A skateboard park, a new $3.8 million library and locker rooms for the ice arena - Oak Bluffs voters this week gave all three a resounding hurrah, affirming a commitment to Island youth and the literacy of their townspeople.
Asked to approve tighter leash laws for dogs, allow smoking in bars or restaurants and sell town-owned land in the woodlands, voters raised up a sea of yellow cards and said, "No way."
It was an annual town meeting in which residents had to make tough decisions in virtually every arena of local government, from police policies to disposition of land in the southern woodlands. Over the course of two evenings debate was spirited, and the votes, in many cases, were decisive.
The turnout was nothing like that at last month's special town meeting, which drew nearly 900 voters to consider both use of eminent domain to purchase the woodlands and withdrawal from the Martha's Vineyard Commission. In the first night of town meeting action, registrars checked off 358 names from the voter list; by the second night, that number had fallen to 228.
In the end, Oak Bluffs voters approved $15,880,491 for next year's annual budget, including an operational override amount of $243,000. Voters also approved spending another $257,000 in override articles for a range of expenditures from new firefighting gear to new asphalt for town roads.
Because those approvals exceeded the limits set by Proposition 2 1/2, voters will have to go to the polls next month to affirm the decisions to override. The library funding and another $260,000 article for a wastewater project approved by voters will be paid back as loans.
While voters spent time wrangling over money issues, they also acted passionately on issues that had nothing to do with their pocketbooks. Dog owners, for example, argued that pets need time off a leash to run free and to socialize with other dogs.
A proposal from the police department would have tightened up leash laws and enforcement, but voters soundly defeated the article. "If you want leash laws like this," said Duncan Ross, a resident and a high school government teacher, "I suggest you move back to a city."
The only people supporting the new leash law were police chief Joe Carter and his new animal control officer, Keith Laslovich, but neither man could turn back the growing tide of voters.
"If this law passed, we would not legally be allowed to throw a ball for a dog unless you were in your own yard," said one man.
Dog walkers who use the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank property at Trade Winds airport were adamant about their rights to unleash their animals. "It's common to see 10 to 30 people with dogs there," said one woman. "It's a social thing. Dogs need to run free. They're not meant to be leashed or chained."
Another police-sponsored measure that drew plenty of reaction from the crowd asked voters to approve a so-called "strong chief" law. But the sticking point wasn't about giving Chief Carter the right to draft and execute his own policies in the department; he already does that. Under the new law, selectmen would have 30 days to review his policies and make any objections.
The real issue was the chief's control over departmental use of office space at the old town hall, two years after other town employees abandoned the building in the wake of unexplained illnesses that affected many workers there.
Under the new law, the chief would have "immediate control" of the building, a detail that made selectman Roger Wey uncomfortable. "There were questions about the chief's responsibility with town property," said Mr. Wey. "We need to make decisions about the old town hall, but the police are in there. What if he says no, then we have a stalemate there?"
As Mr. Wey spoke, Chief Carter stood at the center podium and microphone and shook his head, smiling. Later the chief spoke and said, "I have no power of eminent domain or squatters rights there. If [selectmen] want us out, we're out. If they want us in a tent, we're in a tent."
Voters appeared confused by some of the legal questions and twice asked town counsel Michael Goldsmith to explain what state law says about the policy voters were being asked to adopt. Some asked to table the issue, but town moderator David Richardson told them that would be tantamount to rejecting the article.
Despite the several concerns, voters ended up supporting the measure in a simple voice vote that needed no tally.
In another move that involved no money, voters solidly backed a proposal that would require moped renters to have a motorcycle license. Anti-moped activist Michael Kemly told voters that while the action was not enforceable under state laws, it would send a message to state legislators who are considering such a bill.
"We need to tell them we're fed up," he said. "How many more innocent visitors must die before we say, ‘Enough'?"
Voters also took action on land-use issues that could help not only the ice arena but also skateboarders and property owners of small, unbuildable lots. Approving a land swap with the arena, voters decided to trade some small strips of resident homesite property for arena land, allowing the arena the room to build new locker rooms on the back end of its facility.
But for skateboarders, the most anticipated action came at the beginning of the meeting's second night, when voters sent an emphatic message to high school leaders that townspeople support the construction of a 150-square-foot skateboard park on school land in their town. The vote was unanimous.
Selectman Michael Dutton said adding a skateboard park to the town's insurance policy will not cost any additional money. And David Araujo championed the skateboarders' cause, urging fellow voters "to tell the youth of the Island that the people of Oak Bluffs will understand and support them."
The issue now lies solely with the regional high school committee, which has been considering the request for well over a year.
On another land-use issue, voters agreed to an unusual plan that will allow some property owners near Pennsylvania and Alpine avenues to build two-bedroom houses on 10,000-square-foot lots.
Board of health member Bert Combra explained that the regulation would allow property owners to buy easements across town-owned land near the landfill that would theoretically increase their lot size even though the lots are not adjacent. The idea is to satisfy state environmental requirements that limit building density in Zone II, an area in close proximity to a public water supply, the Farm Neck well.
Easements would be sold for at least $2,000 apiece and could help dozens of land owners to put homes on lots that have been considered unbuildable since 1995, when state regulations went into effect, Mr. Combra said.
Voters adamantly opposed selling 24 acres of town-owned land in the southern woodlands for $1.2 million or more. Speaking in favor of the article were only a handful of those in attendance, including Jack Law, chairman of the resident homesite committee. Mr. Law argued that the land could only be turned into eight building lots because of three-acre zoning restrictions. "If we sell this land," he said, "maybe we could use the money to develop other holdings."
But Mr. Wey stood up from the selectmen's table and asked voters rather than selling the land to consider a land swap with the developer who owns 275 acres of adjacent land. "The greatest expense on this Island is raw land," he said.
Some voters pointed out that the article proposed selling land at $50,000 an acre when just three weeks ago, voters were told that land in the woodlands was worth at least $170,000 an acre. "Did you have an appraisal to arrive at that price?" Michael Carroll asked Mr. Law.
There had been no appraisal, Mr. Law said. But both Brion McGroarty and Tim Dobel, vocal advocates for a private golf course in the woodlands, tried to convince voters that this was the time to put that land on the market.
"This land is just sitting there. We can't do a thing with it now," said Mr. Dobel. "If it can become a negotiating chip, now is the time. The land is in play now. $1.2 million is the bottom. It could be more."
But voters were in no mood for such logic. "How do you sell something if you don't know what it's worth," asked Manny deBettencourt, who argued ardently last month for voters to approve the eminent domain taking of the woodlands. The proposal failed by an overwhelming margin.
It was 8:30 p.m. on the second night by the time voters faced the most expensive proposed project, a request for $3.8 million to build a new 15,000-square-foot public library on Pacific avenue. Proponents came well prepared with fact, figures and a lot of passion. "A welcoming, prosperous town should have as its centerpiece an up-to-date, well-fitted, well-planned, well-used public library," said library trustee Karen Achille. "That library today is more than books and ‘Shhhhh.'"
Ms. Achille explained that the state would shoulder $1.59 million of the costs and that library supporters hoped to raise another $800,000 in private funds. "We're two to three years away from breaking ground," she said.
Building committee member Bert Combra promised that if bids came in higher than the $3.8 million, that the committee would revise and cut back its plans to bring the project within budget. Duncan Ross rallied voters when he quoted from an unnamed source that stated libraries are a "legacy to each generation, a heritage of the past and a promise of the future."
"We cannot afford not to do this," he added.
Such comments lent an emotional quality to the discussion. Some voters questioned the costs and expressed sadness at seeing the library leave its central location on Pennacook avenue. David Wilson, another library building committee member and a longtime trustee, said he too mourned the closing of the Pennacook library, but said the current building is simply inadequate for the current needs.
The article passed unanimously.
In other action, voters decided to keep the town's five-member board of selectmen. While Mr. Ross and Marty Nadler argued that the five-man board was a failure, others said the larger board gave them more representation.
Voters questioned numerous line items in the budget, especially those concerning pay for town employees. Kerry Scott asked how selectmen could justify an increase for the town administrator from $65,000 to $80,000 a year when most employees received no more than two per cent pay hikes annually.
But the only line item rejected amid the whole discussion was an $11,200 police pay incentive that would have given police officers extra money if they met certain health and fitness goals.
Voters also defeated a proposal that would have instructed the board of health to overturn the ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. Recounting that both his parents died of smoking-related illnesses, selectman Ken Rusczyk urged voters to keep the smoking ban in place.
Voters defeated both measures, one dealing with restaurants and the other with bars, by wide margins. But they took a different view on smoking in private clubs, voting 105 to 65 to ask the board of health to allow smoking in private clubs.
On a range of other financial articles, voters approved $120,000 for repaving town roads, $45,000 for new turn-out gear for firefighters and $50,000 to cover the tuition and transportation of placing an Oak Bluffs School student in a residential school setting.