Game, set, match.
The Tisbury board of selectmen had the issue of the Center Street tennis courts on its agenda Tuesday for a public hearing, but after getting slammed with emails like a Serena Williams overhead, they passed the issue off to the town’s fledgling open space and recreation committee and the William Street Historic District Commission for further review.
More than 80 people tuned into the Tuesday evening board of selectmen meeting on Zoom ready to pounce, but selectmen diffused the situation by saying the impressions that were being offered in an email were not reality.
Earlier in the day an email circulated, urging people to write to selectmen and sign a petition citing concerns about turning the courts into a parking lot. “A parking lot does not belong in a quiet, historic neighborhood,” one of the comments in the email stated. “It will bring a high volume of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and with that noise.”
Selectman Jeff Kristal said the idea that the town was going to pave over the tennis courts was not true. He pointed out that the tennis courts came out near the bottom of town treasures during a Vision Forum in 2014, and in 2016 were considered for the site of a new town hall. But on Tuesday, he said he was committed to it being a recreation area, and perhaps converted to pickleball courts and a community garden.
“I think it’s an important recreational area in town, that it’s an eyesore, and that it needs more cleaning up and a heck of a lot more maintenance than it’s received in the past. Parking needs to be enforced,” he said. “With that being said, I’m committed to not losing any recreational space, and that’s why we created the committee … We make a space that can be updated and kept as recreation space — maybe tennis, pickleball, which we heard a lot of over the last several months, a sitting area with a garden, maybe a community garden. But we need a plan and a design. Something we can be proud of in this town.”
While Kristal urged residents to get their news somewhere “other than Islanders Talk,” he had proposed using the courts for leased parking last summer. In a text message, he wrote that his opinions have changed since then. “Parking is needed, but things have come to light since then, and we’ve developed the parking at the old fire station since,” he wrote. He said he alters his opinions “as anyone should do. I am open to any and all ideas.”
Selectman Jim Rogers said it’s a matter of looking at better utilizing the property, and it can’t continue to lose money. “We weren’t ready to go up there with a bulldozer tomorrow morning,” he said.
Kirk Metell, the town’s director of the DPW and facilities manager, said keys that are rented for the courts only take in about $1,700 per year. To keep the courts maintained, it costs $10,000 per year, and they actually need to be replaced. An estimate two years ago put that cost at $150,000.
“It’s a substantial amount of money just to open the door, or the gates, on the tennis courts, and we don’t come even near to breaking even,” Rogers said.
Only three members of the public were allowed to speak during the hearing. Dr. Stephen Bohan pointed out that the courts are in a residentially zoned neighborhood, and John Paul St. Germain suggested that a conversion to pickleball, which is popular among senior citizens, would increase demand for the courts. A third person asked that people in the neighborhood be included in the process of deciding the property’s fate, which selectmen chair Melinda Loberg assured the meeting would happen.
Reached after the meeting, Sarah Moore, a resident of William Street, said the neighborhood will remain vigilant on this issue. “We have to continue to pay attention to what’s going on there,” she said. “I understand the challenges the town has with attracting people to Vineyard Haven to shop and take in all the good things. But those tennis courts have been there a long time, and they’re named after Norma Chase, who taught generations to play tennis. They provide a lovely recreation area for residents and visitors.”
Though she agrees they have not been maintained well, she urged the town to seek grants through the United States Tennis Association. If nothing else, it should remain a recreation area, she said. “I’m hopeful the space will be kept green at least.”
Opening up to possibilities
Sarah York of the Vineyard Haven Business Association met with the board to talk about some of the possible guidelines for opening up businesses in town. Vineyard Haven is considering the idea of closing Main Street a couple of nights a week to allow restaurants to have open-air dining, York said.
The idea was floated with the board of health earlier in the day, and received no significant pushback from either that board or the selectmen.
“I think the board of selectmen has been inclined to be very favorable to closing the street for different purposes that benefit the businesses,” Loberg said. She said the board continues to take its cues on the public health crisis from the board of health.
York said the business association is trying to be proactive. “We wanted to make sure there were no strong negatives,” she said.
York expressed some concerns about deploying 15-minute parking signs for curbside pickup at restaurants, saying that the 11 signs might be too many devoted to restaurants once other shops are allowed to open.
Other areas discussed included coming up with uniform signage throughout the Island towns, as well as the Steamship Authority; finding a way to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) in bulk; and a request that towns not impose guidelines that would be stricter than whatever the state comes up with for businesses. “That’s something we wanted to make clear that that was our hope,” York said.
York also asked the board to join with other Island towns in coming up with what to say to visitors, something Loberg admitted was requested by state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, but not discussed by the board.
“Some consistency in the messaging would be helpful,” York said.
Not on the same page
Selectmen took up food truck regulations again, but hit the brakes when it turned out they were literally not on the same page. Kristal was looking at one document, while Loberg and Rogers were looking at guidelines that were tweaked by the town’s attorney.
Board members have been adamant at past meetings that they don’t want a proliferation of food trucks in town because of the look — described as “honky-tonk” by Rogers previously — and because they are unfair competition for the brick-and-mortar restaurants that pay rent or mortgages on their property.
The regulations would allow food trucks on properties where there is an existing restaurant, like the truck at Art Cliff Diner. A proposal by Little House Cafe owner Brook Katzen, which is before the zoning board of appeals, would also be acceptable under the regulations, Kristal told Katzen during the meeting.
Board members would like the regulations to allow for food trucks to be used for catering.
When they realized they weren’t looking at the same documents, the board decided to put off further discussion for a future meeting.
In other business, the board also kicked the can on traffic flow, parking, and taxi locations at the Steamship Authority terminal, setting up a task force that will meet with a taxi representative, Melaney West, to get their input. The idea is to move the taxis to a public lot on Union Street to keep them from having to cross the flow of pedestrian traffic at the terminal.
Peter Bradford of Martha’s Vineyard Taxi criticized the board for not making taxi companies part of the process from the beginning. “None of the taxi companies have any idea what you’re proposing,” he said.
Kristal noted the idea of sending it to the task force is to get that input. “We are giving you a voice, and I welcome that voice,” he said.
Meanwhile, the board spent a large chunk of its meeting going through every warrant article and deciding which ones they would recommend voters act on, and which ones could be put on hold given the ongoing pandemic. The town will put off a 2.2 percent pay increase for professional and management staff, and is looking to negotiate with the town’s unions to see if they’ll forgo a raise in fiscal year 2021 and have their contract extended a year.
In what became a recurring theme for the night, the board put off a decision on setting a new quorum for town meeting until it sees if state legislation is passed allowing them to lower the quorum. Selectmen seemed to think they could already do it until the town’s attorney intervened.
Some towns have considered going to court to ask for a lower quorum count, after Marblehead successfully petitioned a judge.
Selectmen also approved the purchase of a new, $8,935 engine for the shellfish department’s boat. Shellfish constable Danielle Ewart explained that the boat had been operating fine, but last week a warning alarm went off. A mechanic told her there was water in the oil, a sign that it needed an expensive head gasket replaced. The board unanimously approved the purchase.
The 4½-hour session ended with only about 20 people remaining on the call, and a frustrated MacAleer Schlicher complaining to Loberg that he wasn’t recognized repeatedly during the meeting to comment on issues. Fire Chief John Schilling, whose wife is the director of the town band, announced that the band wouldn’t be performing at Owen Park this summer, after a recent vote. Too many of the band members are in the at-risk category to chance the concerts, he said.