On Eve of Public Forum, MVC Opponents Seek To Revive Old Threats

By JULIA WELLS

On the eve of a community meeting to discuss the highly-charged question of whether Oak Bluffs should withdraw from the Martha's Vineyard Commission, a citizens' group in favor of leaving is stirring up fresh debate on an old subject: the threat of a massive affordable housing project in the southern woodlands.

A special election is set for May 13 to decide the single question of town withdrawal from the 27-year-old regional planning agency. The public forum to discuss the ballot question begins at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the Oak Bluffs School. Public speaking will be restricted to people who are registered voters in Oak Bluffs.

The new campaign by Citizens for the Protection of Oak Bluffs - representing the views of town residents and selectmen who want to withdraw from the MVC - aims to convince Oak Bluffs voters that a recent decision by the state Supreme Judicial Court involving the town of Dennis poses a new threat to the power of the MVC to review Chapter 40B housing projects.

In fact, the attorney for the commission said this week, the Dennis case has no bearing on the MVC, whose powers to review Chapter 40B housing projects were strongly upheld last year in a decision by the chief justice of the Massachusetts Land Court.

"I would say that it's just off the point and completely irrelevant," said Eric Wodlinger, a partner at Choate Hall & Stewart in Boston who represents the commission, referring to the Dennis case.

But special town counsel Mark Bobrowski, in an opinion delivered to the town selectmen and planning board early this month, said: "In my opinion the Dennis decision casts significant doubt on the land court's ruling."

Todd Rebello, chairman of the selectmen, confirmed yesterday that he had solicited the opinion from Mr. Bobrowski. Mr. Rebello is a supporter of Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith, who wants to build a luxury golf course on the southern woodlands site. The MVC has rejected Mr. Kupersmith's golf plan three times - and the debate about whether 40B housing could go on the land instead has been a hot-button issue.

"I think [Mr. Bobrowski's opinion] speaks for itself and because of it I am going to stick with my position, which is that I favor withdrawal from the commission because the only authority that can truly protect the town from 40B is the town itself," Mr. Rebello said yesterday.

The swirl of new discussion about possible housing developments in the southern woodlands came during a bumpy week of planning for the Tuesday night forum.

A special meeting of the Oak Bluffs selectmen was held Tuesday morning to iron out details for the forum, but when all the details were still not settled by week's end, another special meeting was called for today. This meeting will begin at 5 p.m. in the town hall.

The single topic for today's meeting centers on what attorneys - if any - will be asked to attend the forum.

Yesterday Judy Crawford, a member of the Martha's Vineyard League of Women Voters who will moderate the forum, said Mr. Bobrowski, Mr. Wodlinger and town counsel Ronald Rappaport are all being considered as invited guests.

"It might be all, it might be none, it might be one, it might be two but whatever it is, it is going to be balanced - it's going to be fair and impartial," Mrs. Crawford said. "We don't want this to turn into a battle of the lawyers. The idea is to try to minimize that and still have counsel there in case questions come up that require their expertise." Mrs. Crawford and league member Julie Tholander attended the Tuesday selectmen's meeting to set the ground rules for the forum and help make final decisions about panelists.

Mr. Rebello called for the April 29 forum several weeks ago, but the format remained fuzzy until this week when league members stepped in to help.

"We are trying to have an event that will be an opportunity for Oak Bluffs voters to get answers to questions and express their comments about how they feel and to make it a respectful exchange of information and ideas - that concept of respectful exchange of ideas is paramount to me," Mrs. Crawford said.

"The town is faced with a crisis that is unlike anything they have ever seen before in terms of the emotion - and how everyone conducts themselves is very important," she added.

The panel for the forum will include the five Oak Bluffs selectmen, the three town members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission and the chairman of the town planning board.

Selectmen had wanted to include a member of the town board of health, but Mrs. Crawford eliminated the panelist in the interest of achieving balance. She said yesterday that she is now satisfied with the balance of the panel, which she said includes four people who favor town withdrawal from the commission, four people who support town membership in the commission, and one person who is neutral.

The panelists who favor town withdrawal are Mr. Rebello, selectman Richard Combra, selectman Michael Dutton and planning board chairman John Bradford. The panelists who support town membership in the commission are selectman Roger Wey, selectman Greg Coogan, commission member Paul Strauss and commission member Richard Toole. Selectman Alan Schweikert, who serves as the selectmen's appointed member to the commission, has no public position on the ballot question.

The forum will run from 7 to 9 p.m. Just as at town meeting, voters will be checked in by the town clerk and will be given stickers to wear for identification. Nonvoters will be given a designated place to sit, apart from the registered voters.

Three microphones will be set up: One for "yes" comments, one for "no" comments, and a third for questions. Preference will be given to voters with questions.

There is already some confusion about the ballot vote because the wording of it is somewhat counter-intuitive: A "yes" vote favors town withdrawal from the commission; a "no" vote favors continued town membership in the commission. Mrs. Crawford said the forum will include a careful explanation of the ballot question at the outset.

Also at the outset there will be three opening statements. There will be one from a spokesman for the Citizens for the Protection of Oak Bluffs, and one from the opposing citizens' group, named Keep OB in the MVC; both groups recently launched organized campaigns to support their causes. The citizen group speakers have not yet been chosen. The third statement will be from MVC executive director Mark London. Mr. London will not be allowed to speak or answer questions after his statement, because he is not an Oak Bluffs voter.

All other questions, answers and comments will be limited to one minute.

At a special town meeting 13 months ago, a record turnout of Oak Bluffs voters agreed to take the first step toward withdrawing from the MVC. At the time, many voters said they were frightened by the threat from the golf course developers that they would build a huge affordable housing project in the southern woodlands if they did not win approval for the golf club. Later the political climate changed when the land court upheld the right of the commission to review projects under Chapter 40B, a state law that allows affordable housing projects to skirt most local zoning rules.

The May 13 election is the final step for the town; a simple majority will decide the question.

Mrs. Crawford reiterated that fairness and respect are the primary themes for Tuesday night.

"When all of this is over and the dust has settled, the people of Oak Bluffs are going back to their town to live with each other - they are neighbors, friends and family and we want them to feel that connection in a positive way. Anything we can do to foster a positive exchange is important," she said.

No posters or banners will be permitted outside the regional high school on Tuesday night.

Mrs. Crawford concluded:

"We don't want this to turn into a circus - it's an information and education forum, it's to help the people of Oak Bluffs prepare for their vote as best as they can. This meeting is not about the golf course - it is about the Martha's Vineyard Commission and the town of Oak Bluffs and whether they remain in or out."