Road worriers: What to do with Beach Road?

Town and some property owners at odds over plans for shared-use path.

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Coming soon, the final design plans for Beach Road, but will it meet the needs of the town and property owners? - Gabrielle Mannino

The official update on the Beach Road redesign is that the Vineyard Haven project is in the final stages of design, and is expected to be ready for the town’s review in February, then advertised in fiscal year 2019 at a cost of approximately $4.3 million, according to town officials and a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT).

It may be the most eagerly anticipated reveal of the new year. At selectmen’s meetings, whenever the topic of fixing Beach Road is broached, selectman Tristan Israel typically deadpans: “I hope it’s done while I’m still alive. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Last March, the DOT was supposed to hold a public forum on the 75 percent design plans, but abruptly canceled. There were smaller meetings with stakeholders, and the plans have been available at Tisbury Town Hall and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, but the chance for general public input was scarce.

Even before DOT submits those hotly anticipated final designs, there are bumps in the road ahead for the project. R.M. Packer Co., one of the large property owners along Beach Road, is balking at the idea of the state taking land for a boardwalk.

The concept of the boardwalk first arose because of the insistence by the town that there be a sidewalk between the Shell station and Tisbury Wharf as a way for cruise ship passengers to safely get into town. The boardwalk would be less disruptive, and easier to permit in the barrier beach area.

Dorothy Packer, in an interview with The Times, said the boardwalk would cut off access to her family’s land, and would also impact the Shell station.

“There’s no need to this thing. It’s like a walkway to nowhere,” she said.

She has gone before the Tisbury board of selectmen during public forums, and has met with the design review subcommittee that’s reviewing the concept as recently as last week. Not only is the boardwalk a bad idea for her property, she said, but it does nothing to deal with one of Beach Road’s biggest issues, highlighted by Thursday’s coastal storm when seawater made the road impassable for much of the day — flooding.

“I’m concerned we’re not going to have a Beach Road,” Dorothy Packer told selectmen last month.

Her husband, Ralph Packer, said the plan for a boardwalk would be disruptive to the working waterfront overlay district. “It’s ill-conceived for the area that’s involved,” he said.

The Packers have worked with engineers on a riprap plan that would ease erosion and divert wave action, but because it’s considered a barrier beach, permits are impossible to get, Dorothy Packer said.

Melinda Loberg, a member of that design review subcommittee, said the panel listened to concerns raised by the Packers. Because the state would design the boardwalk and the town would be on the hook for the cost of building it, she’s not sure it would fly anyway, she said.

For now, the state is still moving forward with the boardwalk concept. “We’ve not officially told them not to include boardwalk; that’s a selectmen vote and discussion,” Ms. Loberg said. “On the other hand, we might want to get them to continue to do it, so we can learn how to permit something to prevent the road from getting overrun.” Beach nourishment may be the best plan, she said. Because it’s a barrier beach, there are limits to what can be done to limit erosion.

‘A tragic mistake’

The Packers aren’t the only ones raising objections to Beach Road plans, even before they see the final drawings.

Frank Brunelle, who lives at 129 Beach Road, doesn’t like the plan for a shared-use path (SUP) between Tisbury Marketplace and the Lagoon Drawbridge on the south side of Beach Road. He’s an outspoken critic, not just because the plans call for taking land on his side of the street to create it, but because, as a cyclist, he believes it will potentially lead to injuries.

“In my opinion, it would be a tragic mistake,” Mr. Brunelle told The Times. While an initial study by Green and Pederson in 2009, the project engineers, said intersections should be avoided, a SUP actually creates several of them, Mr. Brunelle said. “Curb cuts cause a danger to people coming and going in and out, because you don’t know if you’re going to hit someone or not,” he said.

Mr. Brunelle makes it clear to anyone who will listen — and even some who have stopped opening his emails — that a symmetrical design with wider shoulders and sidewalks on both sides of Beach Road is the way to go.

William Veno, a regional planner with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said a SUP with curb cuts is not ideal, but the idea of a hybrid proposal with a SUP from Wind’s Up to the marketplace and then switching to sidewalks and a symmetrical design makes sense because of the constraints of the area. The idea of having a SUP connected through Beach Road properties to Veterans Memorial Park would be ideal, and is being explored, but isn’t a lock, he said.

Ms. Loberg told The Times there have been talks with Prime Marina about using some of their property to create a SUP that gets bikes and pedestrians away from the busy section of Beach Road near Five Corners, but those talks, while fruitful, need time for the new owners to consider redevelopment of that property.

“We’re trying to make do with what we have,” Mr. Veno said. “I think it’s a pretty good solution there. The SUP works because you don’t have a lot of pedestrian activity on harborside.”

The road is narrower at 10½ feet than anyone would like — the lowest recommended width is 11 feet, he said. “It’s definitely shoehorned in, it’s tighter than we want it to be,” Mr. Veno said. “In some respects it’s good. It will slow down traffic.”

Selectmen and the planning board have advocated for a sidewalk on the north side of Beach Road and a SUP on the south side, according to documents provided by the town.

The commission has little to do with approving the project, Mr. Veno said, though the project did initiate with the Joint Transportation Committee, which includes the commission and other transportation stakeholders, who have seen the need to link bike paths for safer cycle traveling across the Island, he said.

But now that it’s nearing design completion, any decisions are squarely in the hands of Tisbury officials, Mr. Veno said.

Mr. Brunelle prefers an initial plan that had the support of selectman Tristan Israel, a so-called symmetrical design that would widen the roadway to create shoulder lanes in each direction, as well as improved sidewalks.

He’s dismayed that Mr. Israel changed his vote to support the SUP.

“That is a perfect alternative,” Mr. Brunelle said. “As a cyclist, that is the way to go. If you want to get to Five Corners from the drawbridge, you get in the right lane and ride with traffic in the shoulder. Because it’s a mixed-use district, bicyclists can go on sidewalks if they want to.”

Selectman Loberg said the town is aware of Mr. Brunelle’s concerns — he writes emails almost daily, and copies all of the selectmen — but has told him that he needs to bring them to the DOT.

As for Mr. Israel, he acknowledges changing his opinion on the SUP after listening to a detailed report by planning board chairman Ben Robinson. He’s come to ignore Mr. Brunelle after his correspondence turned so negative. “He got personal with me,” Mr. Israel said.

Reiterating what he’s said repeatedly at board meetings, Mr. Israel remains skeptical the state will come through with a Beach Road plan. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said. “Like everything with the state, this goes on forever.”

Still, the goal of the board remains the same: provide as safe a route as possible for pedestrians and cyclists to get in and out of town, Mr. Israel said.

While he fully admits he’s already changed his mind on this once, he said it could happen again. Like other town leaders, he’s eagerly waiting to see what the state has proposed in its final design. He’s also realistic, though. Once the state has reached a nearly complete design, they’re not going to let anyone make wholesale changes, he said.

“Things seem muddled right now,” Mr. Israel said. “I like the idea of the boardwalk, but if people don’t want it, I’m not going to go to the mat on that.”

Proposed plans for Beach Road construction show an elevated boardwalk on land owned by R.M. Packer Co. It’s not winning rave reviews.

As for Mr. Brunelle’s criticism of the plans, Mr. Israel said he understands his motivation. “He doesn’t like it because it goes in front of his property,” Mr. Israel said.

The redesign of Beach Road and the SUP do little to address the real problem, illustrated so much by the recent winter storm, Mr. Israel said. Beach Road is vulnerable.

“With sea level rise, businesses are going to be underwater,” he said. “The state invested $50 million in a bridge, which has the potential for people to get cut off from it, as they did during the storm.” So the town is working with a consultant to seek grant money to deal with flooding issues, he said.

Mr. Brunelle is trying to get his neighbors on board to block the SUP at every turn.

At Pyewacket’s, for example, the antique store and residence would appear to lose all of its frontage on Beach Road if the DOT takes 9 feet, some of it by eminent domain and some of it as a permanent easement, for the SUP, Mr. Brunelle said.

Dan Koch, owner of the building, said he’s aware of the project, but he’s letting his neighbor carry the ball with town officials.

“It’s really going to take away from land and my property value,” he said. “I’ll lose all my front yard. It’s not good for me. It may be good for bikers, but it’s not good for me.”

Mr. Koch said he understands why the other side of the road isn’t an option because of utility poles, but it’s not great for him either. “I have a big sign that would have to be removed,” he said.

The town would like to remove the utility poles in favor of underground wires, but that’s a multimillion-dollar project in a town trying to build a new school and with other needs.

Not everyone is as alarmed with the SUP as Mr. Brunelle and Mr. Koch.

Beth Toomey, who owns the building where Martha’s Vineyard Tile Co. is located, wants more information. She’s met with town leaders, who she said were approachable and forthcoming with the details they have on hand.

Her tenants are concerned about losing parking spaces, but Ms. Toomey is taking a wait-and-see approach. “It’s never worked well to be an alarmist,” she said.

Ms. Toomey has a plan to have her property surveyed against the plans to see exactly what the impact is going to be. “I’m going to spend time and money on figuring that out,” she said. “I haven’t done it yet because every time I go to do it, it’s bad weather.”

She knows that Mr. Brunelle is trying to ratchet up the opposition, but she’s not ready to join in. “I’m choosing to be positive about it,” she said, noting that Beach Road is dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists the way it is. “Something is going to happen. Something has to happen.”

Not so fast, please

The Tisbury board of selectmen will, once again, ask the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to lower the speed limit on Beach Road from 30 mph to 20 mph.

Dorothy Packer, whose family owns R.M. Packer Co., submitted a petition with seven pages of signatures seeking the change. She’s turned in the same petition before, but this time she asked that the board advise DOT not to wait for Beach Road redesign to make a change.

“It’s been over a year,” she told the board. “It needs to be addressed as a separate item.”

The board voted to have town administrator Jay Grande look into what the town needs to do to request the change after selectman Melinda Loberg said she believes the law has changed regarding how a town requests a change in speed limit.

Those regulations are outlined on the DOT website.

“I agree it has nothing to do with the merits of the Beach Road project,” selectman Tristan Israel said. He suggested getting the Island’s legislative delegation on board: “Otherwise we’re going to get some runaround on this issue.”

 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Disappointing that town is not going to consider burying the utility lines. That would be a significant improvement to the mess they now have. In addition, homeowners in Vineyard Haven have poured thousands into their homes. There are only a small number of remaining houses that have not been improved. It’s time for the town to step up and rehabilitate the downtown and beach road and bring our community up to standards that the residents can be proud of. Examples, dirt pothole-rich roads in the center of town (next to Chamber of Commerce no less!), neglected parking lot at Veterans Park full of abandoned cars, dirt sidewalk across from Post office, the list goes on and on.

  2. This entire project is EXACTLY what is wrong with the Town of Tisbury. There is an old saying “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Does ANYONE on the Planning Board or Board of Selectmen know exactly what the state’s plan is? All this speculation just stirs up contempt…but what would this town be without DRAMA! Get the exact plans out there to the land owners on the road and then proceed from there. I will say, the PRIORITY should be the flooding issue before the safety of a few bicyclists….just common sense.

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