Edgartown seeks buy-in on Yellow House

Question goes to voters at town meeting.

Ben Hall Jr., leaning forward, was at Monday's forum representing his family's interest in the Yellow House. The town wants to buy the dilapidated building, but Hall's family wants a chance to renovate it. — George Brennan

Updated: 1:34 pm 4/7/17
Edgartown voters will be asked at the Tuesday, April 11, town meeting to spend $3 million to buy and repair the Yellow House, though an eminent domain taking remains an option. Purchase of the house, owned by the Benjamin Hall family, was discussed at a second public forum Monday. The historic but dilapidated house is at the corner of South Summer and Main streets, abutting Edgartown Town Hall.

The town is looking to split the cost between Community Preservation Funds, a surcharge on property taxes that can be used for historic preservation and open space, and a Proposition 2½ capital exclusion, a onetime tax increase. The $1.5 million capital exclusion would increase taxes by $96 for fiscal 2018 for a property owner with property valued at $500,000. The funds would also need to be approved in the Thursday, April 13, town election.

About 25 people packed the meeting room Monday and got an inside look at the sometimes contentious negotiations between the Hall family and town leaders. The discussion ended as it has so many times before, with both sides pointing fingers and the ultimate resolution put into the hands of voters.

The town and the Hall family have been in litigation over the condition of the property and a shade tree since 2003, selectman Michael Donaroma said in giving a history of the negotiations. “This isn’t new. You’ve seen this rundown building for many, many years,” he said.

Mr. Donaroma reminded residents at the meeting that the current scenario with the Yellow House was not the same situation that occurred with the Warren House property some years ago. In 2004, selectmen were required to hold a special town meeting after a group of citizens brought forward a petition to purchase the historic Warren House at 62 North Water Street, which abutted the old Edgartown library. Voters approved the purchase of the house for $3.5. Plans to use the property to expand the library were scrapped early on, and the town finally sold the property in 2013 for $2.5.

Ben Hall Jr., an attorney representing his family at the forum, had a different take. Mr. Hall claimed the town hasn’t been willing to negotiate. At one point he turned his back to the board of selectmen and urged the audience to give his family more time to make necessary repairs to the building, promising a $200,000 investment, with business tenants ready to step in.

Those repairs haven’t happened because of incomplete information from the town’s historic district commission, and more recently because of the town’s threat of an eminent domain taking, Mr. Hall said. The family has plans to paint the exterior and make first-floor repairs, he said. “But why would you start spending hundreds of thousands of dollars when they can just take it?” Mr. Hall said. “The town has not really been helping us to move this forward. I would urge the voters to vote no on this, and let us have our one last chance to get the first floor done.”

That prompted a blunt response from Mr. Donaroma: “And if you believe any of that …” he said. “We’ve been asking him to do something for 13 years.”

Christopher Scott, who sits on the historic district commission and is past executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, said that he asked the commission to look through its files for any requests from the Hall family to set out requirements for rehabbing the property.

“There isn’t a list,” Mr. Scott said. “You can look at the building and see what needs to be fixed.” He said there is a lot of blaming, but no maintenance accomplished on the building. “That’s the problem, and that’s why we’re here,” he said.

Carol Fligor, longtime resident and business owner, recalled the history of the Hall family and its ownership of several properties in Edgartown, including a movie theater that burned to the ground 56 years ago. Her request was for the town to “take the Yellow House by eminent domain without any lawsuits.”

Mr. Hall was upset by Filgor’s comments. “Ms. Fligor did a very fine job besmirching my grandfather,” he said. “In fact, he took all insurance proceeds and put them into renovating the auditorium in town hall. Unfortunately, he didn’t have funds to rebuild. That is a past generation’s activities. We’ve tried very hard to maintain our end.”

Gary Conover, also a member of the committee, along with Mr. Scott and Mr. Donaroma, explained how ownership of the Yellow House property would benefit the town. The house could be remodeled so that its front entrance faced Main Street; the house might be used for offices, with an apartment upstairs, Mr. Conover said. The town would gain 13 public parking spaces and a small amount of park space, and there would be room to expand the current town hall if necessary.

If a negotiated purchase proved impossible, town counsel Ron Rappaport explained how an eminent domain taking would work. Two-thirds of voters at town meeting would be required to authorize town selectmen to either purchase or take the property.

“Selectmen, essentially the next day, could sign an order of taking, and immediately the town owns the property,” Mr. Rappaport said. The town then has 30 days to pay the amount it has determined the property is worth, in this case $3 million. The property owners then have three years to file an appeal, and if an appeal is filed, a jury would decide what was fair market value when the town took the property. “Whenever that [court] order is recorded, the town is owner,” Mr. Rappaport said.

Mr. Rappaport said part of the selectmen’s motivation is that issues with the Yellow House have reached the point where the choice becomes whether the town should “continue to spend legal fees to tell the property owner to maintain a building in the historic district.”

Appraisers based the $3 million purchase price on an exterior review of the property and looking in the windows, Mr. Rappaport said.

“In a way, you don’t really know what you’re getting into,” Patricia Correia said.

“The building itself is worth very little; in fact, the building is almost a liability,” Mr. Rappaport said. “The value is in the land.” He said that the appraisers assumed the building “was a total rehab.”

Lynne Nippes represented her Edgartown employer, who leases two parking spaces from the Halls. The parking spaces would fall under ownership of the town if it does acquire the property. “Parking for employees is very difficult,” Ms. Nippes said. She asked Mr. Donaroma if there was a “grandfathered lease” regarding the parking spaces.

“It hasn’t been discussed,” Mr. Donaroma responded. “We do have the Dark Woods lot for that purpose. It’s not all win-win, I guess.”

Litigation was not a barrier to Chuck Hibbett, who said, “Fear of litigation is not a real issue if what you’re doing is right.” Mr. Hibbett said that the only potential litigation concern is the financial aspect of eminent domain. “Even if it’s $100,000 off, big deal. Look at it as a tremendous beautification project for the town. I think you’re doing a great job, but don’t stop now.”

Edgartown voters will decide the issue at the April 11 annual town meeting, which begins at 7 pm at the Old Whaling Church.