The Oak Bluffs parks and recreation commission is under fire after a long-running yoga group was ousted from Inkwell Beach early Thursday morning by a parks employee.
O.B. resident Henry Diodati, abutting homeowner and yoga group supporter, told The Times that on Thursday, around 8 am, an unidentified parks commission employee informed the class that they were prohibited from the activity on public property without a permit.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Diodati said, “that they would stop something like that … something so beautiful as yoga — [beneficial to] the mind, spirit, and body.” Especially when the activity isn’t interfering with the general public, he said. While confused, Diodati brought the group to his front lawn for the remainder of the exercises. While it accepts donations, the class, Diodati said, has no official charge for joining and participating.
The ousting triggered an overwhelming number of members of the public to attend Monday’s parks commission meeting — peaking at around 150 participants — ready to express support for the yoga group, and overall freedom to utilize the town’s public spaces.
In mitigating private use of public sites, which has been a hot topic at recent town select board meetings, the parks commission said they ”[have] been working to identify and manage the many events and businesses that have taken root in town parks in recent years.”
What initially triggered the parks commission to double down on enforcing regulations that have been mainly overlooked for years is unclear, as no one at Monday’s meeting expressed objection to the activity.
Parks commission chair Antone Lima confirmed to The Times that the parks department approached the Inkwell Yoga group and relayed that without a special permit, the group was in violation of town bylaws. Considered a “special event,” the class, without having secured a permit and permission in advance, was told to leave Inkwell Beach pending receipt of official approval from the town, Lima said.
“As a commission, we are very mindful of how people and organizations use the parks for financial gain. The parks commission also understands the value of the diverse offering of special events in town, and wishes to continue promoting public recreational opportunities while balancing the rights of the public to use the parks and beaches simultaneously,” Lima wrote on behalf of the commission in an email.
That prompted a big showing by the public at Monday’s parks commission meeting, held via Zoom. Those in attendance were hoping to understand the decision to begin the strict enforcement, despite not having the item on the agenda.
On Friday, Lima, in an email to The Times, said that the commission has since received an application for Inkwell Yoga, with a discussion and possible vote on approval or denial at their August 8 meeting. Lima said because of short notice, the commission was unable to accommodate the group at Monday’s meeting.
Commissioner Amy Billings vehemently asserted that the specific topic of Inkwell Yoga was not to be discussed at Monday’s meeting, noting midmeeting, “We’re not discussing it. It’s not on the agenda, and i’m getting text messages saying, ‘Do not discuss this in detail.’”
Nevertheless, the commission — mainly Lima — were inundated with messages and raised hands of attendees, and cited town bylaws, noting that a special event is defined as “supervised or organized activities involving one or more participants or spectators, which might reasonably be expected to affect the public use or enjoyment, or the general environmental quality, of any park or beach.”
Lima referenced another town bylaw, prohibiting “commercial activity including, without limitation, signs, notices, advertisement, concessions, or soliciting/selling of goods, services, or articles,” but highlighted that the parks commission has the authority to issue “a special-use permit upon receipt of a complete application for an otherwise prohibited activity.”
Despite Lima’s acknowledgement that the parks employee engaged with the “organizers” of Inkwell Yoga, he asserted that a “point person” is needed for a group to be deemed “supervised and organized.”
Lima said that there have been no changes in the town’s bylaws, causing the ousting of Inkwell Yoga attendees, but because of the volume of visitors and beachgoers, he has to look more closely at the commission’s range of regulatory functions. One of them, said Lima, allows the commission to amend certain bylaws, which is not likely. “If we don’t issue the permits, we don’t necessarily have a way to control [happenings on public property],” Lima said at Monday’s meeting.
Select board chair Ryan Ruley, who was present at the meeting, explained that discussions among the town, the police department, and the parks commission led to the conclusion that having police respond to special-permit-related matters “wasn’t necessarily appropriate.”
Ruley said the goal is to begin with public engagement, and notifications — ”a more administrative function” — concerning town bylaws, rather than involve the police department.
Ruley said the aim was to begin with an “educational portion” of the notification process, with parks employees informing members of the public about the rules and regulations.
Ruley said parks employees would explain how to obtain a special permit if one is needed. He said that in the past, activities held on public areas like Inkwell would have needed special permits, unbeknownst to those organizing the events.
Regardless of officials’ reasoning, members of the public in attendance expressed concern over the focus on regulating seemingly peaceful activities. Further frustrating supporters of the yoga group was the commission’s reluctance to hear comments from the public.
“I’m concerned about the interest of the town in trying to monetize healthy, productive activities that contribute to the larger sense of the community,” said resident Caroline Hunter. “Whether it is yoga, group swimming, water aerobics, [it is necessary to have] free public usage of the beach and parks.”
She added, “We’re very disturbed about how the Inkwell Yoga group was treated,” adding that there was no written notification sent out to the Inkwell Yoga organizers. “You are all operating from a position of having stopped something very productive, and now making the people come from a kind of backhanded perspective to justify what they were doing.” Hunter said she looks forward to “a wide airing of the issue” at the August 8 meeting.
Noting the large number of members of the public present via Zoom, Hunter said, “This is a serious concern. I think you’re threatening the business life, the social life, the healthy life of the Oak Bluffs community.”
Additionally, Hunter raised an issue over the lack of public forum, to which Lima responded because of the volume of attendees, and the attention generated by the issue, the commission is “struggling” to accommodate everyone, which he followed up with an apology.
Shelley Christiansen, Oak Bluffs resident and Cottage City Historic District commissioner, said she was “stunned,” and seconded Hunter’s statements. “I have never been at a meeting, after all these years, where public comment has been denied in a commission meeting on a specific agenda item,” she said.