Oak Bluffs Weighs Zoning Issues

By CHRIS BURRELL

You won't actually need to bring a hammer or architectural blueprints to next week's special town meeting in Oak Bluffs, but nearly the entire warrant is devoted to issues around building and zoning.

Voters who come out Tuesday will decide questions about leasing the old town hall, redesigning the new town hall, hiring a fundraiser for the library building project and protecting historic buildings from the wrecking ball.

They will also be asked to approve spending more than $330,000 of their free cash reserves. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the Oak Bluffs School cafeteria, and the warrant contains 14 articles.

If the reaction of selectmen is any indication, at least two of the proposals could spark some debate.

One calls for spending $68,500 to hire a professional fundraiser for the town library capital campaign. The target is to raise $800,000 and defray the $1.5 million share that town voters have agreed to pay for the new library.

Last summer, construction bids for the project exceeded the $3.5 million budgeted for building the nearly 15,000-square-foot library on Pacific avenue.

This week at their regular meeting, selectmen balked at recommending the proposal to spend money on a fundraising consultant.

"Having been a professional fundraiser," said selectman Michael Dutton, "I'm very wary of them."

His remarks drew laughter from board members and the handful of people attending the meeting, but selectmen were clearly skeptical. "This one concerns me," said selectman Greg Coogan. "I have a problem with professional fundraising."

Mr. Dutton said he hoped library backers would amend the article to state that if the money is approved, that does not necessarily mean it will be spent.

"This would give the library building committee some flexibility," he said. He then cautioned the building committee to plan its fundraising carefully.

"You don't raise funds on Martha's Vineyard the same way you do everywhere else," he said. Town administrator Casey Sharpe said the library capital campaign has already raised $90,000.

Another proposal that could face resistance is aimed at preserving historic buildings in town by imposing a demolition delay bylaw. The historical commission sponsoring the proposal is already considering amending the article to cover buildings more than 100 years old, not just 50 years old as stated in the current draft of the bylaw.

Historical commission member Renee Balter said the impetus for her board's proposal came this fall when it learned that a historic home in the Highlands - the Twin Cottage built in 1872 by a whaling captain - was slated to be torn down.

But selectmen chairman Richard Combra is already a vocal opponent of the proposal and wouldn't promise Ms. Balter whether he would change his stance even if amendments were approved.

"Property owners are currently challenged by governmental agencies in the use of their property," he said.

Both Mr. Combra and Mr. Coogan questioned how 50-year-old buildings could be considered historically significant. But selectmen Todd Rebello and Mr. Wey both said they would support the article if it was amended.

Ms. Balter said the commission also planned to reduce the delay term to six months, instead of 12 months. According to the proposal, demolition permits for older buildings would be referred to the historical commission for review. If the commission determined it was significant, no permit would be issued for that time period.

"The goal would be to try to save the building. Perhaps the person would move it, or sell it to someone else and have it restored," said Ms. Balter. "The intention is to preserve any landmark building in town."

Last spring, voters approved the creation of the Cottage City historic district, creating a new set of bylaws governing renovations and new construction of houses across 75 acres downtown known as the Copeland District.

In a similar arena of architectural aesthetics, the town hall building committee is asking voters to approve $60,000 to design a so-called "town hall campus" that would include renovating the new town hall on School street and possibly building a new police station on the town-owned land.

The new library will be sited on the same land, facing Pacific avenue. If voters approve the measure, a public input session will be scheduled for Dec. 6 with Island architects and planners.

The goal, said Ms. Sharpe, is to conceive a complete design, not a piecemeal approach. At annual town meeting last spring, voters rejected a money request for town hall renovations, arguing that the town's flagship public building required more planning.

While officials look to the future of a new town hall, they are also asking voters to bring them one step closer to solving the dilemma of what to do with the old town hall in the center of town, a building that made employees sick and forced the town offices into the new quarters in what was once part of the old elementary school.

Selectmen want to lease the building for up to 99 years - possibly to the Steamship Authority for a new terminal - and they need voters to give them the green light. Selectmen clearly favor the measure.

They also threw their support behind a proposal that would repeal a 10-year-old bylaw that keeps selectmen from holding another elected office in town. Mr. Wey announced that he is urging passage of the repeal for personal reasons: The six-term selectman wants to run for the position of tax collector.

Fellow board members said they would endorse the proposal. Mr. Combra called the ban on selectmen holding other elected posts unconstitutional.

"No one should take away the right of [members of] this board to run for another office," he said.

In other action coming to the town meeting, voters will decide whether they want to help pay for the construction of new playground equipment for Niantic Park.

Park commission chairman Richard Combra Jr. told selectmen that he is expecting private funds from the Island Rotary Club and the Farm Neck Foundation that could match the $25,000 voters are being asked to approve. "Parents have appealed to us," said Richard Combra, Jr. "The equipment is in terrible disarray."

Two separate proposals call on voters to approve revisions of the zoning bylaws. The planning board has spent the last year rewriting bylaws that would limit some types of home businesses in residential neighborhoods and put some controls on overcrowded houses.

The new zoning proposal would also create a new kind of flexible housing development, potentially allowing developers to increase the density of houses on a parcel if they set aside land for conservation or affordable housing.