Commission Delays Vote on Oyster Bar

Land Use Subcommittee Recommends Against Oak Bluffs Eatery Expansion, Leaving Full Commission in Doubt

By IAN FEIN

The Martha's Vineyard Commission last Thursday unanimously approved a downtown Edgartown subdivision and a members-only tennis and racquetball club off State Road in West Tisbury.

But a final vote on the proposed demolition and expansion of a Circuit avenue restaurant in Oak Bluffs was delayed a few weeks at the request of the applicants, who now want to modify their plan after a key commission subcommittee last Monday recommended that the full board deny the proposal.

All three projects have been under review by the commission as developments of regional impact.

Size, intensity of use and a lack of parking were the primary reasons cited by commission members who voted 5-1 at a subcommittee meeting on June 18 to recommend denying the Oyster Bar and Grill expansion. The proposed three-story, 12,000-square-foot structure would have replaced an existing one-story building that dates to the late 19th century.

The negative recommendation for the project surprised other commission members, who noted at Thursday's meeting that the proposed vertical expansion with upstairs apartments in the downtown business district represents the type of development that the commission encourages in its policies and plans.

One week earlier, the commission approved a town-sponsored affordable housing subdivision in the woods of Chilmark that violates the same smart-growth planning principles.

Smart growth is a land use planning theory that concentrates development in compact, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly centers and discourages suburban sprawl.

Commission member James Athearn of Edgartown, who cast the lone vote of dissent on the Chilmark subdivision, was visibly frustrated with his colleagues on Thursday.

"In my opinion, this plan doesn't need much changing," Mr. Athearn said of the Oyster Bar proposal. "The negative comments that came up at the [subcommittee] meeting the other night really floored me."

Oyster Bar co-owner Michael Gillespie on Thursday indicated that he will probably rework the plan by further scaling back a proposed second-floor function hall, which garnered opposition from neighbors in the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association at two lengthy public hearings held by the commission this spring. The modified proposal will now return to a third public hearing at the commission later this summer.

"We think we can modify this in a way that might make everybody happier," Mr. Gillespie told commission members last week. "It might be a better solution for ourselves and the neighborhood."

Both projects approved by the commission Thursday also were located within the central business districts of their respective towns.

The West Tisbury proposal calls for an outdoor tennis court and a 3,000-square-foot building that would house an indoor racquetball court, pro shop and two offices. The club would be located on one of two abutting lots, totaling a little over an acre, owned by applicant James Ferry.

Commission members approved the project on Thursday after noting that the commercial parcel could have been developed with a more intensive, traffic-generating use, and that the recreational facility will provide a healthy outlet for Island residents. The commission also included a condition of approval requiring additional landscaping to better screen the club from neighbors.

The downtown Edgartown subdivision posed a procedurally difficult project for some commission members to review.

The proposal calls for redrawing two odd-shaped lots totalling roughly three-quarters of an acre into seven separate parcels. But the applicant - who is trying to sell the property and is using the subdivision as a marketing tool - is not proposing any actual development at this time.

"In essence what we have before you is an application to do nothing," said Boston attorney Kevin Kerr, who is representing property owner Timothy O'Connell.

Home of the former Shiretown Inn, the property runs along the western side of Simpson's Lane between North Water and North Summer streets.

The proposal triggered commission review as a subdivision of commercially zoned land. Over the course of two weeks, commission members struggled to approve the plan in a way that did not unintentionally allow intensive future use. A separate group of Edgartown investors, led by Gerret Conover Jr. and Thomas Leclair, has been considering buying three of the seven lots for use as a downtown parking lot and staging area for the Chappaquiddick ferry.

Ultimately, commission approval of the subdivision allowed for redevelopment similar to past use - which included more than 40 bedrooms spread between the inn and separate homes, as well as a 4,500-square-foot bar or restaurant - but required that any use beyond that require a return to the regional planning agency for further review.

The unanimous decision also granted an after-the-fact approval for the demolition of the Hideaway Pub, Ciao Bella Restaurant, and a long carriage house building on the property. Although the town historic district commission permitted the demolition in March, Martha's Vineyard Commission rules show that the proposed work should have been referred to the regional body prior to the buildings coming down.

Also key to the commission approval last week was an offer from the applicants regarding contributions to affordable housing, which emerged as a possible sticking point for the subdivision. In order to comply with commission housing policies, the applicants agreed to pay the donation required for commercial development, but also allowed that any future residential project on the land must abide by commission guidelines regarding the creation of affordable units as well.

"I guess you guys can have your cake and eat it too," Mr. O'Connell said of the applicants' housing offer.