Oak Bluffs Town Meeting Discussion Knocks Cronyism, Lauds Lean Budget

By ALEXIS TONTI

The Oak Bluffs town meeting this week opened with a viewing of a new tourism video, Oak Bluffs: Feel the Magic. As the wind lashed the trees outside, residents were treated to visions of warm days and clear skies. A voice-over gently reminded them Oak Bluffs is the place to be.

Then it was down to business.

In a brisk two and a half hours, residents lauded a lean budget, complained about fat tax hikes and sparred over election and zoning policies - a debate salted by charges of cronyism and favoritism.

A total of 213 residents turned out Tuesday for the special town meeting and annual town meeting, held in the high school Performing Arts Center. Oak Bluffs officials met little resistance from voters as they dispatched the 33 articles on the warrants.

Even town moderator David Richardson took note of the evening's tenor: "This is going very crisply. I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm in Oak Bluffs."

But the night did not pass without its share of smaller debates. A number of proposed zoning changes drew critical remarks from voters, particularly in reference to the North Bluff neighborhood, where a large-scale construction project has stirred controversy in recent weeks.

A plan to protect the North Bluff by including it in the historic Copeland District also was under consideration Tuesday.

Regarding the zoning changes, planning board chairman John Bradford explained the board wanted to reestablish some rules that were accidentally swept out when voters approved an extensive recodification of the zoning bylaws last year.

But some voters took issue with a proposed change to the height restriction for buildings in the B1 zoning district, which comprises much of the downtown area including the outskirts of the North Bluff.

Last month attention first turned to the North Bluff when neighbors began complaining about a three-story structure being built in the backyard of a property on Seaview avenue extension. The project was never referred to the zoning board for a special permit.

The town building inspector has since issued a cease and desist order on the project, which is scheduled for a hearing before the zoning board of appeals April 21.

On Tuesday, anger about the project clearly shaped voter opinion.

"Right now I'm having a crisis of confidence with regard to construction in the North Bluff," declared Peggy McGrath. "We should see how that works out before we make any other changes."

"If this bylaw passed tonight, would it apply only to future building or to something under construction now?" Mimi Davisson asked pointedly.

The question received no direct answer.

Concerns about the bylaw change were not limited to how they would affect the North Bluff.

"I think the spirit behind the article regarding building height is probably good, but I don't think we have clear criteria about what Victorian architecture is," said David Wilson, chairman of the Cottage City historical commission.

"I think this bylaw could be a threat to the buildings on Circuit avenue. It gives [developers] the opportunity to raze a building and erect something in the Victorian style, so we would have a mock Victorian instead of the genuine thing."

In the end, voters said no to the change.

On the heels of that discussion, Oak Bluffs residents voted to bring the North Bluff under the protection of the Copeland District district of critical planning concern - a step aimed at preserving the Victorian architecture and heritage of the area.

An article to change the position of tax collector from an elected office to an appointed position also sparked debate.

"I rise in opposition to this article. It is vitally important to the town that [our government] be kept above the perception of cronyism," declared Jack E. Robinson. "The position of tax collector should be elected. It would be a disaster to place too many positions in the hands of too few elected officials."

"We can't afford to give up one more piece of democracy," said Ann Margetson.

Ken Rusczyk spoke for the change, saying that the election of the tax collector amounts to a "quasi-beauty pageant."

Said Mr. Rusczyk, "Policy people should be elected, but skilled people should be appointed. Right now the job description is get 25 people to sign a petition, and you're a finalist."

"The tax collector is an administrative position. We all remember the debacle with the tax bills. This would be a big step forward," said Robert Iadicicco.

When it was pointed out that Edgartown elects its tax collector while Tisbury's is appointed, Mr. Richardson said wryly: "You wouldn't expect the six towns to agree on anything, would you?"

The voice vote was too close to call, prompting the moderator to ask for a head count. The proposal to make the tax collector an appointed position passed, 107-83.

That decision does not take effect this election cycle.

The $18.5 million budget was subject to little scrutiny. Town officials fielded general questions about how a budget increase of only four per cent squares with recent tax hikes.

"Over the last two years the taxes in Oak Bluffs have been raised at an alarming rate," said Wesley Brown. "I don't understand why taxes go up 16.1 per cent to fund a budget that looks moderate. The numbers don't make sense."

"In recent years we have passed four major capital projects," said selectman Todd Rebello, who explained that the town pays for the projects by taking out a bond that is then repaid over time.

"Over 20 years you have a cycle where sometimes you pay more than in other years," said Mr. Rebello.

This year the debt load increased about 13 per cent to nearly $2.4 million.

Debt payment on the new $3.8 million library on Pacific avenue will start this year, at a cost to taxpayers around $356,000. Payment on the Oak Bluffs School comes in around $1.01 million and payback also continues for the wastewater plant and landfill capping.

Resident Kerry Scott voiced concerns that the budget was kept in check by cutting services and municipal jobs, but officials assured her that no such changes were made.

As part of the two meetings, voters also endorsed a $50,000 feasibility study to evaluate the merits of expanding the wastewater plant to include septage and sludge treatment. They approved $20,000 in harbor repairs and then established a revolving fund to offset those costs in the future; money for the fund will be generated by charging a $1 fee to transient boats for each night they stay in the harbor.

Voters also allotted $10,000 to install an irrigation well in Ocean Park and $30,000 for sidewalk repair in the downtown area. They agreed to fund the Oak Bluffs share of enrolling Lagoon Pond in a program for environmental study, and authorized reductions in the number of licensed dealerships and mopeds available for rent in town.

In the final vote of the evening, residents adopted a resolution opposing the Patriot Act. Done with their part of town business for the year, many left holding their warrant booklets over their heads as shields against the rain.