Yellow House purchase approved by voters

Town will buy or take the dilapidated property next to town hall, if election voters agree Thursday.

Moderator Jeff Norton, right, listens to a voter speak during Tuesday's Edgartown town meeting. — Stacey Rupolo

Updated Wednesday, April 12

Edgartown voters enthusiastically agreed to acquire the Yellow House, for a total of $3 million in purchase price and property upgrades.

The 217-34 vote, decided by Australian ballot, required the packed house in the Old Whaling Church to wait for ballot slips to be distributed and to make their choices in secret.

The vote Tuesday is just the first step to acquire the property at the corner of Main and South Summer streets, next to Edgartown Town Hall. Voters will go to the polls on Thursday, where a $1.5 million Proposition 2½ capital exclusion is on the ballot, which would increase taxes by $96 for fiscal 2018 for a property valued at $500,000.

The other $1.5 million is coming from Community Preservation funds, which is money, part a levy on real estate transactions and part from state matching funds, set aside for historic preservation and open space.

Discussion of the historic house, owned by the Hall family, dominated debate at the Old Whaling Church. Voters filled nearly every pew.

Selectman Michael Donaroma said the town had done all it could to work with the Hall family. The issue has been in the courts and in negotiations since 2003. The town has reached the point where either purchase or taking the property by eminent domain is required, Mr. Donaroma said.

“We’ve tried and tried to resolve this to no avail,” he said. “This is a big exciting beautification project for Main Street.”

The frustration was evident as voters groaned when one of them asked why the Halls hadn’t kept up the property and what their plans were for it.

Ben Hall Jr. tried to make an amendment to enter a 25-year lease with the town paying $30,000 rent, plus taxes, to find a tenant for the property. That was ruled out of order because it went beyond the scope of the article.

Mr. Hall urged voters to reject the town’s plan to take his family’s Main Street property. “They’re suggesting to you that $3 million of your hard-earned tax dollars [go] to take this property from an unwilling property owner,” he said.

Mr. Hall blamed newspapers for putting a “toxic light” on the property, making it nearly impossible for his family to find a business to fix up the dilapidated building.

Earlier in the night, the town approved its nearly $35 million budget with barely any question. Voters then breezed through more than a dozen articles before getting to the Yellow House discussion.

The very first article of the night also drew some back-and-forth discussion that involved Mr. Hall. He offered an amendment to an article that sought to spend $30,000 for utilities for three 6th Street lots. The lots will be used to build housing for young professionals who don’t meet the criteria for affordable housing.

Mr. Hall wanted a deed rider put on the lots, so they could not be sold for profit after 10 years. His amendment failed 129-68, and ultimately voters approved spending the $30,000 for fire hydrants and other utilities for the lots.

By a vote of 114-38, voters approved spending $2.5 million to make improvements, particularly to the traffic flow, at the town’s transfer station. The vote came after about 15 minutes of sometimes heated debate.

Voters also approved an Island-wide initiative aimed at supporting current Martha’s Vineyard police departments’ practices regarding cooperation with federal immigration enforcement activities. The nonbinding article calls for towns not to spend any money to enforce federal immigration laws. It came last on the night’s agenda, but included some of the most emotional responses from the crowd, as voter Peter Look spoke in opposition to the article.

“Undocumented humans are slaves, and employers of undocumented workers are their masters,” Mr. Look said.

Several times during his more-than-five-minute speech, voters shouted back at him, particularly when he said undocumented workers don’t pay income taxes. At points, his words were drowned out by boos.

“Let him speak,” town moderator Jeff Norton said.

Police Chief David Rossi read a statement from Island police chiefs supporting the nonbinding article put forward by We Stand Together/Estamos Todos Juntos MV. “We are all citizens. Immigrants, documented or not, need not fear police officers,” Chief Rossi said. “If they are not criminals, they can count on the appropriate support of equal protection of our laws as outlined in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.”

The Rev. Chip Seadale of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church called on voters to support the nonbinding question. “I fully support this petition,” he said. “It’s the right thing. It supports our men and women in blue. It supports our public officials. It supports the people in our community who need for us to take care of them when they find themselves in a place where they don’t have much power.”

In addition to the $1.5 million in Community Preservation funds set aside for the Yellow House purchase, voters also spent more than $500,000 on other Community Preservation projects, including $39,250 to restore an 18th century undertaker’s wagon and $125,000 for repairs to the bulkhead at the finger piers.

Several spending items hinge on positive votes at the town election Thursday, including $600,000 for a new dredge.