A group of Oak Bluffs residents filed a lawsuit against the town last week to block the release of $200,000 in Community Preservation Committee funds approved at town meeting for the Veira Park expansion project.
The complaint follows a decision last month by a superior court judge barring the city of Newton from using Community Preservation money to renovate two parks — a decision that could have consequences for the funding already approved for Veira Park. The Newton decision marked the first legal test for the state’s Community Preservation Act (CPA), which is seven years old.
Officials in Newton have already appealed the decision to a higher court.
Meanwhile, plans to expand the baseball facilities at Veira Park also are being reviewed as a development of regional impact (DRI) by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. A public hearing on the project continues on Nov. 8.
Both the community preservation committee and town voters at two separate town meetings have authorized using the $200,000 in CPA funds to expand the ball park.
Sponsored by Vineyard Little League, the plan calls for building a second baseball diamond, new seating for fans, an unpaved parking area off the road and a picnic and play area. The plans have drawn criticism from some residents who fear the expanded park is too big for the neighborhood and would create problems with safety, noise, traffic and parking.
The nine-page complaint filed against the town of Oak Bluffs in Dukes County Superior Court last Monday seeks a permanent injunction preventing selectmen from releasing the Community Preservation Committee funds for the Veira Park project.
The complaint is a ten-taxpayer lawsuit filed on behalf of a dozen Oak Bluffs residents, most of whom are abutters or neighbors to Veira Park. The complaint is a form of legal action available to a minimum of ten taxpayers as a way to challenge state action.
The lawsuit claims that the Massachusetts Department of Revenue prohibits the town from using CPA funds to replace equipment, install additional equipment or install amenities to an existing recreational property that was not acquired or created with CPA funds.
Veira Park was dedicated to recreational use prior to the enactment of the CPA, the lawsuit claims, and therefore the town cannot spend CPA funds to make improvements or add amenities.
On the surface, the expansion of the baseball facilities at Veira Park mirrors the plans in Newton. But unlike Veira Park, which essentially calls for adding a new facility at an existing park, the Newton project is more of a large-scale renovation at two parks.
In February 2006 the Newton community preservation committee voted to recommend using approximately $750,000 in CPA funds for the project. Similar to Oak Bluffs, that decision was challenged in a ten taxpayer lawsuit.
Oak Bluffs selectmen on Tuesday held a special meeting with town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport to discuss legal strategy for handing the Veira Park funding. Mr. Rappaport said a similar legal challenge of the use of CPA funds has been filed by taxpayers in Wayland, and other legal challenges are likely.
The reason for the proliferation of lawsuits challenging the use of CPA funds is because the language of the preservation act is unusually vague and open to broad interpretation, Mr. Rappaport said. The outcome of a bill in the state legislature that would tighten and clarify language of the CPA act is unknown, he said.
Mr. Rappaport emphasized that the vote by the town community preservation committee to recommend the CPA funds be used for the Veira Park proposal was in no way unauthorized or illegal. The committee interpreted the regulations of the CPA the best it could and acted accordingly, he said.
“The question is whether this money can be used for this project . . . which is much different than the question of whether this money will be spent on a purpose that is against the law,” he said.
Community Preservation Committee chairman Stephen Durkee asked Mr. Rappaport if the committee should seek a legal opinion for CPA requests in the future. Mr. Rappaport said getting a legal opinion may be the best of course until the current court cases are resolved, if selectmen approve. Mr. Rappaport said he would advise the committee at no cost to the town.
Mr. Rappaport said the ambiguous CPA regulations have placed officials in towns across the commonwealth at a disadvantage.
“This is really a legislative issue . . . it is unfair to just leave it to the boards and committees made up of unpaid volunteers to figure out what is appropriate . . . [those boards] need a clearer road map,” he said.