Town meeting isn’t the end of battle over Squibnocket structure

Ethics complaint filed over alleged conflict of interest for town selectman.

Doug Liman is fighting a proposal to put what he calls a bridge and what town leaders call a raised causeway at Squibnocket Beach. Mr. Liman lost a vote at town meeting over zoning, but isn't giving up the fight. — George Brennan

Doug Liman walks up to his neighbor’s ocean-view cottage and is greeted with a hearty handshake by Richard Regen. Mr. Regen’s family has owned the Chilmark house overlooking Squibnocket Pond and the Atlantic Ocean for 66 years.

“My grandmother made a pretty good choice,” Mr. Regen said, looking out a window as an osprey plunged into the water for a late afternoon snack, egrets and swans gliding across the water with no apparent care for what they’d just witnessed. “She bought it for $10,000.”

To Mr. Regen and others who live in Blacksmith Valley in Chilmark, the views are priceless.

Mr. Liman doesn’t have the same view of Squibnocket Pond and the beach from his 1707 farmhouse. It’s obscured by trees and the hilly terrain where he keeps his goats, Ruby and Rose, as well as a handful of pigs.

Nevertheless, he’s put his voice behind trying to preserve vistas, and in the process he’s gotten a lesson that some of his neighbors before him have already learned — speaking out can get you vilified. Now he’s going full-bore against Chilmark selectman Bill Rossi, saying Rossi’s job as a real estate agent poses a conflict of interest in his advocacy for the project.

“It’s hard to fight selectmen in a small town,” said Mr. Liman, known for his work as a director of such movies as “Bourne Identity” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” “They’re used to being able to push through what they want.”

Mr. Liman is battling plans for a $3 million structure that will replace a dirt causeway held up by a revetment — a precarious stretch of road in and out of the Squibnocket Farms subdivision that could be rendered impassable by the next coastal storm. He doesn’t believe the metal and concrete structure — he calls it a bridge, they call it an elevated causeway — is needed, and doesn’t believe it’s been fairly presented to voters.

At the April 24 town meeting in Chilmark, Mr. Liman clutched a Photoshopped view of what the bridge might look like. He said he took the proponents’ own photo of a temporary platform and expanded it to simulate what it would look like stretching the length of a football field.

He was accused of putting a filmmaker’s spin on it. “I go to the movies a lot,” said one voter, who did not identify himself as he got up to the microphone at town meeting. “When it comes to movies, they always start ‘based on a true story,’ and you know what those movies are like in relationship to the true story. I think I’d say that about the photograph.”

That stung, Mr. Liman admitted last Thursday, more than a week after the town meeting vote went against him. “I was hurt by that,” he said.

During the town meeting debate, Mr. Liman tried to channel his late father, Arthur Liman, a noted attorney who once served as chief counsel in the Iran-Contra hearings: “He always told me to consider that the other side is right.” That’s been difficult to do, Mr. Liman said.

By a tally of 109-51, just barely the two-thirds necessary, voters at the April 24 town meeting approved a zoning change that town leaders say paves the way for the causeway/bridge. The zoning change allows elevated causeways within 100 feet of a pond.

Opponents petitioned to take the vote by so-called Australian ballot, which would have allowed people to vote in secret. But the vote came late — well after 11 pm, and by then even the most ardent supporters of a private vote relented for the standing count.

“It’s nice to know there’s one sane man out there,” said a man who pulled up alongside Mr. Liman as he walked toward Squibnocket Beach with a reporter. He gave his name, but asked that it not be used in the newspaper. “It’s a bridge to [expletive] nowhere,” he added.

Conflict of interest alleged

In March, Mr. Liman filed an ethics complaint against selectman Bill Rossi. Mr. Rossi, who is often described as the point man for the Squibnocket project, works for Tom Wallace as a real estate agent at Wallace and Co. State corporation records show Mr. Wallace is one of four general partners of the Squibnocket Associates Limited Partnership, which would benefit from the bridge/causeway project moving forward.

Town assessing records show Squibnocket Associates is the largest landowner in the subdivision, with nearly 150 acres assessed at $3.6 million.

“Rossi did not disclose this appearance of conflict by filing a written disclosure, nor has he verbally disclosed it at any town meeting,” Mr. Liman wrote in his complaint to the State Ethics Commission, dated March 2. “Quite the opposite, while hiding his personal connection, he has led the negotiations and has been the leading advocate at town meetings.”

The Ethics Commission would not confirm an investigation, but Mr. Rossi did. “I look forward to it,” he said of the state review of his role.

On March 20, nearly three weeks after the ethics complaint was filed, Mr. Rossi filed a disclosure with Town Clerk Jennifer Christy. In the disclosure, he writes he is a “self-employed contractor/(real estate) broker” and that his license is with a “beach lot owner,” according to the document. There is no reference on the form to Tom Wallace or the name of the beach in question.

Under a question on the form that asks how his official actions matter, Mr. Rossi wrote on the disclosure, “it doesn’t matter,” because a two-thirds vote is required at town meeting.

“No favoritism,” he wrote on the form. “The town benefits greatly from the access road when completed.”

Ronald Rappaport, the town’s attorney, confirmed that an ethics commission attorney advised Mr. Rossi to file the disclosure to avoid the appearance of conflict.

Mr. Rossi never mentioned the disclosure at town meeting April 24, though he openly spoke out in favor of the zoning change several times, and challenged those who questioned the openness of the process.

In an interview with The Times, Mr. Rossi called Mr. Liman’s allegations “baseless.” Asked why he didn’t tell voters on April 24 of his disclosure, he said, “I don’t have to; everyone knows. There are no secrets here. [Mr. Liman’s] reaching, reaching deep.”

Mr. Liman said that’s not true. “I’m surprised how many people didn’t know [Mr. Rossi’s] affiliation with Tom Wallace,” he said.

The implication of impropriety angers Mr. Rossi. “This clown is out there accusing me of having a conflict. We were told clearly that there is no conflict, but it would be wise to file an appearance of conflict with the clerk,” Mr. Rossi said after reviewing it with the Ethics Commission and Mr. Rappaport. “I’m just really annoyed by him.”

The project has been scrutinized every step of the way, Mr. Rossi said, noting that it’s been approved by the conservation commission and Martha’s Vineyard Commission. He called Mr. Liman’s efforts “grasping at straws,” and adds that it has delayed the town’s efforts to get a replenished beach and improved parking for residents.

“I’m really tired of this whole thing, quite frankly,” Mr. Rossi said. “There is a real tenacity with a group that’s not getting its way.”

While the town meeting vote appeared to put the final nail in the coffin of Mr. Liman’s fight, he is convinced it’s not over. His lawsuit is still pending in Dukes County Superior Court, and he is continuing to push the Ethics Commission, filing a supplement to his complaint after the vote, noting that Mr. Rossi once again, at town meeting, failed to let the public know about his job.

Mr. Liman has also raised questions about the estimated $30,000 annual property tax break given to Squibnocket Associates for having a beach open to the public that he says is blocked by locked gates, and a land deal made between Squibnocket homeowners and the Vineyard Open Land Trust to buy 10.5 acres for an undisclosed sum.

“I will fight to the death to protect this [view] for [my neighbors],” Mr. Liman said. “People say this is a NIMBY issue; well, why not protect your backyard, especially against something that’s not in keeping with the character of Martha’s Vineyard?”

Mr. Liman is not running from his Hollywood career, but there is a reason he chooses to spend his time away from Los Angeles and New York City on the Vineyard. There is a sense of community in Chilmark, where private roads force you to stop to allow your neighbor to pass in a vehicle, and everyone knows one another at the general store.

Mr. Liman isn’t against access to the homes at Squibnocket Farm, and he supports improvements to the beach and parking. He just thinks it can be done differently. With the sand that’s filled in Squibnocket Pond, he believes the road could be redirected, and a low causeway built over the small amount of wetlands. It’s a plan that’s been rejected by officials, but which he says would be more in keeping with the character of what’s been there for generations.

“My dream is to retire to this place,” he said. “That’s why I feel so protective of it. That’s why this fight has to go on.”