Oak Bluffs Backs Large Budget, Approves First Historic District

By CHRIS BURRELL

They defended their dogs, embraced their history and threw their support behind a $17.6 million annual budget - all without an ounce of dissension.

For a town accustomed to lengthy and often rancorous annual town meetings, Oak Bluffs and its voters this week bucked the trend, agreeing to shoulder their annual spending without questioning a single line item and plowing through a combined 31 articles in just over three hours.

The 359 voters who filled the seats in the Performing Arts Center acted in unison on nearly every issue.

When it came to a pitch from selectmen asking for $750,000 to build an addition to town hall, voters were unreceptive. They stepped up to the microphones, criticizing the building plans for being drafted in haste with no public input.

"We need a town hall addition, but this plan is almost an insult to the town," said Philip Hughes. "It's terrible."

Proposals that aroused the most debate centered on land use. For almost an hour, voters questioned the fine print of a 58-page recodification of the zoning bylaws, raising concerns about setbacks for cell phone towers. Then they spent a solid half hour trying to decipher a complicated plan that would enable some landowners near the Farm Neck public well to purchase easement credits to town property and make their small lots buildable again.

But with action at the microphones more the exception than the rule, the pace was quick. By 10:30 p.m., voters had polished off both the special and annual meeting warrants.

Town moderator David Richardson yesterday credited the efficiency of the meeting to the finance committee. "Their report really laid things out well for voters," he said.

Indeed, the finance committee had armed the electorate with a 13-page report complete with pie charts and spreadsheets that detailed spending and revenues and the exact position taken by the committee on every spending article before the floor.

Typically it's a laborious process as the moderator calls out the totals for each department in the budget and waits to see if a voter demands more scrutiny. This year, Mr. Richardson appeared to sense the mood of the house when he urged voters to pass "the entire budget in one swoop."

They then did just that - setting aside for a moment only the issue of school spending, in order to allow school leaders to push for an amendment. And when it came up, there was no fight on that proposal, either.

Regional high school committee member Tim Dobel asked voters to back an amendment guaranteeing that if the state sends education funds through the town, instead of directly to the regional high school, the money will be earmarked for high school use. Voters agreed, unanimously.

The path was considerably more rocky for the planning board and its consultant, special town counsel Mark Bobrowski, who told voters that the revamped zoning bylaws would "harmonize inconsistencies" and "fill gaps" in the codes.

But faced with such a mammoth document, voters lobbed questions at the lawyer for the next hour, focusing mostly on health concerns about cell phone towers and asking for regulations that would require the towers to be set back from residential properties.

Mr. Bobrowski argued against such tweaking, saying that federal law prohibits towns from blocking cell towers for health reasons. He also pointed out that given the density of Oak Bluffs, an amendment calling for a 400-foot setback was unreasonable.

In the end, voters defeated the amendment on cell towers but supported the new zoning bylaws, agreeing they were at least an improvement over the current codes.

On the question seeking to ban dogs from the beaches in the summer months, there was little confusion. This was clearly a room hospitable to canines. Not one voter stood up in favor of the proposal.

"I don't think it's right that you can't take your dog to the beach for a swim in the heat of the summer," said Scott Graupner.

And when former Oak Bluffs animal control officer Sharon Rzemien took the microphone, she was immediately greeted with a round of applause. "We are a very dog-minded community," she said. "And I believe responsible pet owners should have access to the beaches."

The measure would have banned dogs between May 15 and September and imposed a series of fines for dog owners who ventured onto the beaches during those four months. But voters issued an emphatic and unanimous "Nay" to the proposal, leaving untouched a bylaw which bans dogs from the summer beaches only between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Voters proved to be passionate about more than just dogs. When faced with two separate questions that affected the aesthetics of their town, voters became champions of architectural integrity.

They unanimously supported the town's first historic district and then nixed plans for a town hall addition that they believed failed to meet high standards for the design of a public building.

A loud endorsement went to the Cottage City Historic District, protecting 75 acres and nearly 400 properties in an area known commonly as the Copeland District.

"In the master plan of 1998, the number one goal stated was to preserve the Victorian architecture of Oak Bluffs," said Renee Balter, chairman of the historic district study committee. "This is something that should have been done years ago."

On the proposed town hall addition, selectmen handed out a simple one-sheet rendering prepared by the county engineer.

Alison Shaw questioned the lack of a design process that would have invited public input. "This is a very important civic building, and it needs to look that way," she said.

Ron Mechur questioned the budget. "There's not enough money in this project to do this," he added.

The measure was soundly defeated.

In other business, voters supported a plan for selling so-called "nitrogen credits" to people who own land in the area around the Farm Neck well.

The state has designated the area as sensitive to nitrogen loading from septic tanks, and in 1995, as part of the new Title V septic regulations, the minimum lot size for building was increased. The area is called Zone 2.

That left owners of smaller lots - less than 6,700 square feet - with unbuildable property. But the board of health is trying to create a plan that would allow landowners to buy land credits - easements to town-owned land - for not less than $2,000 to offset their own shortages in land area and still meet the state standards for limiting nitrogen loads in the area.

Town officials estimate that as many as 25 landowners are affected and could transform their properties into buildable lots.

Voters supported spending $38,000 to begin engineering and design work for repairs to the town commercial landing in the harbor. They also approved funding $99,000 for an investigation and monitoring of a plume of underground pollution caused by chemical dumping at the old septage lagoons.

Voters approved: $10,712 to cover cost overruns in the snow removal budget; $8,908 for the town's share of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority; and $2,395 to upgrade the town vote tabulator.

And in the final vote of the night, residents loudly voted down a resolution asking them to protest military action in Iraq.