Halls: Please don’t take the Yellow House


To the Editor:

On behalf of the Hall family, the equity owners of the Yellow House property, I ask you to come to town meeting to oppose the wasteful spending of millions of dollars by the town of Edgartown for the taking of the Yellow House at 66 Main Street in downtown. This kind of forced taking does NOT set a good precedent for our town or for the Island, when the proposed use is in line with the uses in place or those we have been trying to effectuate for a decade.

People are generally upset at the look of that building, as are we. It has never been our intention to hurt the community, and we apologize to those folks who feel we have. We hear expressions of confusion and offense caused by the extreme delay in having something else occur with that building. The tale of woes of our efforts to get an approved project completed after we commenced construction in 2003 (and our extreme frustration at the decisions made to prohibit that project from moving to completion, among other later decisions) will not further the needs or wishes of anyone.

We all need to look forward and to try to get something done without unduly burdening anyone and without violating the moral compass of not exercising the extraordinary power of taking from an unwilling seller when the NEED for the community can be viewed as so subjective. Remember, this is not being taken for a school, or for fire or police protection, or to protect a watershed, or even affordable housing. There are much better uses for those funds than this taking, and the town government has simply NOT tried in any fashion to explore other ways to help in getting addressed what is perceived as a building “desperately” in need of repair in downtown. Think of what $3 million could do for affordable housing or toward planning for sewering around Ocean Heights and Sengekontacket Pond, to clean up that nitrogen-impaired watershed.

When we have tried to discuss other proposals, these have fallen on deaf ears, regardless of the large savings to the town. The only thing the town selectmen and the very select committee of interested players wish to discuss is the price they will pay, rather than looking at possible other solutions which could be a win-win for the entire community. We had hoped to avoid the nasty politics in what should be a dispassionate discussion about how all parties can achieve their goals with mutual respect.

This could occur with a hybrid of the same proposal the town is proposing for the use of the Yellow House, which is to find an investor to rent it for a low amount of money with the requirement that the investor restore the building in a way approved by the Historic District Commission. Instead of spending $3 million in taxpayer funds to take the property (it could end up being a LOT more), we have been unable to get anyone to listen to a solid mutually beneficial proposal to ground-lease the building area instead to the town for 25 years or some such term for $30,000 annually, adjusted for inflation, plus the pro-rata share of taxes of that area, with the protection of a condition that the lease could be terminated within the first few months if the town could not find someone else to sublet from them and rebuild the building.

That reduces the risk to the taxpayers, and that would mean the actual cost to the town would be (in present value) around $750,000 but paid in small amounts of annual rent for control over the building for 25 years, a mere $30,000 annually, or about 1 percent of what the town selectmen believe the market value to be. The town could then do its RFP to find the appropriate group or person to do the rebuild, and it would get done at someone else’s expense. The town might recoup the annual rent money from the sublet, or even make money when they are only paying $30,000 annually. We have a good history of working with the town in providing a very good ground lease for the Alfred and Marjorie Hall Park, and this very reduced ground lease would relieve the immediate concerns of the town not having some measure of control over the look of the building, and leave the town funds to the better purposes of the real emergency needs of our community.

This would also mean the following:

1) This Main Street commercial property would remain in private hands (and paying taxes) as part of the very limited downtown business district, and could yet become a long-envisioned new building of appropriate scale to bring new businesses into our NEVER-to-be-expanded commercial district (see the Island Plan).

2) A lovely and adored existing business on South Summer Street on the property could remain in business at that location without disruption.

3) The 16 parking spaces that are rented to downtown business owners for themselves and their employees would be preserved, to enable these members of our community to continue to operate their businesses without a huge disruption, and without having to compete for street parking with their own customers.

While we have people immediately interested in leasing the building as is, and in making needed near-term repairs and improvements to permit retail occupancy as soon as practicable, as well as others to possibly buy the property or just the portion with the Yellow House on it, the efforts of the town to take, among others, have thrown a toxic light onto anything to do with those discussions. Unfortunately, no one wants to invest time and money for planning when the town may simply take the building, or even to work as an engineer, fearing their own reputation may be impaired in this unusual fervor. Otherwise, we have been selling properties to set aside capital to fix the exterior and finish the retail area for the list of interested tenants lining up, and hope that these millions can be saved by the town for the long list of much more important uses of town funding, like affordable housing, saving our ponds and watersheds, and the soon-upcoming, expensive, large-scale repair of the high school.

A vote NOT to take would result in:

1) Exploring this idea of a lease of the building to the town for this huge cost savings as a guarantee something gets done with full town oversight, or,

2) We would begin the exterior repairs and launch into interior work to try to get tenants in the retrofitted space as soon as practicable,

3) We will be enabled to explore larger plans with others, either under rental or purchase scenarios, without the unhelpful threat looming of a town taking. If the town finds we are not doing what we have said, then the voters could always come back and take it.

Please vote to keep our democracy in check from this heated issue and vote against the taking. Insist your town government explore this very favorable deal we have wanted to explore, and use those funds for the real needs of our community. Otherwise, help to provide a quiet period where interested parties can work with us without the threat of a taking, so that the private market can address the issues, or we will press forward with our immediate plan. Thank you for your understanding and support.

Benjamin L. Hall Jr.