Terminal Plan Would Pave Pizza Hill

By MANDY LOCKE

The Steamship Authority's visions for a revamped Oak Bluffs terminal may have hit a snag this week when a town official questioned whether the planned staging area infringes on a town park.

Pizza Hill, a North Bluff bank where townspeople take a slice of pie and watch the moon over Nantucket Sound, could be transformed into an asphalt parking lot - just one feature of a plan presented by Steamship Authority officials Wednesday.

"People have long thought of it as park land, and we need to look into that," said Kerry Scott, newly elected Oak Bluffs selectman.

The selectmen's office is now formally investigating whether the grassy bank has ever been designated as a town park. If so, conservation restrictions on the property may limit certain development.

Though the town park department has long cared for the spot - mowing the hill and occasionally planting flowers around the public bathroom located there - even parks and recreation department leaders doubt the area is an official town park.

"I'd be shocked if it was ever officially designated a park. I believe it's town land and the [park] department has been maintaining it," said Richard Combra Jr., chairman of the parks and recreation commission.

But Oak Bluffs officials have been wrong before about which grassy pockets in town are actually parks, Mr. Combra acknowledged. Last summer, selectmen nearly auctioned off 11 parcels of land seized for nonpayment of taxes. Most of them were pieces of town park land, and one commissioner mounted a protest against the sale.

Reconstruction of the bank at North Bluff, one element of the proposed terminal redesign, alarmed several members of the conservation commission as well. Wednesday evening, the conservation commission - the only board in Oak Bluffs with regulatory control over the project because of its location in the coastal resource area - grilled Steamship Authority officials about their need to fill and pave the bank.

"We have a serious concern because you are filling a coastal bank. You are the Steamship Authority and obviously, we give you more latitude, but we'd put a homeowner in jail if they did that," said Joan Hughes, chairman of the conservation commission.

According to the plans, the staging area, three lanes wide with sidewalks on either side, will be moved to Seaview avenue extension, where the existing restrooms are located. The restroom building will be demolished, and the staging lanes will extend from Oak Bluffs avenue north to Pasque avenue. The bank will need to be filled in, a retaining wall installed against the redesigned bluff and asphalt laid across the surface.

The Steamship Authority is being redesigned in order to replace deteriorating dolphins and other sections of the pier, to create better traffic flow and to better accommodate the maneuverings of 70-foot long tractor trailers, said Kathryn A. Roessel, Vineyard SSA governor.

The plan also calls for:

* The current staging area to be used strictly as pickup and dropoff area;

* The current ticketing office to be razed, with an automated ticket kiosk and covered pavilion taking its place;

* A new 50-foot pier, 20 feet longer than the current structure, to be installed to reduce the slope for vehicles and passengers boarding the vessel;

* A trapezoidal projection on the south sound of the pier to be constructed in order to accommodate turnaround for tractor-trailers;

* Deteriorated dolphins to be replaced.

The new pier will support two staging lanes, an exit lane and a lane for bicycles. The new passenger walkway will include several turnouts for passengers to step out of the way of passers-by.

The plan, as presented, relies on successful negotiations with selectmen for boat line use of the old town hall. The Steamship Authority hopes to use this space as a ticket office. and the parking lot in front as pickup and dropoff space for Vineyard Transit Authority as well as tour buses.

Conservation commission members received no clear answers to questions about the extent of disruption to the bank. At a site visit earlier in the day to determine whether an environmental impact statement must be drafted for state officials, representatives of Maguire Group, an engineering firm hired by the Steamship Authority, could not offer the details town officials sought.

"I was disappointed to arrive and see an absence of resource delineation. I mean no disrespect to the Steamship Authority, but to suggest that the northerly limit of the work is around the light pole is inadequate," Truman Henson, Cape and Islands regional coordinator for coastal zone management, a division under the state office of the secretary of environmental affairs, told the Steamship Authority representatives Wednesday night.

The conservation commission, admittedly, has a small scope of jurisdiction over the plan, and Ms. Hughes told Steamship Authority officials they need to seek feedback from Oak Bluffs residents about other aspects of the plan.

"People feel they haven't been heard," said Ms. Hughes. "We're asking for a little more concern for the townspeoples' wishes for the bluff.

"You have to find a way to sell that to the people who stop me in the post office," she added.

The conservation commission has formally requested a traffic study for the project. In addition, it requested the selectmen to host a public forum on the project. Selectmen will take up the matter next Tuesday evening at their regular meeting.

The Martha's Vineyard Commission has no permitting authority over Steamship Authority projects.

Another sore point surfacing Wednesday evening centered on whether the redesigned pier would allow the SSA to extend the season for the Oak Bluffs terminal. Currently, the terminal is only in use from May through October, and boats are often redirected to Vineyard Haven during inclement weather. Oak Bluffs officials had been told by Steamship Authority engineers two years ago, in an earlier iteration of the project, that the straightening of the pier would lengthen the season. But the plan presented Wednesday showed an angled slip, similar to the current design.

Steamship Authority engineers told the conservation commission no tweaking of the pier would extend the season in Oak Bluffs.

"The most important people in this puzzle are the SSA captains, and they say it won't lengthen the season," said Carl Walker, chief engineer for the SSA.

"One report says one thing, the next says something else. It's hard to know what to believe," Ms. Hughes replied.

In the end, conservation commission member Mark Wallace reminded SSA officials that his board also wants to see this project work.

"Oak Bluffs is the seasonal hub of the Island. There's no doubt that you are welcome in this town more than anyone else. No one wants to shoot the goose that laid the golden egg," said Mr. Wallace.

A continued public hearing is set for June 8.