A proposal by the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club to replace its building on Vineyard Haven harbor has opened the door to a unanticipated discussion about public access to water.
The Martha's Vineyard Commission, which is reviewing the club's plan as a development of regional impact (DRI), has delayed its decision due to concerns about a little-known section of public beach next to the yacht club at the end of Owen Little Way.
At present, people may not realize the beach is open to the public. Further, yacht club members in the summer largely fill available spaces in a nearby public parking lot or along the road.
Tisbury, which has the least amount of town beach of any Island town due to a combination of geography and private ownership, long has sought to maintain its public access points.
The beach - which stretches along about 30 feet of waterfront - lies at the end of the narrow, dead end Owen Little Way and extends to the right, toward the yacht club property.
Peculiarly, to the left of the town beach, away from the clubhouse, the yacht club owns another piece of beach. There are no signs to mark boundaries or to indicate where the town beach lies.
"The problem is just intuitively it's hard to tell what to do," planning board member Henry Stephenson said this week. "What happens, is people who go down to go swimming are shy about going to the right to go swimming because the yacht club's there and then they get annoyed when they go to the left and the yacht club boats are there."
Parking is also a concern. The yacht club does not delineate parking spaces on its property, but the commission estimates there is space for 30 cars on club property. By yacht club estimates, as many as 47 cars have been crammed in there. Yacht club membership is currently 391, and most are family memberships that include children up to the age of 35.
The plans for the new yacht club building indicate 36 marked spaces.
The concerns about public access came to the commission's attention through letters from abutters and other Tisbury residents.
"[The county parking lot] is often full of yacht club members' cars so town residents have nowhere to park. When the town begins its swimming program there, it will be virtually impossible to accommodate everyone," Main street resident Harriet Barrows wrote in a letter dated April 23.
"The end of Owen Little Way is too narrow to turn around easily so drivers often have to back up into the yacht club entry - a blind and difficult maneuver," she added.
Addressing the issue this week, commission member Linda Sibley said, "The citizens of Tisbury have a legal right to park there, but if they're there to go to the yacht club, I don't think they should park there. It should be reserved for non-yacht-club members who want access to this tiny beach.
"I'm optimistic that they'll work it out," she added.
Yacht club commodore Alexander Meleney submitted a written document stating that the club would give bus passes to its 27 seasonal workers and encourage members to carpool, walk, bike, and take public transportation to the club. He also offered to limit the club's maximum membership to 425 and allow private functions for club members only.
The access concerns have somewhat overshadowed the building plans that brought the project to the commission's attention.
The club plans to tear down its 3,500-square-foot Cape-style building next fall and replace it with a two-story, 4,400-square-foot modular unit designed by an architect.
All parties agree that the new building will be an aesthetic improvement over its predecessor. The commission and club are in accord on a number of issues, including membership numbers, use of the building, external lighting and building efficiency.
The club has resided on the roughly two-acre site since 1928 and uses the property three months a year. The original two-story "casino" clubhouse was torn down in the 1960s and replaced with the one-story Cape.
New plans show an insulated, non-air-conditioned building on piles that may have solar panels.
At the commission hearing on April 26, the commissioners voted to close the hearing but keep the written record open for a week to allow more information about possible public access improvements to come to their attention.
The following day, at the planning board's regular meeting on Wednesday, the board drafted a letter to the commission - one day shy of the written record closing. The letter recommends that the commission approve the yacht club's application in spite of the public access and parking issues, and suggests that Labor Day be the rough deadline for completing a "fairly detailed plan" to resolve those issues.
"The applicants are concerned that these other issues will impose costly and unnecessary delays to their project," the letter states. "Nevertheless, they do agree that they need to be addressed in a timely way," the planning board letter reads.
"The affected parties would begin immediately to work together on a plan for all of Owen Little Way from Main Street to the water. The yacht club is willing to meet with representatives of the Town of Tisbury, abutting neighbors, Dukes County and the Martha's Vineyard Commission at their earliest convenience to begin work on the plan."
The commission is tentatively scheduled to consider the yacht club's application again on May 17. If approved, the project will still require approval from the conservation commission in order to build on the beach.