Oak Bluffs voters turned out for Tuesday night’s special town meeting, but the hot button issue of the night — to let voters take a ballot vote on parallel parking on Circuit Avenue for the town’s streetscape project — didn’t pass legal muster, and ended up being a nonbinding vote.
The meeting, moderated by Jesse (“Jack”) Law III, began half an hour late as voters poured in. The total number of voters reached 234 people — significantly more than the 150 at the annual town meeting in May.
Law held a brief moment of silence for Priscilla Sylvia, Roger Wey, Tony Maseda, and June Manning.
The Circuit Avenue project is one piece of the town’s downtown streetscape project, funded by $2.7 million approved by voters at the 2020 town meeting. The project focuses on Circuit Avenue North, Circuit Avenue South, Kennebec Avenue, Healey Square, and a portion of Lake Avenue. Improvements include new, widened sidewalks, trashcans, streetlights, and crosswalks, and provide accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Healey Square would also be redesigned, and get a brand-new look by removing the large planters at both ends.
The streetscape design has been generally favored by members of the public and the town select board, but continues to be contentious over its proposed change of diagonal parking to parallel parking on the bottom of Circuit Avenue, near Giordano’s and the Ritz. The project design, including parallel parking, was previously approved by the select board in a split 3-2 vote.
On Tuesday, voters waded through the rest of the warrant before finding out the petition article that asked that town voters be able to decide on the parking change through a ballot vote at the 2022 annual town election was not legal. “The vote here tonight is not going to have a legal effect,” town counsel Michael Goldsmith told the crowd. “There is no mechanism for the town meeting to require that the board put on a binding question.”
Goldsmith said to get a question on the ballot, 10 voters have to petition the board to put a question on the ballot. If the board decides not to, 10 percent of the town’s registered voters can file a petition with the town clerk, who then puts it on the ballot.
Law opened the warrant article up to discussion, and several residents gave impassioned speeches on the parking change. The majority of speakers opposed the parallel parking, saying it would be unsafe, cause traffic jams, and hurt businesses on the popular downtown street.
“I guess this is really disappointing, because all the research that we did, I guess we assumed if we didn’t put it out there the right way, we’d be told that before tonight,” Amy Billings said. “The parallel parking has become such a controversy in the town, it’s very sad that it’s breaking up the businesspeople.”
Bill Engler, who said he’s been involved with the streetscape project for nine years, compared the issue to the roundabout, one of the most hotly contested changes in Oak Bluffs, which eventually won dissenters over.
Engler gave an emotional speech about how unsafe and difficult the diagonal parking is for him and his family of five kids, including a daughter who uses a wheelchair.
“Damn it, my dad taught me how to parallel-park, and we should teach our kids too,” Engler said.
He said the Island thinks of itself as progressive, but lags behind metropolitan areas that close off their streets to vehicle traffic.
“It’s time we just suck it up and say, ‘You know what, we can do some change,’” he said.
Some residents suggested creating mock parallel parking spots for a month on the proposed end of Circuit Avenue.
“Go to Edgartown,” a member of the crowd yelled in response.
Rich Michelson said the main issue is that people feel like they aren’t being heard. “You guys serve at our pleasure,” Michelson said to the select board. “When there’s such a controversy that fills a special town meeting room like this, whenever that comes up, whatever the project is … you need to give us the right to vote.”
David Wilson juxtaposed the streetscape project with the town hall project. “I had no questions about the town hall project when I voted for it,” Wilson said. “I do not feel that way about this project.”
Planning board chair Ewell Hopkins reminded the public that the Circuit Avenue project was one part of an overall downtown streetscape project. Answering various questions, Hopkins said there will be 12 spots lost on Circuit Avenue with the addition of parallel parking, but only a net loss of one parking spot in the entire downtown area, after parallel parking on Lake Avenue is switched to diagonal.
Select board chair Brian Packish, who has led the streetscape project over the years, said the project is being done in phases so as not to tear up the entire downtown area all at once. He added that the $1.65 million bid from Lawrence-Lynch for the Circuit Avenue portion of the project, which was opened Monday, was the lion’s share of the entire streetscape project.
“If you add all of the other portions together, they do not monetarily equal Circuit Avenue’s portion,” Packish said.
Packish also read a letter from Craig Miller, principal of Waterfield Design, the project’s designers. Miller compared the bid price of the Circuit Avenue portion to estimated costs of other project areas.
“Kennebec Avenue: $490,000, Healey Square: $430,000, Lake Avenue: $130,000, estimated total $1.05 million,” Packish said, reading from the letter. “Like any construction cost estimate, this projection is subject to change in the application of other market-based conditions that are typical for the construction industry.”
In a straw poll, opposition to parallel parking significantly outnumbered those in favor of it.
Responding to an email request for a public meeting to discuss parallel parking on Wednesday, Packish said the board is planning on scheduling such a meeting.
In other business, voters overwhelmingly approved a petition to ban moped rentals in Oak Bluffs. The discussion on the ban was sparked this summer, when a young woman riding on a moped died in an accident, and opponents of mopeds learned that a similar home-rule petition was allowed to lapse on Beacon Hill with no action.
Voters approved changing future fire chiefs from “strong chiefs” to “weak chiefs.” The difference has to do with the mechanism available to local officials to remove a chief, and hiring and firing powers. A “strong chief,” under Massachusetts law, gives the fire chief hiring and firing authority, and complete control over discipline. For a weak chief, those powers would fall to the select board.
Select board member Ryan Ruley said he ran for the select board on a platform of accountability. “It could cost us civil liability. I think we’ve seen that in the past,” he said.
Newly hired Fire Chief Nelson Wirtz, who will remain as a strong chief throughout his tenure, said he was opposed to the change.
“I feel it damages the chief’s ability for discipline,” Wirtz said. “This select board here is willing to allow the chief to do what the chief is supposed to do. These select boards can change.”
Town administrator Deborah Potter said the change brings the fire chief position in line with other town departments in terms of accountability and rules and regulations. “As much as Chief Wirtz says the select board changes … so do your chiefs. So while we have a good relationship now, we need to take advantage of that, and put practices and policies into place so that we protect those positions … in the event a future chief does not put up the same standards as Mr. Wirtz,” she said.
Voters swiftly moved through the rest of the warrant, approving every article, including $35,000 for harbor maintenance, $120,000 for a harbor jetty reconstruction project, approval for affordable housing proposals in the Southern Woodlands area of town, where 60 to 65 units would be built, approval to create a 4.5-acre lot for a military veteran housing project, a petition to the state legislature to make a land swap with the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank for the “doughnut hole” property, and to recognize June 19 as the Juneteenth holiday.
Other approved articles included adopting Island-wide goals in reducing fossil fuel usage, $100,000 for new computer equipment and relocation expenses, $250,000 for an extra other post-employment benefits (OPEB) payment, and an article for $150,000 for two student residential placements.