Bottled-up confusion over ban

West Tisbury selectmen deny town administrator access to town’s lawyer to consider enforcement questions.

Town administrator had questions about the town's bottle ban. — Rich Saltzberg

Town administrator Jennifer Rand says she has questions about the plastic water bottle ban, but the board of selectmen, in a 2-1 vote, rejected her request to seek guidance from town counsel on how to enforce aspects of the town’s new plastic bottle ban.

The ban, which prohibits the sale or distribution of single-use plastic soda or water bottles of 34 ounces or less, was part of an initiative by schoolchildren who lobbied as part of Plastic Free MV and achieved bans in all up-Island towns. West Tisbury’s ban, as Rand pointed out to the selectmen, is the first of its type in the nation

“So the bottle bill has been approved by the attorney general, which is super-exciting, because we are first in the nation,” Rand said. “I’m excited about that. But with it comes questions.”

Rand went on to say the first question to arise she could not answer, and therefore she needed access to counsel. A two-minute phone call to town counsel proved fruitless, Rand said. Counsel suggested being empowered to make a determination. Rand said the question at hand was how to define distribution. She asked if a company in Edgartown can distribute into West Tisbury cases of water of the type the bylaw bans if those cases were purchased in Edgartown. 

“I think the answer is simple,” Manter said. “The answer is no. That’s distributing.”

“So let me ask you this,” Rand said. “If someone in West Tisbury calls Walmart and orders a case of water, and UPS drops off a case of water at their house, is UPS distributing the water and in violation, is Walmart distributing the water and in violation?”

“Whoever brings it to your door is the one who is distributing,” Manter said, “because you have to be in West Tisbury to violate the bylaw. I don’t think we need to spend any money.”

“It sounds to me like it’s transporting, not distributing,” Mitchell said.

Rand said by her interpretation, it was legal to buy a case of water off-Island and bring it home for personal use, but if you later went and handed it out at a baseball game, that wouldn’t be legal. 

Mitchell thought legal clarification was justified. Manter and selectman Kent Healy disagreed and voted against her. 

Manter said the interpretation will be up to the enforcement officer for the bylaw — West Tisbury health agent Omar Johnson. 

In other business, Rand informed the board that it had come to her attention last year that the town has not formally accepted the layout of Indian Hill Road. She asked the board members if they wanted her to take the steps necessary to bring acceptance of the road before voters at the next town meeting. Rand said there would be title and legal work. The board took no vote, but authorized Rand to explore the issue and see how difficult it would be to clean any title issues for placement on a warrant. It’s unclear what liabilities, if any, the road may pose if it has title issues, and what formally transforming it from private to public might achieve.  

“I did check with Dick McCarron’s son to see if they had any records in the bowels of their offices, because he was the one who had worked on those sort of things back in the day — and they don’t,” Rand said.

“My dad was town counsel in West Tisbury for quite a while,” Robert McCarron later told The Times. McCarron said West Tisbury’s inquiry into the road took him by surprise, and he has zero knowledge on the issue. 

“There’s a question about whether at the time there were some Native American claims that were making it complicated, because at the time Native American claims were sometimes complicating road takings,” Rand told the board. “But that was a long time ago, and it may be a little simpler now, or not.”

Chairman Skipper Manter said he recalled the first surveyor the town hired gave his fee back to the town because the problem was “so complex.” Another surveyor was hired 20 years later, Manter said, but somehow that work fizzled too.

“I think it was the complexity of the fracturing of the titles,” he said. “It wasn’t worth the cost of having to clear them. But we can look at them again. There was a reason it wasn’t done.”

Selectman Cynthia Michell asked if it had to be done at all.

“In the scheme of things,” Rand said, “I think it would be better if it were done, [rather] than not.” 

Manter said he would back an initial reinvestigation.

“If it ends up being stunningly complicated, we can leave it the way it has been for 25 or 30 years,” Rand said.





  1. Precisely why approving a ban is unenforceable. The board of health is going to what? Have people arrested who show up at a meeting in West Tisbury and hand someone a plastic water bottle? Thats “distribution”? I doubt that would ever hold up in court.

    • tennisstar– just think about this for a minute– the idea is to have the few stores in W. Tisbury stop selling these kind of bottles. The bottle police are not going to go after someone giving another person a bottle of water. They don’t even ticket people for leaving their car running for 20 minutes when they go into Cronigs. The idea that someone would be arrested for handing out water bottles is absurd.
      If I was the manager at Alley’s I would make sure that I had an ample inventory of various water bottles to sell next summer, and a filtered, or ionized water dispenser on site for people to fill up at a reasonable price of say 25 cents. People could come in, buy 24 “reusable” bottles at 4 bucks a pop, fill em up for 25 cents a pop, and if those people want to throw them in the trash they could do that, and come back the next day and do it again. A windfall for W.Tisbury stores. The revenue generated by the sales tax alone
      ( reusable water bottles are taxed, disposable bottles are not — go figure) could generate enough money to build a bridge to the island.. or even more betterer, build some bike paths so the tourist don’t get killed while riding their e bikes to Aquinnah

  2. Why not allow town counsel to provide guidance on how to enforce the law? What are the selectmen afraid of?

  3. If this law helps to encourages people to get a water bottle, then it’s a good law. Yes there are things that need to be worked out, and I don’t think the purpose of the law is to penalize people. It’s just a common sense law.

  4. I wonder how many communities have decided to emulate what West Tisbury has done??? Or are they still proudly the ‘first in the nation’? Sounds to me like some of the paint chips from Tisbury migrated west into the drinking water… might want those bottle back!

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