Plan for Auction in Oak Bluffs Stirs Tempest: Is It Park Land?

By CHRIS BURRELL

When selectmen in Oak Bluffs first heard about the surplus land their financial team had seized for nonpayment of taxes, they saw dollar signs and quickly planned an auction as a sure-fire way to bolster town coffers with extra cash.

But now, less than two weeks before the scheduled auction of 11 parcels, selectmen find themselves at the center of a controversy over whether three of those lots are actually town parks and whether revenue for the town should trump the importance of open land.

On Tuesday afternoon, under fire from a unified planning board and the unexpected turnout of more than 40 residents at a meeting in town hall, selectmen backed off their plan to sell the three parcels in question at the June 14 auction.

"The town of Oak Bluffs is known for its parks," planning board chairman John Bradford wrote in a strongly worded letter to selectmen dated May 29. "No other town on this Island can boast the number of parks as Oak Bluffs. To lose any of these jewels of our town is unthinkable."

But selectmen chairman Richard Combra said he has no doubts that the land is not town park land.

"I am totally convinced that these are not and have never been town parks," Mr. Combra said at Tuesday's joint meeting of the selectmen, planning board and parks commission. "That's the information from our attorneys."

The planning board has challenged that position, arguing that three lots totaling roughly 3 1/2 acres along Fitchburg avenue near the Lagoon are very likely town parks.

"We have received information supporting the fact that these parcels may in fact be town parks. The three parcels are Winne Park … and Linden Parks," Mr. Bradford wrote in his letter.

Mr. Bradford also pointed out that assessors maps from 1873 to 1985 show the parcels as parks.

It's a bit of a mystery then how the land ever fell into private hands. Town assessor Diane Wilson and parks commissioner Allan (Buddy) deBettencourt both told the Gazette that a Duxbury man named William J. Devine managed to obtain a deed to the parcels in 1983.

Mr. deBettencourt said Mr. Devine used fictitious names of sellers in his transaction to make it appear that he was purchasing interest in the land from descendants of the Wing family, which originally developed Lagoon Heights in the 1870s. But when Mr. Devine failed to pay taxes on the land, the town took it back.

But while Oak Bluffs now owns the land, town officials are clearly poised for a fight over the status: Should it be sold to raise cash or saved for conservation?

"These three parcels were never designated as town parks," Mr. Combra told the Gazette in a telephone interview Monday. "The town has a need for revenue, and this is a revenue source."

Selectman Todd Rebello agreed, telling the Gazette that taxpayers need to weigh the benefits of open space against the fiscal pressures on the town that set the stage for higher taxes each year.

"If it's not park land, then I'm prepared to seek new revenue," he said. "We've got to decide whether we want to conserve people out or turn around and generate revenue that would allow the average Joe to live in Oak Bluffs."

But advocates for open land such as the planning board and Mr. deBettencourt are clamoring for saving the land and officially designating the parcels as parks.

"The board recommends that these parcels be put in the care and custody of the park department and take whatever legal action is necessary to dedicate them as parks for the town," Mr. Bradford wrote.

On a 1985 town assessors atlas, the parcels are clearly labeled Winne Park and Linden Parks. On a 2002 assessors map, the lots are labeled simply "Town of Oak Bluffs."

In the town's open space report from 1975, both parks are listed among the 12 undeveloped parks, but the ownership is stated as "unknown."

"They're never going to get those parcels. They are definitely parks, and we're going to take this to the voters," said Mr. deBettencourt, who acknowledged that he owns land abutting one of the two parcels which have been known as Linden Park.

Tuesday's joint meeting of three board was intended to be a venue for airing differences among town officials, but selectmen unanimously adjourned the meeting within minutes after deciding to remove the three parcels from the auction block.

A huge crowd showed up at town hall for the 4 p.m. meeting, far more than could fit in the small conference room, formerly occupied by the town clerk. Mr. Combra said it wasn't fair to make residents stand for an entire meeting.

As Mr. Bradford wrote, Oak Bluffs is renowned for the parks that are part of its planned neighborhoods. There are 11 principal parks and 12 undeveloped parks, totaling just over 41 acres and listed with the parks department, according to Mr. deBettencourt.

While much of the discussion over the land has focused on the choice between revenue or conservation, there was little mention of whether any of the 11 parcels originally slated for auction should have been considered for affordable housing.

Last month, Mr. Combra and selectman Roger Wey both lobbied for transferring some of the 11 parcels to the resident homesite committee.

But when the committee reviewed the land parcels available - all but one of them buildable lots - they showed no interest. The committee, disbanded back in the 1990s, has been in disarray for years now and has not awarded an affordable housing lot in more than four years.

Selectmen reconstituted the committee last year, and chairman Jesse (Jack) Law said he expects to make at least seven lots available within the next few months.

But when his committee looked at the list of parcels about to be auctioned, he said, "We decided at this time the taxpayers needed the money."