Unless there’s a Hollywood ending, it appears “Groundhog Day” will continue to play out at the Island Theater this summer.
Co-owner Ben Hall Jr. told The Times last Thursday that there are no serious offers on the table, and that wastewater limitations are proving to be a liability.
“I get tire kickers every other day, some people seem to be realistic and have some good ideas and others are just not realistic,” he said. “There appears to be an issue with the town sewer limitations that severely impact what anybody can do on the property.”
Mr. Hall said a potential development proposal was “very recently” scuttled over wastewater limitations. He said he was told that there are no new sewer hookups and no additional wastewater capacity for Oak Bluffs customers, in part due to a study that concluded the wastewater plant already releases too much nitrogen into the watershed. “I know that [Martha’s Vineyard Community Services] was experiencing a similar limitation on their plans, and I believe Phillips Hardware is affected as well,” he said. “It appears this can present a problem for any positive development at any site in town.”
Chuck Sullivan, architect for the Phillips Hardware expansion/top-of-the-shop housing project, told The Times that wastewater permits for four two-bedroom and four one-bedroom apartments were obtained several years ago, and are not in jeopardy. However, he said wastewater limitations are affecting other projects. “We were told they may consider some projects that are year-round use, but for seasonal use they’re maxed out,” he said.
Oak Bluffs wastewater commissioner and selectman Gail Barmakian contradicted Mr. Hall. “I don’t know what Ben’s talking about any deal getting killed, but the theater is, by right, allotted a certain amount of [wastewater] flow,” she said. “If you need more capacity than you’re allotted, you come to us for additional flow. We don’t have a lot to give out but unless we know what they need, we can’t act. Ben has never come to us and asked ‘what is my allotment and what is my flow?’ He’s never been told ‘no.’”
Lisa Merritt, office administrator at the wastewater department, concurred with Barmakian. “Nobody from this office has heard from Mr. Hall; I’m not sure where he’s getting his information,” she said.
“If you want to increase your [wastewater] flow, you have to come before the wastewater commission with an actual plan,” Barmakian said. “We’ve never seen a plan from Ben.”
Barmakian also questioned the existence of the wastewater study Hall referenced.
“I know of no study that concluded that the plant releases ‘too much’ nitrogen into the watershed,” she said.
Hall did not respond to inquiries from The Times about the sources of his information.
Mr. Hall said potential investors have also been deterred because the Island Theater has a become a “political football.”
“Several serious proposals have also been lost over the past year because of the town’s manipulation of the situation,” he said, referring to a series of conflicts and legal battles with the town that began when former Oak Bluffs building inspector Mark Barbadoro officially declared the Island Theater “dangerous” on Dec. 2, 2016. The declaration required immediate action by the Halls to make the theater safe. On May 26, 2017, after Superior Court Judge Cornelius Moriarty told Mark Cain, attorney for the Halls, that the action plan submitted was inadequate, he signed off on a revised plan on May 30. Work to make the building structurally safe was completed over the summer and the facade was given a considerable facelift in August.
“When the true facts were flushed out from the last town report on the condition of the building, the only true concern was a storm of sustained 120 mile an hour winds, which the Island hasn’t had since the 1938 hurricane, and the building didn’t fall down then,” Hall said. “The rest of it was hyperbole created by stories by your newspaper and echoed by the Gazette.”
The theater was also the hot topic at town meeting last April, when Oak Bluffs voters debated a $200,000 expenditure to make the Island Theater structurally safe, or to have the building razed with town funds. It was the longest debate of the evening; in the end, voters were full of sound and fury, but decided to take no action.
Later in the year, town administrator Robert Whritenour expressed optimism that the town would get help in resolving the stalemate from Massachusetts Office of Business Development and Municipal Real Estate Assistance Office, telling selectmen that officials had agreed to meet with them to formulate a long-term plan for a “problem property with a problem owner,” and the plan could include obtaining the financing for the potential eminent domain proceedings while not putting the taxpayers at risk.
However, last week, Mr. Whritenour told The Times that state officials had since balked.
“They had indicated they would be able to come in and assist us on a development plan if we gained site control of the building,” he said. “But in the past they’ve had issues with private owners who chose to do other things, so it doesn’t look like we’re eligible for MassDevelopment to come down and solve the problem for us.”
In a follow-up email to The Times last week, Mr. Whritenour wrote, “Since prevailing in court to force the Hall family to conduct the necessary repairs to make the Island Theater safe and to improve the exterior, the Town has maintained that the most productive and beneficial way to redevelop this property into a positive economic force for the downtown is to support the Halls’ efforts to market the property and to support potential private purchasers in their efforts to gain site control of the property. There has been interest in the property, and the Town will continue to offer support to interested parties to help stimulate economic interest in purchasing the property for redevelopment. Right now we view this role as more productive than attempting to take the property for a public use, but this issue remains of paramount concern of the Town.”
Hall said he and his brother, co-owner Brian Hall, are open to selling the theater or renting it on a long-term basis, if the deal makes financial sense.
“We’re all ears,” he said. “We developed a model of redevelopment for that property based on what we believed to be the underlying value of the property. We based a model on a 29- or 30-year rental project that ironically the town of Edgartown adopted for the Yellow House. They sought people out to do exactly what we were proposing to do.”
Mr. Hall declined to give an asking price for the property.
According to the Dukes County Registry of Deeds, the lot at 1 Circuit Ave. is appraised at $800,000, and the building has zero value.
“It’s the heart of Oak Bluffs, and hopefully the political winds will sway the day and we’ll figure out a way to make it all work,” Hall said.