Serious Fire Draws Attention to Danger of Junk Car Dump

By MANDY LOCKE

Edgartown's most glaring eyesore became its largest liability Tuesday morning when volunteer firemen responded to a potentially dangerous fire in the town's illegal graveyard for junk cars.

Firemen were called to the dumping ground - an undeveloped subdivision off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road known as Hallgate - just after six o'clock Tuesday morning. Unable to maneuver a firetruck past the beaten hulks of abandoned automobiles cluttering the dirt drive that runs through the 60-acre property, firemen battled the early morning blaze by shoveling sand and dirt on it. Less than two hours later, Edgartown firemen were called back to the area to fight a spreading brush fire.

While a team of firefighters shoveled sand in the brush surrounding a pile of flaming cars three deep and five across, volunteers called the highway department and the West Tisbury fire department for help in clearing a passage to blazing vehicles located a half-mile deep in Hallgate.

"It was difficult. For a half-hour, I had the firemen working with brooms and shovels until the trucks could get back there," Edgartown fire chief Antone Bettencourt said.

The highway department used a front-end loader to push aside cars, while the West Tisbury fire department's two brush breakers followed close behind.

According to eyewitnesses, flames shot 20 feet above the stacks of burning vehicles, and the fire rapidly spread around the heap. The junk cars completely blocked passage to the rear of the property. After firemen doused all visible flames, the front-end loader muscled the heap of smoldering cars to the side to allow passage for the fire truck. The chief estimated 14 cars caught fire.

"It was a really dangerous situation. We didn't know if the cars still had gas in the tanks. We were concerned about someone getting hurt. If [the firemen] got too close, they could have gotten lit themselves," Chief Bettencourt said.

For three hours, the volunteers from Edgartown and West Tisbury managed the fire as well as they could - fighting 90-degree weather and dangerously dry conditions.

"The fire creates its own wind and heat. The conditions of trying to fight a fire at 90 degrees are exhausting. Some firemen were exhausted, but luckily no one was transported [to the hospital]," the chief said.

Officials suspect arson in the junk car blaze. The town of Edgartown also is open to blame for the Tuesday morning calamity.

"Everyone is pointing fingers. And they can point fingers at the town for not enforcing [zoning] appropriately," Edgartown selectman Fred B. Morgan Jr. said Tuesday afternoon.

Town officials have been aware of the junk car problem for over two years. They've visited the property, talked with property owner Benjamin Hall Sr. and even helped to arrange for removal of the abandoned cars. Still, the mess remains.

Officials also have been aware of the safety implications of the blocked passage, broken glass, fuel leakage and the occasional campfires set by trespassing squatters.

Selectmen and town building and zoning inspector Lenny Jason Jr. received a letter from Edgartown police chief Paul Condlin detailing the danger of the property in February 2000. Only 33 cars littered the area then. When the unlicensed junkyard count reached 50 by the fall of 2000 and firemen had trouble traveling through the property to respond to a small brush fire, Chief Condlin sent another letter complaining of passage problems and urging enforcement of the zoning violation.

"The fire's a glaring example of why attention is needed in this area. It was needed in 2000, and it's needed today. It puts firemen and officers in a perilous situation," Chief Condlin said.

In this graveyard for discarded auto hulks, the mess has multiplied over the last two years.

Thirty-three cars in February of 2000 became 73 a year later. In February of this year, nearly a hundred battered jeeps, sedans, station wagons, taxicabs and even a busted trailer littered the area. Mopeds are Dangerous stickers stuck tight to rusted bumpers, and Lambert's Cove beach stickers appeared behind shattered windshields. Beer cans littered the drive and graffiti covered the sides of a handful of vehicles.

As firemen and police trudged through the dusty way Tuesday afternoon, returning from the third call to the fire scene, a few counted the lines of cars. The number has climbed to 172.

Somehow the collection of junkers nearly doubled over five months - during a period in which town officials promised to aggressively haul the vehicles away. The multiplication appears something a mystery.

"How it happened is the million-dollar question," Mr. Jason said. He said that the town has hauled 90 vehicles off the property since early June.

Everyone seems to have a theory. Mr. Jason believes that more vehicles were scattered throughout the property and simply moved to the main roads in recent weeks. He can't explain why someone would do that, he said.

"I don't think you can move 172 cars and nobody see them, but they must have," Mr. Jason said. The zoning inspector said he does not know who "they" is.

Police suspect someone is illegally taking money for the junkyard venture and they are currently investigating the matter.

Patrick Kelly, owner of Edgartown Auto and abutter to the property, admitted in February to charging $200 a pop to help people get rid of their dead cars. He said Mr. Hall agreed to let him stage the venture on the property, but Mr. Hall said there is no such arrangement.

Mr. Kelly, who runs a small auto-body shop, has no license to collect, prepare and haul junk cars. The town zoning board of appeals reminded Mr. Kelly of his business rights in a letter delivered yesterday. Mr. Kelly is allowed to have only 15 vehicles on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road premises at one time. The zoning board of appeals will inspect the property next week.

The town joined the junk car operation this spring, relocating unregistered vehicles Mr. Jason had removed from private properties on Weeks Lane, 12th Street and Pinehurst Road - taking junkers from homeowners' who, Mr. Jason said, could not afford disposal costs. Mr. Jason said only about eight of the vehicles at the scene of the fire were moved there with town permission.

But Mr. Hall said he never granted anyone permission to use this would-be subdivision as a staging area for unsalvageable vehicles.

"The town brought in a whole new group of them. They are using it as a staging area without my permission. It's a lot of powerful people with their own agendas. If I have to hire a private agency to identify these cars I will," Mr. Hall said Tuesday afternoon.

Tracing car ownership should not be impossible since many of the cars bear trackable symbols, from license plates to beach stickers and business logos to family pictures.

The property contains 32 subdivided lots approved by the town and the Martha's Vineyard Commission in 1986. Mr. Hall has been unable to sell the parcels because of unresolved issues about resident homesite lot contributions in addition to uncompleted roads and utility hookups.

Mr. Hall technically remains in violation of town zoning, with 171 more unregistered vehicles on his property than allowed under town bylaws.

"Enforcement is the key. We must be more stringent," Mr. Morgan said. "The property owner has some responsibility here."

Whether or not the town will be left holding the bag for removal of the junk cars is uncertain. The zoning inspector said Tuesday's fire "reinforces the town's will" to address the situation.

"But it's not like we've forgotten about it. It's not fast enough for some, but it's not like we're not doing anything," Mr. Jason said.