The Vineyard Preservation Trust agreed to take one week to solidify a proposed use policy for the Grange Hall in West Tisbury after town officials raised concerns about an increase in activity at the community space.
During the continued West Tisbury zoning board of appeals public hearing at Howes House on Thursday, Feb. 16, Vineyard Preservation Trust executive director Nevette Previd and attorney Robert McCarron returned to appeal their case for a special permit that would allow an increase in activity at the Grange. If approved, the special permit’s conditions would be added to the Grange deed.
The Trust had been to the board earlier when West Tisbury zoning inspector Joe Tierney denied more events. The trust has also filed a lawsuit in Dukes County Superior Court against the town. And they held a community forum last October to gather input from residents and to explain the state of the Grange.
McCarron said the litigation could be settled if a special permit acceptable to both sides was granted.
When the trust acquired the Grange from the town in 1997, it came with some “use limitations,” according to McCarron. He argued that under West Tisbury zoning bylaws, there are four categories possibly applicable to the Grange — exemption for educational or religious purposes, allowed charitable uses, pre-existing nonconforming uses, and business uses. Certain activities that occur at the Grange, such as movie showings and weddings, would be permissible under these categories.
Previd underscored that the Trust looked into the historic use of the Grange, built in 1859, and wanted to establish “common ground” with the town.
“For the past 26 years we have used this, we have just done that. Used it and extended it for community use,” she said. “What we really hope to do in this meeting here is really understand what tipped.”
Previd continued that a letter from Tierney expressed the number of events hosted by Circuit Arts, which has rented a part of the Grange since 2013, could be a factor. However, she pointed out that thousands of people attended the West Tisbury Farmers Market at the Grange before it moved to the Agricultural Hall. Previd said the Grange is for community use, such as parking, a place to hold community discussions, and that the town pushes plowed snow onto the Grange property in the winter.
“We can’t control the population growth … you can’t control that,” Previd said. “What we can control is figuring out together what makes sense for the neighbors, what makes sense for the community.”
Board chair Lawrence Schubert said Tierney’s reasons for requiring the Trust to pursue a special permit for the Grange included increasing use intensity and an increased number of events. “The increase makes you come, but the increase is not a reason for you to be either allowed or denied a special permit,” Schubert said.
Schubert said he spoke with town counsel Ron Rappaport about the matter, and revealed an opinion the attorney wrote in 2011 to the select board about the Grange’s use. Schubert said he had not seen the letter until the Tuesday before the continued public hearing, which the Trust representatives had also not seen. Vice chair Julius Lowe emphasized that the document was not hidden but the “continuity of knowledge” was temporarily lost with changes to town officials over the years.
The eight-page document states that town voters approved selling the property to a nonprofit organization, which was the Trust, during the 1996 special town meeting. The bid the town made allowed public gatherings, youth activities, movie showings, concerts, dinners, activities historically done at the Grange on a “consistent basis,” among others. The Trust purchased the property for $300,000 and West Tisbury reserved certain rights in the deed, including the occasional use of the Grange for town-sponsored events and limitations to improvement types under a preservation restriction agreement with the state.
Zoning board member Andrew Zaikis pointed out that Rappaport’s concluding remarks state that the Grange can have a wide range of uses. However, the zoning inspector needs to see if the “change or substantial extension of use” goes beyond 1972 levels. Board member Jeffrey Kaye said the use of the Grange felt like a town meeting matter, particularly with the “commercialization” of West Tisbury.
Schubert later said the level of use would also need to address possible community concerns, such as noise, lights, and traffic levels. He suggested the Trust make a policy, which would be easier to communicate with the community. Previd said the Trust did have a policy regarding the Grange’s use.
Speakers in the packed Howes House meeting room unanimously voiced their support for the Grange as an important part of the town managed by the Trust.
“They’ve been great neighbors,” Music Street resident Susan Wasserman said, adding that the Farmers Market that used to be at the property was large and she was surprised there was now a perception of increased use.
West Tisbury resident Nicole Cabot said it was “embarrassing” that the town was making it so difficult for the Trust. Heather Capece, Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School lower school drama director, said she wanted to see the Grange continue to be used as an educational space for her theater students. West Tisbury resident and Island Housing Trust board member Jefrey DuBard said the Grange helped bring beneficial programs to the town, such as creative outlets and discussions on race, and suggested defining a reasonable number of programs to strike a balance with what the town can accommodate.
“I hope when we think about these policies and these restrictions that we consider rational, compassionate, inclusive tradeoffs,” Circuit Arts board member Patty Favreau said. “There may be more traffic some nights, but there will be more color, there will be more age, there will be more community, there will be more inclusivity. There may be more lights at night, but there will be more laughter, there will be more shared experiences, there will be a strengthening of who we have become as an Island. And there may be a lot more noise, but I hope that is noise that we welcome, and that we celebrate, and that honor in our presence.”
The letters the board received agreed that the activities at the Grange were a benefit to the town, although a couple of them listed concerns or demands. Only one letter, from seasonal residents Andrea and Charles Winters, opposed the issuance of a special permit.
After further discussion, and seeing the packed schedule the board had until March 30, Previd agreed to return with a more concrete Grange use policy to the board by the Thursday, Feb. 23, continued public hearing.