Town Meeting Votes, Then Ballots Quash, Edgartown Inspector

By MANDY LOCKE

Seven minutes before midnight Tuesday, Edgartown town meeting voters wrapped up a long list of business - supporting a $19 million operating budget and killing proposed house-size caps on Chappaquiddick.

But the night's liveliest debates for those in the crowded pews at the Old Whaling Church, and perhaps the most interesting result of the week, centered around a funding request to hire a housing inspector to license the town's 1,500 rental properties.

Those at town meeting agreed, 217 to 125, to allocate $35,000 to finance a housing inspector's position. But voters at the polls yesterday rejected the plan, 428 to 414.

The idea of creating a separate housing inspector position arose last fall, after 14 Brazilian tenants barely escaped a house fire on Curtis Lane. Tenants reported there were no smoke detectors in the three-bedroom house, a violation of state codes.

Edgartown health agent Matthew Poole said getting his foot in the door of substandard dwellings has long been a struggle. "We cannot gain legal access without an invitation from a tenant or through an administrative court order," Mr. Poole said. "This [program] will clear up the current hurdle of gaining entry."

The proposal was modeled after an existing system in Yarmouth, and the plan was the board of health would adopt inspection regulations later this spring.

But in the town meeting debate, some opposed what they felt would be added bureaucracy.

"Due process exists. But several offices are failing to use current tools. There are state laws, immigration laws, zoning laws that are gathering dust on a shelf," said Peter Look, former board of health agent. "Substandard housing exists in every community in America, and government ought to be doing its job [of regulating it]."

A real estate agent who's spent three decades dealing with rental properties said it would be a timely change.

"Seasonal rentals are a large part of our economy. Safety has a lot to do with who comes and who returns. I'm not a proponent of added layers of bureaucracy, but this will standardize what you're seeing with health [standards]," said Sharon Purdy, owner of Sandpiper Rentals Inc.

Another voter who works in the real estate business said, "We're being asked to create a position to enforce regulations we don't approve." But selectman Arthur Smadbeck said: "[The board of health] can create this regulation without a position. And they seem intent to move ahead."

This and other issues at the town meeting dragged on so long that On Time Ferry II captain Brad Fligor offered to run extended ferry service for Chappaquiddick residents, enabling them to weigh in on the final warrant articles, which concerned the future of their rural community.

And then these residents - most of whom supported efforts to curb the spread of trophy homes on their island - watched as two size-limit proposals were rejected.

Neither a limit on homes within Cape Pogue nor a general restriction for all houses on Chappaquiddick passed.

It was a second go-round on this for the hundred residents who make up the permanent island population. Last April, after an emotional debate at town meeting in which this small neighborhood seemed fractured from the whole of Edgartown, voters failed to approve a Chappaquiddick-wide district of critical planning concern designation.

"The CIA [Chappaquiddick Island Association] feel shellshocked by what happened [last year]," said Lionel Spiro, president of the CIA. "Year-round Chappaquiddick residents represent only four per cent of the town's voters. We depend on the rest of you.

"We're a neighborhood of Edgartown. We think we know our neighborhood well, as you each know your neighborhoods well," Mr. Spiro said.

Chappaquiddick resident Sunny Wilson, lead petitioner for the two house -size articles, said: "We simply want to preserve what we already thought was protected."

The proposed Cape Pogue regulation - which would have limited a house foundation footprint to 2,000 square feet - grew out of a controversy surrounding a recent home slated for the windswept corner of Wasque Bluff.

"Most of us thought this house was inappropriate. Within Cape Pogue there are seven vacant lots and 21 houses that are potential teardowns. The bar has been raised, and we need a limit we can work with," said Alan Wilson, Chappaquiddick resident and planning board member who voted against the 10,000-square-foot house and a later 7,500-square-foot version.

James Kelly, CIA board member, said of over 500 Chappaquiddick property owners surveyed (with a 40 per cent response rate), 83 per cent supported house size limits.

But opponents claimed the Cape Pogue article was poorly crafted, failed to include input from a cross section of residents, dragged the town into untested legal territory and threatened individual property rights.

"Despite good intentions, there was not enough skill, not enough input in these articles," said Ron Monterosso, a Chappaquiddick resident. "The lawyers will have a field day with this."

Laurence A. Mercier, retired highway superintendent and member of the board of assessors, chastised 17 people who endorsed the zoning article in a newspaper ad last week, saying nine of these supporters owned homes and outbuildings with footprints larger than those allowed under the proposal.

Only 115 citizens voted in favor of the Cape Pogue regulation, with 131 opposed.

Then the island-wide house size cap, which would have limited foundations to 2,000 square feet or 10 per cent of lot size, also failed. Moderator Philip J. Norton Jr. announced the result as tired residents were already sneaking out the back of the church; 128 voters approved the cap, with 108 against, a two-thirds majority was required for passage.

Earlier in the night, attempts to shape a potential onslaught of massive home projects elsewhere in town fared better. Three articles aimed to bolster and clarify the authority of wetlands bylaws within the Edgartown Ponds district of critical planning concern easily passed (more than 80 per cent in favor) after a brief but fierce protest.

"This regulation is unfair after years of allowing property owners to build what they want. It penalizes those of us who have not yet built," said Jeff Flynn, a descendant of George Flynn and one of the trustees of the Pohogonot Trust. The trust owns hundreds of acres of land around Edgartown Great Pond, Job's Neck and Oyster Pond.

The new guidelines offer no hard and fast footprint or height limit, but allow the ponds advisory committee to make recommendations to the conservation commission when large projects may threaten historic views and vistas, wildlife habitat and water quality. By adding the committee's role to the DCPC regulations, they give the advisory group's recommendations more weight.

Steve Ewing, chairman of the ponds advisory committee and member of the conservation commission, countered Mr. Flynn's criticisms, saying that these protections are long overdue.

"Big houses will continue to be proposed and built," Mr. Ewing said. "But we want the ponds to be a place to hunt, fish and relax in nature for years to come. With what little is left, it's the least we can do."

In other action, voters killed a request to change building permits distribution to a "first come, first serve" system.

A request to modify a conservation restriction in order to create an access off Metcalf Drive to the town's future Pennywise Path Preserve affordable housing development sparked strong resistance from neighbors living further along this town road, but passed.

A proposal for a $500,000 bond to construct a three-bay fire house on Chappaquiddick also passed.

Voters accepted 12 budget overrides, including: a $707,000 general override for the operating budget, $12,600 for the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, $110,000 for sidewalk and street repairs and $187,00 for the dredge management program. The town water department withdrew its request for $1.2 million in capital improvements.