “The state doesn’t like to spend money, so the least expensive fix is to block off the roads and revoke the occupancy permits of the surrounding buildings. The inspector told me he feels liable just knowing about the building, so he’s not going to wait around.”

Discussion on articles related to moped rentals and a complaint filed with the town chewed up a good chunk of the three-hour meeting. One warrant article proposes modifications to the existing by-laws that include wearing closed toe shoes and height requirement for a second rider. It also states that an on-premises training track, at least 50 feet long and 25 feet wide is required unless selectmen grant a waiver. There is also a non-binding article, which is on all six town’s meeting warrants, asking if rental mopeds should be banned on Martha’s Vineyard.

Todd Rebello, a former Oak Bluffs selectman who helped write the moped town bylaws in 2004, was on hand to request a test track waiver from board on behalf of moped rental business owner Jason Leone, who was also in attendance. All three of the Oak Bluffs moped businesses, King’s Rentals, Island Hopper’s (sic), and Ride-On Mopeds, are co-owned by Mr. Leone.

Complaints filed with the town by the Mopeds Are Dangerous Action Committee (MADAC) state that the bylaw requiring moped businesses to have a test track on premises has never been honored by the three remaining enterprises, and therefore the licenses should be revoked. The business owners have maintained that they were in operation before the by-laws were passed in 2004, and are therefore exempt.

Mr. Rebello said the training track provision was only intended to prevent new moped rental businesses in town, since the size requirement would be almost impossible to meet in the business district, and that it was never intended for existing businesses.

He also said that Mr. Leone’s attorney indicated that an off-site training track would violate the existing by-laws.

“There’s a perception out there that you find a violation and you yank the license but that’s not the way things work,” Mr. Rebello said. “We’re trying to find ways to consolidate the licenses but we ran into obstacles and we couldn’t do it in the time frame everybody would like.”

One obstacle, Mr. Rebello said, is that the business owners are already locked into long term leases. “When those landlords decide not to rent, it’s over,” he said.

Mr. Rebello said the previous deal selectmen made with Sun and Fun moped rentals — 40 rental car licenses in exchange for 40 permanently forfeited moped licenses — gave that business a monopoly in town that would increase profits six to seven percent, and that selectmen should be willing to provide “give back” for further moped license forfeiture by Mr. Leone. To that end, Mr. Rebollo offered a deal to the board — to forfeit 15 licenses at Ride-On Mopeds in exchange for a waiver on the test track provision for the three remaining rental operations.

“Public opinion is that mopeds are not wanted anywhere on this Island,” Mr. Vail said. “The pressure on us is huge. If I were to vote for a waiver at this point, it sounds like I’m in favor of keeping them, and I’m not.”

Mr. Rebello said the non-binding warrant article — “Are you in favor of eliminating rental mopeds from Martha’s Vineyard,” is a “beauty contest question that doesn’t get the job done . . . I know what town counsel was telling me when I was in your spot.”

Mr. Rebello also told the board that every time communities have tried to ban rental mopeds, the moped industry has rallied and prevailed. “They’re batting 1000,” he said. “I know what town counsel was telling me when I was in your spot.”

Mr. Rebello withdrew Mr. Leone’s offer to forfeit 15 moped licenses.

In separate moped machinations, Mr. Whritenour told selectmen that town counsel has recommended selectmen hold a public hearing in response to  a complaint filed by the Mopeds Are Dangerous Action Committee (MADAC) in January, which alleges numerous violations of town by-laws. Selectmen unanimously agreed to a public hearing, which Ms. Barmakian said will be at the next selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday, March 28.

There are dueling bag ban warrant articles. One article, spearheaded by the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) was approved by the other five Island towns last year and went into effect this January. It requires any plastic bags issued at stores to be reusable, and no thinner than 4.0 mils. It can be enforced by either police officers or health agents.

The second proposed article was submitted by a group primarily comprised of Oak Bluffs merchants. It proposes banning “thin film” plastic bags, no thinner than 2.5 mils. It can only be enforced by health agents.

Both articles have an effective date of January 1, 2018, although the merchant-sponsored article has a proviso for a one-year deferment, which can be granted by the board of health.

“Both articles could easily be voted yes,” town administrator Robert Whritenour said. “It’s an interesting conundrum. We’ll leave it to Jack [town meeting moderator Jack Law] to explain.”

For a second time, the good people of Oak Bluffs will be asked if they want the town to float a bond — also known as a debt exclusion — to pay for a new town hall. Mr. Whritenour said the price tag for a new town hall is $9.9 million. At 2014 town meeting voters overwhelmingly approved a $6.8 expenditure, however, the new town hall was demolished at the ballot box a few days later.

The measure must pass by a two-thirds vote.