Ag Society seeks streamlined permitting for events

West Tisbury selectmen determine appropriate uses for property.

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A streamlined permitting process for Ag Hall events was the central topic of discussion at the West Tisbury selectmen's meeting. — Rich Saltzberg

Members of the Agricultural Society advocated for a more streamlined permitting process for large events held at the Agricultural Hall at a West Tisbury selectmen meeting Wednesday.

The Ag Society relies on public events for the majority of its income — things like weddings and festivals compensate for the many free programs the society offers.

Bob Egerton, Agricultural Society treasurer and chairman of the society finance committee, said 40 percent of Ag Hall events sponsored this year are 4-H clubs and educational programs. “It’s very difficult to recoup expenses from 4-H or educational programs. We want to be a responsible neighbor, and are concerned about overuse of the facility,” Egerton said.

The society acquired the 23-acre parcel from original owners and conservationists Jeanne and Edwin Woods in 1993 at a discounted price, to be used for the fairground and new agricultural headquarters. As a condition of the transaction, Jeanne and Edwin Woods placed restrictions on the property to ensure it would be used for agriculture and educational programming, and not stray toward a more commercialized purpose. In 1991, the family also placed an agricultural preservation restriction (APR) on the property, which is now controlled by both the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) and the West Tisbury conservation commission.

Town administrator Jen Rand said Fresh off the Farm, an event hosted by the M.V. Food and Wine Festival, was brought before the board in October for a one-day beer and wine permit, and ultimately became a laborious permitting process that prompted the discussion. “Should the holders of the APR also be signing off on that process? Does the APR allow selectmen to sign off on beer and wine?” Rand asked. “How do we get these events permitted in a more seamless fashion?”

Chair of the West Tisbury conservation commission Tara Whiting said she and the commission would like to be included in conversations as new requests come up. “Our approval is also needed as a coholder with the VCS and as it conforms with zoning,” she said.

Egerton said the society “fully understands” compliance with the 1991 APR, and that its goal is not to move away from the property’s original intended purpose. “You’ll see the commercial events last year and this year are half what they were in 1998,” Egerton said. “We are working hard not to abuse that aspect of property use.”

According to Egerton, the property is empty two-thirds of the year. “There is nothing going on at that property besides office staff for the majority of the year,” he said. “What we need, as we think about additional event requests, is a streamlined process.”

He brought up some “practical considerations,” like the fact that the society operates at a very modest profit, and that the fair represents 74 percent of gross annual income. “A four-day event represents three-quarters of our revenue. We are quite reliant on the fair to stay open,” he said. “It costs $352 a day to operate that property.”

Everyone at the meeting acknowledged the importance of the Ag Hall in the Vineyard community. “The Ag Hall is a community resource like nothing else on the Island; the size, the central location, the parking. That’s why there is such a demand for events there.”

Egerton said the society would like to provide a list of all planned events to the different regulatory boards at the beginning of the year, and at the end of the year provide a comprehensive list of events that were conducted. He also requested hosting eight weddings a year, as opposed to six. “These are one-day events that significantly help the hall,” he said. Egerton also said the society would give priority to the town for any events they wish to hold.

President of the Ag Society Brian Athearn said his intent is not to change the APR, or to increase profit for the Ag Hall. “We want to adhere to the APR vehemently,” he said. “We don’t do all these programs for a profit; we focus on the educational and agricultural benefits.”

Athearn said the only way the society can continue to be a resource for the community is if they have the means to do so. “We are running on a shoestring budget just to keep the building standing,” he said.

Ag Society trustee Julie Scott said she would like some clarification on what is considered a legitimate event. “I don’t think six people gathering in the barn to talk about parasites is an event. Whereas the Barn Raisers Ball is a substantial event,” she said. “This list looks daunting, but we are talking about most of these events being 10 people sitting in a room talking. We need collaborative efforts. We are only as good as the programming we are offering.”