West Tisbury Voters Gather Tuesday

By IAN FEIN

The fate of the West Tisbury town hall has been in limbo since town voters rejected a cost overrun to the renovation project last November. But a new direction may emerge next week when voters convene for the annual town meeting to consider a series of articles that address the town hall project in different ways.

Voters should be familiar with the topic. The town hall renovation, in one form or another, has been discussed at six town meetings over the last three years.

One town hall article appears on the warrant for a special town meeting, which will begin five minutes before the annual town meeting on Tuesday.

Town moderator F. Patrick Gregory will open the five-article special town meeting warrant at 6:55 p.m. and the 41-article annual warrant at 7 p.m. Both meetings will be held in the West Tisbury School and will be subject to a new quorum bylaw, adopted in January, which requires five per cent of registered voters.

Along with the town hall articles, voters will also take up a proposed $12.2 million fiscal year 2007 town budget, which represents a 2.7 per cent increase over the current year.

Budgetary discussions may include questions about legal bills, which dominated special town meetings last fall and winter. The 2007 budget marks the first time some town departments will identify their legal expenses as separate line items, allowing voters to exercise more oversight of the town's legal spending. Town assessors in a special town meeting article are also seeking an additional $15,000 to cover legal expenses for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The town police department has a series of spending requests, including $32,000 for a new four-wheel drive vehicle, and the fire department is seeking $40,000 for a new Jaws of Life rescue tool. A series of articles from the Tri-Town Ambulance committee asks whether it should start charging for ambulance calls and create a designated fund for the receipts.

Voters will also be asked to contribute the town's share to a number of regional agencies and efforts, including the Massachusetts Estuaries Program, the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority and the Martha's Vineyard Cultural Council. And the town health agent is seeking permission to enter into an intermunicipal agreement to provide public health services.

Other articles ask voters to accept deeds on a number of small parcels in lieu of tax title foreclosure, and to take by eminent domain Old Stage Road, so the town will own the road to the transfer station. The town is also seeking $50,000 to repair and upgrade the transfer station.

The eminent domain article will require two-thirds approval, as will a proposed zoning bylaw amendment that would prohibit signs from cluttering the veteran's monument at the triangular intersection of State and Edgartown-West Tisbury Roads.

The planning board will withdraw a second bylaw amendment that appears on the warrant as a citizen petition. Voters rejected the proposal, which would increase the maximum building size allowed in the mixed-business district, at a special town meeting last fall. Planning board chairman Murray Frank said this week that according to state law, only the planning board can bring a defeated bylaw back to town meeting within two years.

Along with the zoning bylaw, five other citizen petitions appear on the annual town meeting warrant.

One would create the honorary office of Poet Laureate of West Tisbury, to be appointed annually by selectmen. Another proposed town bylaw attempts to limit the number of elected offices any one person can hold, but town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport told selectmen this week he has a problem with the legality of the bylaw as worded. Mr. Rappaport said the bylaw, if adopted, could not cut short the terms in office someone already holds, and that it is unclear whether the current language would affect the outcome of the annual town election next week.

Two citizen petitions address the town hall project, though the author of one told selectmen on Wednesday that he intends to withdraw his proposal.

The concept in the article calls for selling the current town hall building for a symbolic sum to a private nonprofit, like the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, which would then renovate the building and lease it back to the town. But preservation trust executive director Christopher Scott said this week that the organization would only be interested in purchasing the building should the town decided to move its town offices elsewhere, prompting the article's author, Richard Knabel, to say he would withdraw it on the town meeting floor.

The second citizen article would rescind the October 2004 special town meeting vote that approved a $3.7 million price tag for the town hall renovation. If it passes next week, the article would not affect the $260,000 already spent from that sum. But it would wipe from the books any funds remaining from the original appropriation and pose a significant setback to those who want to scale back and redesign the renovation.

One such attempt, and the reason for the special town meeting, is a town hall building committee request to pay project architect Deborah Durland $36,000 to prepare a scaled-back design for a professional estimate. Ms. Durland this winter said that by removing the basement meeting room from the original design and using a smaller addition, she believed she could bring the project back within the $3.7 million budget. The finance committee is unanimously opposed to the $36,000 request; Glenn Hearn is the lone selectman who supports it.

The capital improvements committee authored the remaining two articles that address the town hall issue.

The first deals with immediate repairs to the town hall building, specifically seeking to amend the scope of work from a $75,000 appropriation passed by voters at a special town meeting more than two years ago. Town officials held off on doing the repairs because they thought the overall renovation project was moving forward, but now that they are ready to spend the money, the most pressing needs in the building have changed. The town wants to make the scope of work less restrictive, so it can include bathroom rehabilitation and not require floor refinishing.

Aside from the scope-of-work amendment, four other spending requests address maintenance and upkeep of town buildings, including the police station, fire stations, Howes House, and community hall building on Old Courthouse Road.

The second capital improvements committee article seeks to jump start a townwide space needs and feasibility study. Aimed at moving away from the town practice of looking at capital projects one building at a time, the study would take a step back and examine what the town already has and what it will need in the future.

The comprehensive planning idea arose after the annual town meeting last year, when voters rejected the selectmen's plans to turn a private home into a police station, but selectmen never pursued it. Capital improvements committee member Katherine Logue said this is an opportune time to conduct such a study because the town has three capital projects on the near horizon - with the need for a new or renovated town hall, a new police station, and an expanded library.

The article, as written, asks for $100,000 to begin the study. But after hearing some concerns about the price over the last two months, the capital improvements committee decided to scale back its original request and take the study one step at a time. The committee plans to amend the article on town meeting floor next week, reducing the spending request to $5,000, according to Ms. Logue.

Instead of hiring a consultant right off the bat, the proposal would now ask selectmen to appoint a seven-member volunteer committee to begin the process and report back to a special town meeting in the fall.

The committee would poll town citizens for their opinions, study how comparable towns address similar space issues, compile data from previous studies on the Island, conduct an inventory of town-owned lots, project the town's long-term debt schedule, identify alternate sources of funding, prepare a report about the town's space needs, and determine where the town hall needs can best be met. If the town decides that it wants to hire a consultant at a later time, the committee would also prepare a draft request for proposals.

"The good news is, we're taking it one step at a time and making sure that the voters are with us along each step," Mrs. Logue said this week. "The bad news is, it slows the whole process down. But clearly, like it or not, that's what's needed."