Clarence (“Trip”) Barnes III leaned back in his office chair at Barnes Truck Sales, a photo of his grandfather — the former attorney general of Massachusetts, with members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) — behind him.
He was winded and tired and exasperated.
“I kept all the books. I have all the records,” Barnes said, referring to his used car business, which has operated since 1967 with no issues. “I’m really pissed they’re talking about the cars.”
Barnes is referring to a decision by the board of selectmen to table his used car license at a meeting Jan. 7. Board members said they didn’t want to consider the business license while Barnes is facing zoning issues at the property related to renting rooms.
Barnes has been ordered to stop renting the eight rooms inside 300 State Road by the town’s building inspector, Ross Seavey. There is a shared kitchen, and two bathrooms. He’s been given until Friday to show proof he’s evicted the tenants, or the town will reinspect. In his order, Seavey wrote that inspectors would be there Monday morning, but since Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Seavey said, he’s trying to reschedule for Tuesday.
Regardless, the situation looks like it’s headed for an inspection showdown.
At the selectmen’s meeting Tuesday, Barnes showed up without being on the agenda to make his case. He invited board members (selectman Jeff Kristal was absent) to take a look for themselves, and chided the board for tying his used car license to the zoning dispute over rented bedrooms, saying he spoke to a family member who is a lawyer who says that isn’t legal.
“I haven’t called a lawyer. I’m trying to keep away from that,” he told selectmen. “I’m sure you are, too.”
He told the board members they’re “messing with people’s lives.”
When chair Melinda Loberg told him they could listen, but couldn’t take action because he wasn’t on the agenda, Barnes became more frustrated. The board doesn’t have a meeting scheduled until Jan. 28.
After Loberg thanked him for coming, Barnes got more agitated. “Thank you for coming? I don’t have any choice. This is a real kick in the ass from my town. You should be ashamed of yourselves,” Barnes said as he walked out of the Katharine Cornell Theater.
After the meeting, Loberg and selectman Jim Rogers said they wouldn’t be taking Barnes up on his offer to tour the building. “We have inspectors for that,” Loberg said. “We trust them.”
In his order to Barnes, Seavey produced a 1991 document signed by Barnes promising to use the building only as a single-family home.
“I just said yes, yes, yes, because I wanted to get back to work,” Barnes told The Times, referring to that 1991 zoning agreement. He was facing a court battle with the town over trucks parked on Evelyn Way for his moving and trucking company, which he has since sold to Carroll Trucking.
As for the concerns with him renting rooms, Barnes wanted to show The Times he had made some of the changes requested by the fire chief during a recent inspection. He offered a tour. There are combination smoke and carbon monoxide detectors throughout, fire extinguishers are available, and a door that previously opened in now opens out, for a proper and safer egress. He wants to fix the electrical wiring in the basement, and hired Perry Electric to do it, he said. “They won’t give me a permit because it’s under question.”
On this day, Sally, who declined to give her last name, sat on the bed in her room. “Trip’s a great guy,” she said, unsolicited. “He’s always been there for me. I’d have no place to go. He’s given me a home.”
Barnes operated the building like an unofficial Vineyard House, the Island housing for men and women in addiction recovery. It’s a place for people “down on their luck” or addicted to get a hand up, Barnes said. He asks for $150 per week, but doesn’t always get it. “This is nothing new,” he said. He’s been renting rooms for years, and even had the child of a top town official live in the building.
Another young man is a high school student from Jamaica, whose mother lives in workforce housing supplied by Stop & Shop.
“This isn’t about money,” Barnes said. “This is about helping people.”
In 2018, Barnes received the Creative Living Award from the Permanent Endowment of Martha’s Vineyard. The award is given to individuals who “enrich the lives of others” on the Island. At the ceremony, Barnes was recognized for his work with Vineyard House and Vineyard Trust, among other Island organizations.
Back in his office at 300 State Road during The Times’ visit, James Ormonde Stavely-O’Carroll stops and takes a seat. Stavely-O’Carroll was convicted of smuggling $8.1 million in weed in 2011. He was recently released from federal prison, after serving 9.2 years. He tried to get an off-Island apartment, he says, but his conviction made that problematic. He knew where to turn.
“I’ve known Trip since 1979 or 1980,” Stavely-O’Carroll says. “He’s done a lot of good for this Island. He’s part of the spirit of the Island.”
Barnes was willing to help. “He paid his debt to society, and I said, We’ll give you a job and get you back on your feet,” Barnes said of Stavely-O’Carroll.
When Stavely-O’Carroll strayed into a political rant about the “bureaucratic shadow empire,” Barnes asked him to cool it to keep the focus on the issue at hand.
Barnes was the first president of Vineyard House, and is open about his own alcoholism. “I’m an alky,” he said. “I’ve never hidden my use of alcohol. I’m the poster boy for working it off.”
Knowing his own demons with alcoholism, Barnes makes it a point to help others get sober: “When I help someone, it helps me.”
He’s not one for the ideals of Alcoholics Anonymous, though, which are to stay dry until the day you die. “If I knew I was going out, I’d have a six-pack and a Camel,” he said.
During the tour of his building, Barnes rattled off information about the people staying there, and who have stayed there in the past.
He blames selectman Jeff Kristal, whom he says just doesn’t like him, for his current issues. He’s not sure if it’s because Barnes consistently pulls in more than 7,000 votes for his position on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, or something else. He believes it was Kristal who was behind an earlier complaint that Barnes doesn’t live in town and shouldn’t be representing Tisbury. (The complaint was eventually dropped because the woman who brought it moved off-Island, and no longer had any standing to bring it.)
Barnes supported planning board member Ben Robinson when he went through a similar process. In that case, the person dropped it as Robinson defended himself before a hearing of the board of registrars.
Kristal, in a text message, writes that he didn’t know about the issues with Barnes renting rooms previously. “I knew nothing about this. Never knew until the reports were filed through our building and zoning official who received a [click see fix] — and the other reports from fire department and board of health,” Kristal wrote referring to an online portal where residents can send complaints to town officials anonymously. “I had zero knowledge about 300 State Road prior to those reports issued from Tisbury town officials.”
Barnes isn’t sure what he’ll do. He’s not interested in a costly legal battle with the town. He’s asked the selectmen to come and take a tour of his building. “Not one of them has stopped in to see how bad this is,” Barnes says. He remains upset that the town is making this about his business.
“We want to make sure all establishments are up to code and safety, free from violations, and those permit holders are in good standing with the town,” Kristal wrote.
Barnes says if he’s forced to make a choice, he’ll have to ask the people to leave. On an Island that already has a shortage of available housing, it’s going to be next to impossible for the tenants to find a place to live.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” Barnes says. “I certainly don’t think anyone is in any danger here.”