Occupying almost every available seat in the Chilmark Community Center, voters rejected a $2 million purchase of the Home Port restaurant at a special town meeting last night, flouting months of effort on the part of selectmen to acquire the Menemsha restaurant and surrounding property for public use.
As a result of last night’s vote, the longstanding Menemsha seafood restaurant will now likely go to Robert and Sarah Nixon, private buyers who signed an alternate purchase agreement with the current owners.
The meeting, gaveled to order a little after 7:30 p.m., lasted just under three hours and was attended by 224 voters. Town moderator Everett H. Poole presided.
A full two-hour discussion of the Home Port issue centered on a last-minute amendment to the first article on the warrant to include the possibility of the town leasing the building as a restaurant.
A purchase and sale agreement before voters last night was signed in July by selectmen current owners Will and Madeline Holtham.
The town plan, as detailed on the warrant, was to demolish the existing restaurant to make way for a park area, a site for additional parking and rest room facilities, and for public access to the waterfront for kayaks and other vessels.
However, separately, the Holthams signed an agreement for Mr. and Mrs. Nixon to buy the property and take over operation of the restaurant should the town vote fail. News of the Nixon offer was made public early this month.
Noting a community desire to see the restaurant continue, the finance committee voted late last week to suggest that the article permit the town to lease the property as a restaurant as an alternative to demolishing the building.
Thus, soon after article one was read by Mr. Poole, selectman Warren Doty stood to propose the amendment, which would allow for the dual scenarios of demolishing the building or renting two of the five lots to a restaurant operator.
Mr. Doty explained that the town could vote again on which of the options to adopt for the space, but that the town purchase of the property would have to happen at this meeting.
“This is a good deal,” he said, “the known facts are clear. We can acquire this property tonight.”
Voters disagreed; though the amendment passed with a majority the amended article itself was rejected. Requiring a two-thirds majority to carry, the vote failed 129 to 93.
It was the second time Chilmark voters have rejected a selectmen- backed proposal to buy the Home Port. Though the second proposal included one less waterfront lot, it was almost half the price of the original offer. The restaurant has been on the market periodically for the past decade.
Several voters spoke in support in one form or another of the purchase, and the amendment had the principle effect of attracting criticism from both those opposed to the open space and the restaurant proposal. But the prevailing sentiment of those who spoke on the floor was that neither owning a restaurant nor establishing a public space at that location in Menemsha was in the town’s best interests.
Clarissa Allen, owner of the Allen Farm Sheep and Wool Company, signed a letter in support of the town purchase earlier this month. However, she spoke against the purchase last night on several occasions, stating she hadn’t known about the Nixon offer at the time of the letter.
“I originally thought this was a good idea before I knew another person was waiting in the wings,” she said. “This to me is a bit of fluff. I don’t think we need it at this time.”
Taking note of an uncertain national economy, several voters argued that the Home Port investment would be unnecessary and unpredictable.
“We’re tossing around these figures kind of oblivious to what’s going on in the country,” said voter Frank Dunkl, who got the biggest laugh of the night for his comments.
“The two most risky investments you can get into are number one: restaurants. Number two: car dealerships. That’s historically accurate,” Mr. Dunkl said.
He added: “Maybe somebody up in Washington goofs. I mean it has happened. They might even do it again. And if they do here’s a town stuck with a $2 million piece of property that’s bringing in no tax revenue, it’s leased out to somebody who didn’t make it, it’s got to pay insurance and it’s got to pay to maintain the piece of property. Wow, what a time to have an additional financial burden on your hands.”
Robert Skydell, who has run several restaurants on the Island over several decades, said the restaurant business is prohibitively risky.
“The turnover is incredible, the profit margin is slim. It is not a sound investment, even with the best tenant. This will become an albatross,” he said.
Voter Sterling Wall, who introduced himself as having 30 years of background in coastal development, argued the town would have to run a gantlet of permitting bodies to get approval for boat access at the site, which he said is mainly salt marsh.
“It’s at least five years and no guarantee our waterfront access will be approved,” he said,” he said, adding: “I urge everyone to forget about waterfront access, it’s not going to happen.”
Soon after, Mr. Poole called for a standing vote on the amendment, jotting down the totals from each row and adding them up with a pen on his palm, literally a hand count. The count was 111 to 97 in favor of the amendment. Discussion continued on the issue. Helen Parker, wife of J.B. Riggs Parker, the selectman who had spearheaded the town deal, warned voters about a perceived lack of disclosure on the part of would-be buyer Mr. Nixon.
“If you want a restaurant I hope you vote [for the town] to purchase the property,” she said, “I don’t believe that that restaurant is the intention of the Nixons.”
Mr. Nixon who was among those voting last night, read a letter in which he stated that he and his wife were motivated by a desire to maintain the Home Port. He further promised to “offer the property first to the town if and when we sell the Home Port property.”
The letter, which was submitted for the record, also reads: “It is our intention . . . to lease to the town lots 82 and 83 for the town to establish public landing to launch kayaks.” The letter adds that current daytime parking will remain available for town use.
But following several inquires, Mr. Nixon said he could not freeze the price at $2 million.
“It might be in 100 years, if it all. I hope so. I see no way to set the price,” he said.
Shortly before 10 p.m. and acting on a petition with 10 signatures calling for an Australian ballot handed to him as the meeting began, Mr. Poole called for a vote. Voters were called up row by row to write no or yes on a piece of paper for election officials to count.
Mr. Poole eventually declared the article denied and ran through the remainder of the nine-article warrant in less than half an hour.
Article two, which requested additional treasury money for a loan for the Home Port purchase, was indefinitely postponed.
All other articles were approved.