West Tisbury Town Hall Project Wins Approval in Round One

By IAN FEIN

After more than seven years of debate, West Tisbury voters this week soundly approved a $3.7 million renovation project for their town hall.

At a special town meeting held in the elementary school gymnasium Tuesday night, the town hall article, which needed two-thirds approval, passed 119-11, with more than 90 per cent of the vote.

But before the sound of hammers can begin to ring in the town village, voters must first approve the project again at a special town election next week.

"It is very gratifying that the town rallied behind this. A lot of us have worked long and hard," an ebullient Ernest Mendenhall, chairman of the town hall building committee, said the morning after town meeting. "When all those hands went up, it was a beautiful thing."

To the many residents who stopped by the old town hall to offer Mr. Mendenhall their congratulations, he had the same response: "It's not over yet."

The fate of the project depends on the outcome of a corresponding Proposition 2 1/2 override question in the special election this Tuesday.

A typically light turnout for a special town meeting, 160 voters attended - just over seven per cent of the 2,177 registered voters. However, because the special town election will be held on the same day as the state and national elections, with one of the most heated presidential races in recent memory, a record turnout is expected.

"We chose to do the election on the same day as the presidential because it will make it very hard for people to have the complaint that we had this at special town meeting," said Mr. Mendenhall, referring to a point raised on the floor of the meeting by Jonathan Revere - that some towns do not schedule big money issues for special town meetings.

At annual town meeting in April 2003, the first version of the town hall renovation project failed to win the needed two-thirds vote.

In the last four years West Tisbury voters have been on a small spending spree; town budgets have jumped more than 50 per cent, from $7.062 million in fiscal year 2001 to more than $10.8 million for fiscal year 2005.

Proposition 2 1/2 overrides have been hand in glove with the spending increases; in the last three years West Tisbury voters have approved more than 30 overrides, totaling more than $8.874 million. In the same period voters have rejected only four overrides, totaling $135,623.

If the override question wins majority approval on Tuesday, the town will fund the project with a 20-year bond. According to data provided by town assessor Jo-Ann Resendes, who is also on the town building committee, the owner of a $500,000 home would see the tax bill go up roughly $90 per year for the next 20 years; the owner of a $750,000 home would pay another $135, and the owner of a $1 million home would pay roughly $180 more in taxes.

On Tuesday night Mr. Mendenhall assured voters that the renovated town hall will be worth their money.

"We're designing the town hall for a 20 to 30-year period," he said. "This group worked hard to come up with a plan that's going to last, so we don't have to come back again for a while. If we're going to pay for it for 20 years, we would like it to last for at least that long."

The only person who spoke against the project praised Mr. Mendenhall's presentation, but said he would have preferred that the town start with a lower price tag and work back to an affordable design.

"To me it's a question of money," said Nick Van Ness. "I was thinking $500,000 instead of $4 million, but that's me. We need something warm and comfortable that won't leak. But to me the appeal of this place is the low profile, the dirt roads. The emphasis should be to keep it small, not to keep up with the Joneses, with what other towns are doing."

Ben Moore, a West Tisbury resident and well-known architect, who designed the recently completed $1.5 million Chilmark town hall renovation, said the cost of the West Tisbury renovation is about 30 per cent higher on a square footage basis than the Chilmark project. Still, Mr. Moore said he supports the West Tisbury project.

He did take issue with the proposed parking lot, which will be moved from the front to the western side of the building. The building committee reduced the size of the parking lot from last year's proposal, but Mr. Moore said, "It still looks big as ever to me."

The parking lot proved to be the central point of debate. Mr. Mendenhall insisted that the proposed lot "has really gotten to the bare minimum required for a building this size."

In the end, voters agreed not to let the parking issue hold up the whole project. Mr. Mendenhall said the building committee will continue to meet with residents to discuss the parking concerns if the project moves forward.

"I have faith in the committee," said Judy Crawford. "They have listened to everything the town has had to say so far, and I think more of that will go on. My one concern is that we're going to throw the baby out with the bath water and get hung up on one issue like parking. We need this town hall, we're ready for this town hall, and it's only going to get more expensive every time we put it off."

Another concern of many residents centered on whether the building will use renewable energy. Prudy Burt said she had hoped it might be written into the article that the new town hall will be a "model of energy efficiency."

Town moderator Patrick Gregory said amending the article in that way was beyond the scope of the warrant. But in an unofficial hand count, voters agreed almost unanimously to make the building "as solar and green as possible." Mr. Gregory asked the town clerk to reflect the voter's wishes in the record.

Mr. Mendenhall said the next day that the committee "has been thinking green through the whole process," and that it will continue to do so "as long as the added cost doesn't derail the project.

"We'll be as green as we can with what the town allows us to spend," he said.

Selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter brought the discussion to a close with the final statement before Mr. Gregory called for a vote.

"I don't like to spend a tax dollar too easily, especially 3.7 million of them," he said. "But the time has come. I think we owe it to ourselves, to our visitors, and to our future generations to pass this article."