Oak Bluffs zoning proposal considers solutions for real problems

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The Oak Bluffs planning board is proposing a solution to a problem that’s been brewing on the Island for some time, and causing consternation among some Island tradespeople and residents who live near their worksites. It deals with zoning, a clunky and oftentimes confusing set of rules that has great authority over how we live. 

As of now, Oak Bluffs has pretty much the same zoning that the town first adopted some 50 years ago, and it’s almost entirely residential, save for some commercial areas downtown that are already built out. In other words: most of the town is set aside for people to live, and there isn’t a lot of space to work. 

Businesses that want to set up a new operation or expand — whether it’s a chiropractor or a plumber — have an incredibly restrictive area within which they can set up a facility in Oak Bluffs, at least in compliance with the town’s rules and regulations.

There are several problems with restrictive zoning, as has been voiced by town officials and local business owners with The Times in recent weeks. 

There is a safety concern and a fear that businesses will set up their operations outside of town zoning rules and regulations, away from town inspection services. Case in point: a fire broke out in December at a facility that fire officials say housed a number of commercial enterprises in a residential area. Families were also living at the facility. Two firefighters battling the blaze were taken to the hospital with non life-threatening injuries. We ask: If Oak Bluffs had zoning that was more flexible, would town inspectional services have prevented the fire in the first place? It’s impossible to know. While a select few will also look for shortcuts and workarounds to existing regulations, creating zoning to allow businesses to open under the watch of the town can only increase safety.

The planning board solution is the creation of three so-called light industrial overlay districts and two professional services overlay districts. These would create the zoning for businesses to at least operate within rules and regulations.

In the professional districts, possible uses include a surgeon, lawyer, chiropractor, financial planner, or funeral director.

For the light industrial overlay — the more controversial of the two — applicants could get approval for things like storage and the parking of construction and landscaping 

materials or equipment, the addition of a warehouse, manufacturing, boatyards, or mining. 

The uses would need special approval from the planning board.

The proposal has been met with fierce opposition, and understandably. The outcry is largely from neighbors to a proposed zoning district on Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road. If this zoning district goes through, the operators of an existing sandpit would have the option to move the sandpit to a new, nearby site with the supply of sand in the existing pit nearly depleted. It’s important to know that the operator — Goodale Construction Company — would still need to jump through a number of regulatory hurdles before the operation could expand even if the zoning proposal is successful. 

But still, if your backyard could suddenly be turned into a full scale sandpit, even the most passive among us would raise an alarm.

Those opposed to the plans say — and rightfully so — that there should be an Island-wide discussion to identify areas that are the most appropriate for contractors, landscapers, or even mining across all six towns. Oak Bluffs is already the bearer of several regional facilities, like the hospital, regional high school, YMCA, and M.V. Community Services. All great, regional entities, but they take space away from Oak Bluffs that otherwise might go to tax-paying residents or businesses. Why should the town create space for even more businesses that provide services to other towns? Why can’t other communities step up? 

Certainly the problem exists in Edgartown, West Tisbury, and every other town as business owners, particularly landscapers and builders, end up storing equipment and developing stockpiles of materials ranging from metal staging to compost in residential areas, which is understandably being met with opposition from neighbors. The Island-wide approach will need to take into account that specific areas should be created for this kind of space for businesses, and not forced into residential areas.

But the problem with the “Island-wide discussion” approach is that those two words have been an effective way of delaying meaningful change. While we can advocate for an Island-wide discussion on a variety of topics until the cows come home, Oak Bluffs planners are taking authority where they can. And putting it to their voters to decide. Our hope is that Oak Bluffs will be in the vanguard as a leader in this necessary Island-wide problem that will eventually require an Island-wide solution. 

While it seems Oak Bluffs town officials have an uphill climb to convince two-thirds of town meeting voters to approve of their idea, the board is absolutely right to bring this discussion forward. 

The Vineyard does have a problem. Businesses are struggling to find the space they need. Zoning dating back to the 1970s hasn’t kept up with the needs of the Island.

As planning board chair Ewell Hopkins was quoted in last week’s paper, it’s a healthy discussion. We encourage Oak Bluffs and the rest of the Island to keep the conversation going and to find solutions that could work with our neighborhoods in mind.

1 COMMENT

  1. This is ironic. The same planning board that fought the high school vociferously about a field that they knew from the actual testing data would not produce the scary pfas in quantities that would be harmful is now proposing to allow businesses in this same corridor that they know will contribute more pfas over the aquifer than the field would. Maybe the field fund equipment needs to be stored somewhere and this is the quid pro quo. This is really offensive. It might solve a problem but so did the track and field. Come on Times. Make some feeble attempt to be consistent.

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