West Tisbury zoning bylaw update not ready for ‘prime time’

The amendments to the use table is one of several warrant articles the planning board will bring to voters during the annual town meeting. 

Some West Tisbury zoning bylaw amendments seem uncertain ahead of the annual town meeting. — Eunki Seonwoo

West Tisbury’s zoning bylaw amendments were on shaky ground when presented by the town’s planning board on Monday. 

The board held a public hearing for several warrant articles it plans to present during the annual town meeting.

The amendments were proposed because of recurring event requests coming to the town’s select board that current zoning doesn’t allow, like a permit to set up a food truck or to host a wedding. 

While one-time permissions were granted for these events previously, the town formed a committee to amend the 1970s-era zoning bylaws, particularly around incidental retail sales, food trucks, and the commercial use of a private property, such as renting it out for a wedding. This was in the form of a use table, which listed what type of events were allowed to take place in each of the town’s districts, such as in the rural or village residential districts.  

The public comments revealed that some of the language in the proposed bylaws was confusing or unclear.

West Tisbury resident Doug Ruskin said going forward with the amendments should wait.

“It feels to me like the discussion of food trucks, retail, and chain businesses is part of a larger question of, do we want West Tisbury to remain rural and quaint, or let it grow in some fashion by admitting more business to the town?” Ruskin said. “It’s a much bigger question than any one of these questions addresses, obviously. If we’re going to have a visioning session, I think all of these could wait for that.” 

The planning board is also considering asking voters permission to use $25,000 to hire a professional to moderate a community visioning study. The idea is to hold a forum with town residents to determine what path West Tisbury should take for its future. The last time the town underwent a visioning process was 25 years ago. 

Planning board member Leah Smith said that the problem of waiting to act on updating the use table was that these issues have been occurring “very frequently” and are “an immediate concern.” However, she agreed that these concerns would need to be addressed again during the visioning of West Tisbury. 

Planning board chair Virginia Jones also pointed out that the visioning can be “speculative.” 

“We won’t know how some of that will turn out for several years, and some of these things are very pressing right now and we need to address them,” she said. 

Still, board members said parts of the zoning amendments, which have been looked at by town counsel, may need to be changed or taken out entirely on town meeting floor. One was the limitation of chain stores, which were defined as “a group of stores, two or more, that possess the same brand name, adhere to the same corporate policies, and sell similar products.” This could affect local stores like Cronig’s Market. Smith said this would need to be taken out because current zoning bylaws can control the use of property, but not the ownership. “We heard that after we sent this in,” She said. 

Attorney Marilyn Vukota, who had represented the Vineyard Preservation Trust before, asked a series of questions relating to the restriction on events. She pointed out that there is a lack of definition regarding “large events” and that events could be for community uses. “I don’t understand how this is supposed to be implemented in a consistent way,” she said, regarding the permitting process for events. 

Smith said many of the events that have occurred were near residential areas and were “a real source of disruption for people.” 

Additionally, Smith said the zoning amendments were relating to commercial uses and not for private purposes. “We can’t police who’s inviting which people from how far away, but there is a difference between when you’re being paid — someone’s going to use your property for fair use, putting out a big event that will involve traffic, noise, and other disturbances to the community — or, if you’re just having something for your own friends and or relatives,” she said. 

Rand added that “community use” primarily covers occurrences where people can attend even without an invitation like a funeral, a celebration of life, or a school graduation. “I won’t argue that some of this is not clearly defined because you come to a point where you cannot literally define every single thing on the planet, so some of it falls back on how you’ve defined things in the past,” she said. 

Vukota pushed back that despite the difficulties, the bylaws need to be clear when being implemented so people can reliably look at the rules for guidance. 

Planning board member Amy Upton said when she entered the meeting, she had a long list of questions regarding these zoning use amendments. “As one of five on the planning board, I don’t feel remotely prepared to be able to present, understand, and I would have to say support [the amendments] not only because of the questions I came in with, but now Doug and Marilyn have added numerous questions to my list of questions,” she said, adding that further work is needed for the amendments to be ready to be presented to voters and avoid unintended consequences. 

“This is not ready for prime time,” Upton said, suggesting the possibility of a special town meeting in the fall, after the planning board took a “closer look” at the amendments. 

Upton was not the only one who voiced uncertainty. West Tisbury affordable housing committee member Jefrey DuBard urged the planning board to not rush the amendments forward. Martha’s Vineyard Commission Island housing planner Laura Silber, who spoke as a resident of West Tisbury, said as a voter she was not ready to support the amendments as they were. 

After further discussion, the board closed the public hearing on Monday and will discuss the warrant articles again next week with the possibility of continuing the hearing. 

All of the draft bylaw amendments, subject to change at the town meeting floor, are available on the West Tisbury website

Meanwhile, other warrant articles discussed included amendments to the zoning bylaw regarding swimming pools and affordable accessory apartments.