Testing Strength in Government

Analyzing Trends Across Island as Legal Disputes Increase; Citizens Debate Causes, Leaders Take Stock

By JAMES KINSELLA
Gazette Senior Writer

In West Tisbury, the board of assessors decides not to mediate a tax appeal, landing the town in an extended slugfest at the state level that has yet to conclude.

In Oak Bluffs, residents complain about what they see as a lack of responsiveness from the building department and the zoning board of appeals.

In Dukes County, a turf battle between the county and airport commissions has resulted in a legal judgment that could cost local taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Is Vineyard government, in some instances, going awry?

Kerry Scott, a selectman in Oak Bluffs, says yes.

"People are having to hire lawyers to protect themselves from their own government," Ms. Scott said.

The problem, Ms. Scott said, crosses all economic lines on the Island, from Bill Graham, a wealthy landowner battling the assessors in West Tisbury, to the less affluent residents in the Pacific avenue area of Oak Bluffs, who had to fight their own legal battle to force a trash business from their residential neighborhood.

"It doesn't make it fair," she said. "It just makes it that way across the board."

The airport case, meanwhile, has presented Vineyard residents with the specter of two county boards butting heads in court to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Reasonable people can and do disagree about issues such as the value of real estate, or whether a particular construction project meets a town zoning bylaw, or who holds the power to set the salaries of municipal airport managers.

But what galls some Vineyard residents is how they are treated in the process. They complain about a lack of respect for their concerns, about officials who devote more attention to protecting municipal employees than to addressing citizens' problems.

"We tried to appeal and we just totally got blown off," said Carla Rolde, who said the Oak Bluffs building department turned a deaf ear on her concerns about a garage project at a neighbor's house on Barnes Road, which she said had turned into a far larger structure. "There is no justice in Oak Bluffs."

Martha Wilder of Oak Bluffs said she and other residents have had to spend their own money in a so-far futile quest to determine whether a new structure on Dempster Park meets the town zoning code.

"All we got was roadblock after roadblock," Ms. Wilder said of their experience with the town building department and zoning board of appeals.

At a recent meeting of the West Tisbury selectmen resident Joan Ames questioned the direction of her town government.

"I'm hearing so much disgruntlement in fellow town citizens," she said. "As a taxpayer I find it very upsetting."

In some cases, Vineyard governments have been responsive.

In Oak Bluffs, the selectmen negotiated a medical retirement for Richard Mavro, the longtime building inspector and who had come under increasing fire for his poor job performance. A new building inspector has been hired and has begun to clean up some of the problems left behind by Mr. Mavro.

In Edgartown, the board of assessors showed a willingness to listen to Chappaquiddick taxpayers who claimed their latest property assessments were way out of whack.

But it has been a markedly different scene in West Tisbury.

Mr. Graham, who owns 235 acres at Mohu, is questioning the accuracy of the town's assessed value of his property. An expensive legal hearing has been under way in Boston since May, and is still ongoing.

Whether the case should have even gone to a legal hearing is questioned by Mr. Graham, who said he sought to settle the case with the town.

Mr. Graham declined to discuss the details of the case. But he did confirm that he sought through a third party last fall to arrange a mediation of the case. Two weeks later, Mr. Graham said, the word came back that the board of assessors was not interested in mediation.

Mr. Graham said he tried again this spring, this time approaching selectman Glenn Hearn, who he said was receptive to getting the issue resolved. A meeting was set up with West Tisbury assessors and Mr. Graham, and was mediated by Leonard Jason Jr., a Chilmark assessor, and town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport, who is not representing the town in the case.

"We seemed to be making progress," Mr. Graham said. Another meeting was scheduled.

Then, he said, word came from the town that the mediation was over. "That was the end of it," he said.

In Oak Bluffs, the confluence of the town building department and the zoning board of appeals, where decisions of the town building official are appealed, has been a daunting matrix to a number of residents.

Ms. Wilder said she, her husband, Larry Wilder, and other Dempster Park residents have questions about whether a new structure on that street meets the town zoning code.

Last summer on Dempster Park, Ms. Wilder said residents noticed the size of the garage structure going up at 7 and 7R Dempster. "It looked to be a very huge footprint for a garage," she said. The abutters never received notice of what was planned.

Dr. Larry Wilder made several trips to the Oak Bluffs building department in the town hall, where he encountered the secretary, Eliza Usher.

"She basically was extremely unhelpful," Ms. Wilder said. "She would not allow him to have any information about what was going on over there. She wouldn't let him see any plans. She claimed she couldn't find them."

Dr. Wilder said he made numerous requests for the building department to call him about the plans, but the department (which at the time still employed Mr. Mavro) never called him back.

Ms. Wilder said the department's thinking seemed to be along the lines of, "If we make this difficult, they'll go away, and we won't have to deal with them."

Dr. Wilder finally managed to unearth the plans on his own. He found the department had approved a four-car garage with a second story above, but that no building space had been sought.

Dempster Park residents saw that plumbing was being installed in the structure. The owner told them that an office and a workout room would be built on the second floor. Residents decided to ask the zoning board of appeals for a ruling on the structure. "This is an example of people like us digging into our own pockets just to get questions answered that are in the public interest," Ms. Wilder said.

The zoning board placed the matter on the agenda of its May meeting. At the meeting, the board decided that it needed a legal opinion on the matter. The matter was continued to the June meeting.

By the June meeting, Ms. Usher, who is also the secretary for the board of appeals, had yet to forward the request for a legal opinion to town counsel. The matter was continued to the July meeting.

At the July meeting, Ms. Usher said she still had not yet forwarded the matter to town counsel. Because the town had hired a new building official, Jerry Weiner, she said she had decided to save the town money by instead bringing the matter to Mr. Weiner's attention.

Mrs. Rolde and her attorney, Daniel Larkosh, have their own tale to tell about a property at 369 Barnes Road.

In 2003, Mrs. Rolde noticed that a two-story garage structure was under construction at the address, which abuts her property. She questioned whether the structure was allowed under the zoning bylaw.

On July 2, 2003, her attorney at the time, Robert Foley, sent a letter to Mr. Mavro, demanding enforcement of the zoning bylaw.

On July 11 of that year, Mr. Mavro denied the request. On August 7, Mrs. Rolde filed an appeal with the zoning board, which scheduled the matter for its Sept. 18 meeting.

When the matter came up at the September meeting, Mr. Mavro halted the proceedings. He said the appellant had failed to hand-deliver the appeal to him, and recommended that the appeal be denied.

On Oct. 2, the zoning board filed notice of its decision to deny the appeal because procedure had not been followed.

On Oct. 21, Mrs. Rolde, by then represented by Mr. Larkosh, filed an appeal in superior court of the board decision. In October 2004, the court ordered the zoning board to rehear the case within 60 days.

The board eventually agreed to schedule the matter for its meeting this past April. Then in April the matter was continued again until May.

At that meeting, the board stated that it did not have the complete file on the matter and could not act. Mr. Larkosh was asked to agree to a continuance.

He declined.

The board then continued the matter to allow for a site visit or visits. Mr. Larkosh asked to be present for any visits. The board denied his request.

Martin V. (Skip) Tomassian Jr. of Edgartown, who represents the owners of 369 Barnes Road, said he had all the permits in hand for the structure that's the subject of the Rolde appeal.

"They just don't want anything built there," he said of Mrs. Rolde and her husband.

But records at the building department show that the owners did not apply for a special permit to build a garage with a guest apartment until March of this year.

Allowing garages to grow into other structures was a specialty of Mr. Mavro in recent years. In addition to the buildings at Dempster Park and Barnes Road, there is the three-story garage owned by Joseph G. Moujabber on Sea View avenue extension on the North Bluff. The Moujabber garage was built in open violation of town zoning laws and was finally ordered demolished by the town last December. The matter is currently locked in procedural tangles, although the town, acting with the assistance of its counsel Mr. Rappaport, is moving to enforce the demolition order.

Oak Bluffs selectman Greg Coogan said the town has made a concerted effort to clean up the building department. "We're going in a positive direction and we're not going backwards. We're definitely not going backwards and we need people to have confidence in our building department," he said.

Meanwhile, across the Vineyard the conversation continues about whether small-town government is working.

Mrs. Rolde believes it is not. "It's like an epidemic," she said, referring to the growing garage problem.

Mr. Coogan did not deny that there have been problems, but his view is more optimistic.

"We're taking a deep breath and we're trying to get things right. I have faith that things are going to keep getting better," he said.