Oak Bluffs Innkeeper Challenges Commission Decision in Court

By IAN FEIN

A Dukes County superior court judge yesterday heard arguments in a one-day trial that explored the limits of commercial expansion in an eclectic residential neighborhood of Oak Bluffs.

Town resident Jack E. Robinson Sr. is challenging the Martha's Vineyard Commission denial of a proposed 10-bedroom expansion to his inn and tennis center on New York avenue. The commission reviewed the project in the summer of 2005 as a development of regional impact (DRI).

An attorney for Mr. Robinson argued in court yesterday that the commission decision was arbitrary and unsupported by evidence, while attorneys for the regional planning agency countered that the proposed expansion was not appropriate for the location.

"When looking at all of the factors, the probable benefits of this project outweigh the probable detriments," Brant Rock attorney Michael Savage, who represents Mr. Robinson in the case, said during his closing argument yesterday afternoon.

"Today Mr. Robinson had the burden of proving that there was no reasonable basis for the commission decision," said Boston attorney Johanna Schneider, who represents the commission along with fellow attorney Eric Wodlinger. "And he failed to do that."

The Hon. Judith Fabricant presided over the non-jury trial yesterday, and said at the end that she intended to issue a decision rather promptly. Mr. Robinson and commission executive director Mark London were the sole witnesses to testify.

The case also marked only the second time in the history of the commission that an appeal of a DRI decision went to a complete trial. No decision by the regional planning agency has ever been overturned on its merits.

A central question in the case is what level of commercial expansion should be allowed along New York avenue - a residential neighborhood at the fringe of the Oak Bluffs business district. In addition to the Martha's Vineyard Resort and Racquet Club currently operated by Mr. Robinson on his property, New York avenue is home to approximately 15 other small businesses - including a real estate company, gas station, bait shop, and bookstore.

Mr. Robinson in 2004 proposed a 19-room expansion to the 11 bedrooms currently on his property, but after he was denied by the commission that year, he returned with a 10-bedroom expansion plan. Commission members in July 2005 said even the 10-bedroom expansion was out of scale with other businesses in the area, and rejected that plan as well, in a unanimous 9-0 vote.

The two projects are the only developments of regional impact (DRIs) that the commission has denied in the last three and a half years.

The commission in its denial cited the 1998 Oak Bluffs master plan, which called for commercial expansion to occur solely within existing business districts, and not along New York avenue. The written decision of the commission noted that Oak Bluffs is one of the few towns in the commonwealth that has successfully resisted suburban-style business strips by containing commercial development to the downtown area.

"You heard today the rational land use planning reasons why Mr. Robinson's project was not appropriate for this location," Ms. Schneider told Judge Fabricant in her closing argument yesterday. "You heard about the problems of sprawl and suburbanization, and the commission's role in protecting Oak Bluffs from those things," she added.

Mr. Savage countered that the town master plan identified a primary economic goal of making Oak Bluffs a family-oriented resort community, and he recommended a policy of allowing a resurgence of grand Victorian hotels.

"The Oak Bluffs master plan is not a hard-and-fast prohibition against development," Mr. Savage said, "but rather concerned what kind of development the town was looking for."

He also suggested that the plan identifies New York avenue as a good site for bed and breakfast businesses, and noted that the town zoning board of appeals, when it granted Mr. Robinson a special permit for his original bed and breakfast in 1991, found that the location was appropriate for the business, particularly because the area includes other commercial ventures.

Judge Fabricant, who will preside over the rest of the superior court session this month, noted early in the trial that she intended to visit the Robinson property while on the Vineyard. Mr. Savage encouraged her to do so.

"When you visit the site, you will see that it is very modest in terms of land use," he said. "You will see why my client's house and amenities - like the clay tennis courts - make it a rather special place for people."

A former head of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, Mr. Robinson testified yesterday that he decided to open his inn and tennis club in the mid-1980s, when many African Americans were moving away from Oak Bluffs because they could not afford a place to stay. The town has a long history as a popular destination and haven for African Americans.

"As the black community began to disappear from the Island, many people started to call me to see if I had rooms where they could stay," said Mr. Robsinson, 79, who first came to the Island in the 1940s. "The hotels were not very minority friendly, so most of the accommodations were in bed and breakfasts."

Mr. Robinson last fall also filed a complaint against the Martha's Vineyard Commission with the state agency that enforces the commonwealth's anti-discrimination laws, alleging that racism played a role in the denials. The discrimination complaint is still under investigation and separate from the superior court case.

Mr. Robinson yesterday also dropped the Oak Bluffs building inspector as a party to the superior court case. He added the building inspector as a defendant last spring, arguing that the former building department secretary in early 2005 did not have the authority to send the expansion project to the commission as a DRI.

But Mr. Savage at the outset of the trial yesterday filed a motion to dismiss the building inspector from the case, and neither the town nor commission objected to the motion.