Fire sale: Finance committee says sell old fire station lot

Selectmen agree to boost staff at police department to 13 officers.

This lot on Beach Street is too valuable to be a parking lot, according to the Tisbury finance committee. - Stacey Rupolo

The finance committee wants the town to consider selling a prime piece of Vineyard Haven real estate rather than use it as a public parking lot, which may not even be permissible under town zoning laws.

At a meeting Tuesday night with the Tisbury board of selectmen, finance committee chairman Jeff Kristal urged the board to seek voter permission to sell the former site of the fire station. The lot is being used now to lease parking spots for about $20,000 per year, and has been talked about as a possible pay lot for downtown businesses.

But Mr. Kristal said the property could be more valuable through a sale by getting it back on the tax rolls, where it could be used as a business that would hire workers. If it becomes a restaurant, that could mean meals taxes, and a hotel or inn would bring room taxes, he said.

“The property is very valuable,” Mr. Kristal said.

Even without anything on it, the vacant lot is valued at just over $800,000, according to assessors’ records. That means there is more than $7,000 the town is losing in revenue from property taxes alone as a vacant lot, Mr. Kristal said.

“There’s a question about whether it can be used for parking from a zoning issue,” he said.

Ken Barwick, the town’s zoning enforcement officer, said the town’s bylaw only allows parking as an accessory use, not a primary one, in that area of the town.

Selectmen chairman Larry Gomez liked the idea of selling the property, estimating it could fetch $1.5 million. “It could create jobs,” he said of whatever business entity purchased the lot.

But selectman Tristan Israel said the town shouldn’t move too quickly, and instead should consult with the planning board.

That got an immediate reaction from Mr. Kristal, a former selectman, who said the town’s executive boards need to act. “The planning board plans. It’s up to you to make a decision,” he said.

The board agreed to consider putting the issue before voters at a future town meeting, but only after consulting other town boards.

More police coming

The board approved a plan to let Police Chief Daniel Hanavan hire a police officer before the end of the year, and another at the start of the new fiscal year in July, bringing his staffing totals up to 13 patrol officers, but not before some heated pushback from Mr. Israel.

The chief explained that he uses special police officers, who receive less training, to fill in for shifts that can’t be filled by full-time officers. With 11 officers, the department comes up 16 shifts short every week, he said.

Chief Hanavan told the board he has an experienced candidate ready to bring forward to the board, but Mr. Israel voiced concerns the chief was using a vetting process that had not yet been approved by selectmen.

That wasn’t the case. That new policy on vetting candidates will be brought to the board of selectmen soon for consideration, Chief Hanavan and town administrator Jay Grande said.

Mr. Israel also questioned whether the additional officers are needed, and suggested a needs assessment be done. Mr. Grande pointed out that no money has been set aside for such a study.

“I don’t think we’re overstaffed,” Chief Hanavan said. “We have two officers at midnight, the minimum.”

Mr. Israel said a more scientific approach would be better. “If you had 20 officers, you’d be telling me you’re understaffed,” he said.

Chief Hanavan plans to add a veteran officer, and send one of his special police officers to the academy for more training to be ready by July 1.

In other business, board members want Mr. Grande to set up a call with the Massachusetts School Building Authority to find out what happens if town meeting or townwide voters don’t support the Tisbury School project. Mr. Israel said he would like to know what the town’s options are in terms of coming up with an alternative plan.

The town approved Lara O’Brien to serve on the cultural council, to serve through June 30. Board members discussed some disappointment that Ms. O’Brien was not there in person and, after hearing she has kids, suggested she bring them to the meeting.

Selectmen approved a 2.3 percent cost-of-lixving increase for noncontract town employees. The increase is based on a formula used by other cities, finance director Jon Snyder told the board.

And something no one wants to think about, but is inevitable: Josh Goldstein asked selectmen to consider fining people who don’t shovel their sidewalks.

“It’s really a dangerous situation,” said Mr. Goldstein, who walks along Franklin Street to get to work at the Mansion House Inn.

Mr. Israel pointed out the town’s DPW has been doing more to clear sidewalks.