Frequent visitors of the Trade Wind Fields Preserve — known locally as Tradewinds — let out their anger and disappointment at the construction of a fence to Oak Bluffs selectmen in a heavily attended and lengthy meeting Tuesday.
Land Bank executive director James Lengyel, who was invited to attend the meeting, but did not, sent a letter to the selectmen about the Land Bank’s efforts to safeguard Tradewinds (Lengyel sent a similar letter to The Times). In the letter, Lengyel detailed the impetus behind the fence, saying repeated attempts to educate users did not work, the construction of the fence was within legal boundaries, and suggesting a dog park should be constructed elsewhere in the town. “A dog park in a conservation reservation such as Trade Winds Field is indeed trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” Lengyel wrote. He also provided minutes from previous meetings on how the Land Bank came to the decision of the fence.
Selectman Brian Packish said he wanted to hear from the crowd of Tradewinds users because he felt they had been attending Land Bank meetings and hadn’t had an opportunity to have their voices heard loud and clear.
Packish said he had several questions on how the Land Bank and town advisory boards operated, and their process. “The fence is the catalyst of a really large conversation that’s bubbling over in our community right now. The Land Bank is a big stakeholder in our town.”
Packish said the Land Bank had a responsibility to appear at the meeting, and that the invitation would stay open for them to appear before the public, and if they chose not to appear, it would be “unfortunate.”
Selectmen agreed they did not feel they had purview over a fence, but were not impressed with how the issue was being handled.
“What’s going on doesn’t feel healthy to me, and by the representation of what I’m seeing in our community, it’s pretty clear it’s not healthy,” Packish said.
“We’re neighbors,” selectman Michael Santoro said of the Land Bank and the town, “and they’re not acting neighborly.”
Selectman Greg Coogan said he was “dismayed” no one from the Land Bank attended the meeting. “We see so little of them, and I feel like we’re working with a ghost,” he said. “I think the Land Bank as a whole needs to be looked at.”
Chairman Gail Barmakian opened the discussion to the public, and was met with a storm of comments and questions.
“This is an organization that is way out of control,” Oak Bluffs resident Phil Cordella said of the Land Bank.
“It makes me very sad. I don’t know if there’s anything you can do; I appreciate you listening to us speak,” Oak Bluffs resident Joan Eville said.
“I would say 50 percent less people use the property now, at least, because they don’t like it anymore, because they’re sad,” Oak Bluffs resident Ann Bennett said.
“It was my understanding from reading the Land Bank registration that towns can opt out of the Land Bank,” Oak Bluffs resident Celia Gillis. Barmakian said towns are able to opt out of the Land Bank, but it wouldn’t necessarily solve the fence issue.
“If the advisory board does have some sort of oversight, who is insuring the advisory board is actually doing their jobs? Is there any accountability to the advisory board if they’re not doing their job?” Oak Bluffs resident Nora Love asked. Barmakian said the board is mostly appointed members, and supports the town’s interests.
Packish said the real answer to her question was to take out nomination papers and run for positions they wanted to see change in.
Packish reiterated he had several questions about the Land Bank as an entity. “I have a lot of questions around the Land Bank. Have they exceeded their mandate? Are we at a point to make a change? Is housing a bigger priority? Every taxpayer on Martha’s Vineyard subsidizes the Land Bank with their taxes, because this is untaxed land. There’s so many levels that they’ve become autonomous, operating in their own vacuum, with their own voices, patting themselves on the back, and, quite honestly, that’s not healthy. It shouldn’t happen with any organization in any community, so I’m ready to have a full conversation.”
Packish was met with enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
Richard Toole, the only town Land Bank advisory board member at the meeting, said it has been a public relations disaster for the Land Bank. He also said there was fault on both sides, citing uncontrolled dogs and the construction of the fence.
Packish agreed it was a public relations nightmare, adding the type of fence was one used at other Land Bank properties to hold in farm animals.
Selectmen said they would have a discussion at the end of the meeting about whether town counsel should be involved in looking into the matter.
Barmakian decided to set up a board-to-board public meeting with the Land Bank before the next selectmen’s meeting. Meeting time will be posted on the town’s website.
Sign of a precedent
Island artist Michael Johnson appeared before selectmen to make his case for his homemade sign that has become the subject of a bureaucratic debate over its posting at Town Beach, which is known as Inkwell.
For the past week, Johnson has been collecting signatures in support of his sign, receiving 650 from individuals both on- and off-Island, as well as 30 from Island businesses, mostly on Circuit Avenue. Johnson then read a letter from African American Heritage Trail co-founder Elaine Weintraub, who supported the cultural importance of Inkwell Beach and Johnson’s sign.
“I created two signs to pay homage to the town of Oak Bluffs, to the Oak Bluffs Polar Bears, and Martha’s Vineyard as well,” Johnson said. Selectmen were in united consensus of the image’s importance to the Island, agreeing the sign was attractive.
The main debate over the sign was Johnson’s image, “Joy,” which features the Oak Bluffs Polar Bears, a local swimming exercise group, and is featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Selectmen were concerned with the commercialization of the image — Johnson makes money from selling prints — on public property.
Santoro said he was afraid of setting a precedent if the sign went up.
Parks department chairwoman Amy Billings said it was a matter of finding out who approves a private sign like Johnson’s.
“I think it needs to be there to open the 71st seasonal opening of the Polar Bears on July 4,” Polar Bear Carleen Cordwell said.
The idea of having Johnson gift the rights of his image to the town was suggested by Oak Bluffs resident Ester Hopkins, but Johnson said he could not give away the image rights, having spent his entire life trying to shoot an image like “Joy.”
“That’s a lot to ask of an artist,” Johnson said.
Selectmen Jason Balboni said he liked the idea of a name-change article on the next town warrant, but that right now the sign was not appropriate due to the image’s commercial value to Johnson.
Selectmen then voted 4-0 to deny Johnson’s request to put up the sign. Barmakian abstained because she is a member of the Polar Bears. Johnson thanked the selectmen for their time.
Town Hall update
Town building committee chairman Bill McGrath, along with Joe Sullivan, came to selectmen with revised plans for the new town hall that came in millions of dollars over budget last month.
The new plans would reduce the cost of the project by $1.7 million, according to McGrath, by eliminating the basement, removing the dormer on the upper floor, eliminating the south-side windows on the upper floor, swapping the wood floors with tile, and removing hazmat remediation and building site demo from the general contractor’s purview, to be bid separately.
Selectmen wanted an official cost list of the revised plan, detailing how $1.7 million would be cut from the budget.
“I need an ability to represent it intelligently and factually to [people]. I’m not willing to just accept ‘$1.7 million has been found, the decision has been made, just trust me,’ as an answer to give people,” Packish said.
McGrath agreed to give selectmen an official plan with all the intended budget cuts Wednesday morning, and selectmen set up a meeting with the building committee for Friday, June 15, at 4 pm.
In other business, selectmen unanimously passed a motion to support House bill No. 3528, known as the “bottle bill,” which would expand the deposit on plastic bottles to include nip bottles. Town administrator Bob Whritenour will draft a letter to State Rep. Dylan Fernandes and State Sen. Julian Cyr.
“It’s the largest single-use plastic that’s finding its way all over our community, and we have a responsibility to kind of step up on this,” Packish said.
Selectmen also heard a report on the design for the Oak Bluffs School roof project, which is expected to be ready for the fall 2018 special town meeting. The town is also in the process of becoming a Green Community, which would provide grant opportunities.
Selectmen unanimously approved each of their appointments to the conservation commission, board of registrars, harbor advisory committee, Community Preservation committee, Council on Aging, personnel board, and board of assessors.
Oak Bluffs resident Jeannie Wright was approved for a hawker and peddling license to receive donations for the American Diabetes Association June 16 and 17 around Kennebec and Circuit Ave.