Selectmen to Doughnut Vendor: Sales After 12:30 a.m. Must Stop

By CHRIS BURRELL

If you're craving hot doughnuts and apple fritters late at night, get an early start: Last call at the back door of a downtown bakery in Oak Bluffs is now officially half past midnight.

Selectmen in Oak Bluffs held the line in a doughnut debate Tuesday night that took comic and dramatic turns on both sides. One blamed the fried dough for the youth obesity problem in America, and another likened town leadership to Barney Fife on a power trip.

Despite considerable pressure from fans of the back-door doughnut tradition, selectmen refused to bend closing time regulations in town that ban restaurant food sales between 12:30 and 5 a.m.

But they edged off last week's edict that called for entirely abolishing the back-door trade in the Reliable Market parking lot, conceding they don't have the authority.

"You have to stop selling doughnuts at 12:30, but the back door is not our issue," said selectmen chairman Roger Wey.

Beginning tonight, the back door will be open for business again, a tradition alive but now reined in on a Cinderella-style leash. Back-door sales were fueled largely by the crowd at the bars, which stop serving alcohol at 12:30 and then close down at 1 a.m.

The crackdown began last week when four of the five selectmen voted to stop the late-night doughnut selling at Martha's Vineyard Gourmet Cafe & Bakery, whose storefront faces the mall, and ordered police to hand-deliver a notice to co-owners Janice Casey and Rita Brown.

Their concerns were three-fold: The parking lot is poorly lit and dangerous; neighbors complain about noise; and other businesses complain it is unfair to let one license-holder feed the masses past the regulation closing time.

But at Tuesday night's meeting, there was only one neighbor, a longtime and vocal critic of the back-door doughnut selling named Joseph Vera.

"The back-door sales are an attractive nuisance," said Mr. Vera, standing up to read from a prepared statement. He owns a house on Ocean Park avenue but lives in a guest house that backs up onto Kennebec avenue, directly across from the Reliable Market parking lot and the base of back-door doughnuts sales.

Mr. Vera's litany of complaints focused on noise bylaw violations: loud car motors, car doors slamming, loud conversations and joking. But more than just the noise, the doughnut sales symbolized other evils such as fast food and overweight teenagers, according to Mr. Vera's speech.

"The Vineyard's always been opposed to fast food," he said. "Henry Beetle Hough would be rolling over in his grave if he knew the Gazette would be advocating for a fast-food outlet." The Gazette had editorialized Tuesday in favor of permitting back-door sales.

Mr. Vera also took aim at Oak Bluffs selectman Greg Coogan, who defended the back-door tradition last week as a special place for Island teens to meet. Arguing that many teens are obese, Mr. Vera said, "We should not be encouraging teens to gather for this."

The multi-pronged attack on late-night doughnuts offered by Mr. Vera was later matched by a rousing defense of the tradition delivered by Peter Farrelly, the movie director and screenwriter who lives in West Tisbury.

"I've been just sick about this all weekend," he told selectmen. "I've been going there for 15 years."

Mr. Farrelly compared the bakery's late-night practice to a hot dog vendor in his hometown of Providence, R.I., who used to line up the buns on his forearm and dress them with relish and mustard. The back-door scene in Oak Bluffs, he said, is just one of the things that give the Vineyard character.

"They're about Martha's Vineyard, about everything that's right about this place," Mr. Farrelly added, praising the bakery owners.

It was Mr. Farrelly who drew the line between selectmen and the old TV sitcom character Barney Fife, recalling an episode when the deputy starts jailing townspeople for jay-walking infractions.

He implored selectmen to see the wisdom of bending rules. "Please," Mr. Farrelly said, "keep Martha's Vineyard weird."

Others chimed in on both sides. Board of health member Linda Marinelli urged selectmen to enforce the bylaws. So did police chief Erik Blake.

But Mimi Davisson, chairman of the town finance committee, suggested that toughening up time regulations with the bakery would accomplish little. "You're still going to have a noise problem at 1 a.m.," she said.

The bakery owners came armed with a petition that now exceeds 1,000 signatures from Islanders, seasonal residents and tourists who threw their support behind the fight for back-door doughnuts.

"This has taken on a life of its own beyond us," Ms. Brown told selectmen. "We hold this tradition in our hands and try to keep it for the next generation."

Selectman Richard Combra - who initially pushed for his board to take last week's hard-line approach - this week cast doubt on the length of the back-door tradition, which some have pegged as dating back nearly 20 years.

But Mark Seward said he was 36 and could recall going to the back door when he was 18. "You guys had a tradition of 18 years of turning a blind eye," he told selectmen. "I'd like to see that tradition continue."

Mr. Coogan - who abstained from last week's vote to clamp down on the bakery - later shot back both at Mr. Vera and at some of his fellow board members for suggesting there had been a chorus of complaints about the bakery.

In Mr. Coogan's view, the complaints were coming from just one voice.

"It's important to note that we've received regular correspondence from one person, and it's been weekly. But we haven't heard a groundswell from dozens of people, not from the lots of people in the Ocean Park area," he said.

It was a theme that made Mr. Farrelly jump to his feet later in the meeting. "He says he has letters. Why does he never show them?" he asked Mr. Combra.

The outburst earned him a reprimand from Chief Blake, who sat a few seats away from the movie director. "Quiet down," the chief told Mr. Farrelly.

Selectmen would not yield, and none moved to reconsider last week's vote. Selectman Kerry Scott said that while she sympathized with concerns over the loss of Vineyard traditions, she couldn't sidestep the bylaw. "We don't have a whole lot of room to wiggle," she said.

A town meeting vote could amend the bylaw, allowing restaurant owners to apply for permission to stay open later, and it's an action the bakery owners are mulling over.

Tuesday night, though, selectmen laid down the law with the bakery owners. "We are going to enforce the bylaw time at 12:30 a.m.," announced town administrator Casey Sharpe.

Mr. Farrelly tried to say more, but Mr. Wey brought out the gavel for silence. "Please leave the meeting," he told Mr. Farrelly.