Sewer Box Receives Gingerbread Facelift in Oak Bluffs Test

By CHRIS BURRELL

In Oak Bluffs, gingerbread has now become a Band-aid.

After more than two years of trying to figure out what to do about the 38 sewer panel boxes that popped up all over downtown as part of the new wastewater project, town leaders have decided to road-test one solution - building a mini-cottage on top of one box.

This week, the town's wastewater crew put the finishing touches on a gingerbread-style cover for a sewer panel box in one of the most visible spots in town - the corner of Dukes County and Lake avenues.

The goal is to cover up a single panel box and see if residents like the way it looks. The cost? Just over $2,500.

But critics have already started attacking the structure, complaining that town leaders gave the green light for a plan with no public input. Renée Balter, a member of the town historic district commission, told selectmen last week that the attempt to mask the sewer panel box had failed.

"I feel the public process should have been used more before it was put there," she said. "You can't give the shape [of the box] a roof line that fits the architectural integrity of anything in town."

Sewer plant operator Joe Alosso told the Gazette yesterday that the town plans to try two other solutions to the boxes that have aroused so much controversy. One approach would be botanical, planting wisteria around the boxes, for example. A third plan would involve using latticework to mask the boxes.

"The plan always was to have an enclosure made of wood that fit the character of the town or to do some natural screening," said Mr. Alosso. "We'll have a public hearing in August to see what it is they like or don't like. We're not sure what the correct answer is."

Mr. Alosso and town administrator Casey Sharpe have taken charge of the project to deal with the boxes. Almost two years ago, after residents began complaining about the boxes in both the Campground and in the Copeland District, the state department of environmental protection (DEP) ordered the town to hold a series of public meetings and come up with a solution.

Those public hearings didn't happen, but Mr. Alosso said they would have been premature. "People have said we should have had public hearings first, but that gives us nothing to talk about. People can actually see the choices, instead of looking at a piece of paper."

Mr. Alosso also stressed that some neighbors and residents have praised the new gingerbread shed at the busy intersection. Terry McCarthy, a downtown resident and businessman, told the Gazette yesterday that he appreciate any attempts to mask what many residents have denounced as eyesores in their historic town center.

"For two years, they left those things sticking out of the ground," he said. "At least, Joe did something, and it looks a lot better than what's been there."

The decision by the town to take some action on the sewer boxes has come under another kind of pressure from the state, financial pressure. The DEP was withholding more than $270,000 in funding for the Oak Bluffs sewer project, waiting for the town to implement some plan to mitigate the visual impact of the boxes.

In a letter from the DEP to Ms. Sharpe dated Jan. 10, the DEP's deputy director Steven McCurdy asked the town to provide a plan that detailed its "commitment to include public input in the process."

On Feb. 3, Ms. Sharpe wrote back to the DEP, explaining that the town would try the so-called "doll-house" approach to cover one box near the Tabernacle in addition to the installation of flowering plants and lattice over other boxes.

But in April, when the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association learned of the plans to make miniature gingerbread covers inside the Camp Ground, they shot down the idea immediately.

"We weren't interested," said Camp Meeting Association president Russell Dagnall. "It wouldn't look like a cottage anyway."

Mr. Dagnall said he would like to see at least three of the boxes in the Camp Ground moved behind some of the businesses on Circuit avenue.

Others have called for some of the boxes to be moved or even buried. Most of the boxes contain electric switching gear that powers the system of grinder pumps, an integral part of the sewer system.

The town was able to move four boxes back in the summer of 2001, having proven that their location could hinder emergency vehicles. The cost to move those boxes was roughly $100,000. Each electrical box measures about five by six feet and looks like a commercial refrigerator.

Burying the electric equipment would have been even more costly.

Wastewater commission chairman John Leite 3rd told the Gazette that his board let Mr. Alosso and Ms. Sharpe come up with less expensive options. "We would like to see something appealing to everyone, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "This was an effort to come up with something acceptable."

But Ms. Balter said the town should have sought more input and gone through some review process before hiring Robert Gatchell to build the dollhouse enclosure on Dukes County avenue.

At last week's selectmen meeting, she asked why the project didn't fall under the scrutiny of a district of critical planning concern (DCPC) established two years ago for the area.

Another resident also criticized selectmen for failing to oversee efforts to deal with the sewer boxes. "Something so important to the face of the town is being handled by the wastewater committee without public input, and the selectmen are stepping back," said Peggy McGrath. "I don't understand why we're not all together on this."