Tisbury town leaders are in a difficult spot after their building inspector, on the advice of the state ethics commission, recused himself from the major renovation project that will convert the old marine hospital into a new campus for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Longtime building inspector Kenneth Barwick said he was contacted by the ethics commission in late May and told that he cannot participate on the project because he lives less than 300 feet away from the site. At around the same time, the $24 million museum project broke ground. It is the largest building project the town has seen in decades, is expected to take two years to complete and will require numerous inspections and signoffs by the building inspector.

There is no assistant building inspector in Tisbury and attempts by the selectmen to employ the services of an inspector from another town so far have been unsuccessful — partly because the scope of the work needed is so large and expected to go on for years.

Mr. Barwick said late last week that he has never been in a situation like this.

“I’d like to think it will never happen again,” he told the Gazette. “In the meantime, it’s causing some problems for the applicant and definitely some problems for my selectmen.”

Town administrator John (Jay) Grande said the matter is expected to be discussed at the next selectmen’s meeting.

Mr. Barwick first informed the selectmen of the problem at a meeting on May 23, minutes show. He said the state ethics commission and the town attorney had both advised him to recuse himself because the value of his property could be affected.

“I’m told I cannot speak with these people, I cannot issue these people any permits, I cannot perform any inspections, I can’t touch the job, if you will,” he told the selectmen.

Mr. Barwick’s only action on the project to date was to refer it to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for review last year.

He told the selectmen that there was only one other inspector on Island with the experience, knowledge and certification to review the plans: Leonard Jason Jr., who currently works as building inspector in Edgartown, Chilmark and Aquinnah.

On June 13, Mr. Barwick returned to the selectmen to inform them that Mr. Jason had agreed to act as building inspector during demolition, minutes show.

But once that work was completed, Mr. Grande said Mr. Jason informed the town that he could not continue due to his responsibilities in the other towns.

“Kenny asked me and Melinda [selectmen Melinda Loberg] asked me, I just don’t have the time,” Mr. Jason told the Gazette by phone last week. Mr. Jason, who has been a building inspector on Island for 33 years, said he had never heard of a situation like this.

“I would say it’s extremely unusual, when the building inspector finds out he’s in conflict because of his dwelling, I don’t recall it ever happening before,” Mr. Jason said. “But I’m sure it will get worked out.”

The Tisbury selectmen appealed to West Tisbury, but selectmen in that town said they could not loan their building inspector.

Meanwhile, the museum filed a building permit application last week. In the next 30 days, the town will need to contract with a certified plan examiner to review the plans and issue a permit, Mr. Grande said. But with construction booming on the Island, it’s been difficult for the town to find anyone with the required certification who has the time to do the work. 
“People are in high demand,” Mr. Grande said. He said he has reached out to current building inspectors on Island, a couple of retired building inspectors on the Island, building inspectors in Falmouth — and finally, has turned to the state.

“In a pinch, they [the state] do provide plan examinations,” he explained. “That would address the immediate issue, the plan examination is the most pressing issue right now.”

Late last week he said the state had notified him they were working on it but still had not appointed or approved anyone to work on the project.

Mr. Jason said the museum project will likely require more than multiple inspections during the construction phases and could also face zoning issues.

“Down the road, it’s going to be fraught with zoning complaints,” Mr. Jason said. “You’ve got a bunch of decent people trying to do a decent thing and they sometimes forget they have neighbors.”

Even beyond that, once the project is complete, when the museum holds events at the property, permits will be required.

Mr. Grande said the unusual situation has underlined the need for an assistant building inspector position in town. He said he and Robert Whritenour, the Oak Bluffs town administrator, have been in conversation about the possibility of a shared position. (Oak Bluffs has seen frequent turnover with its building inspector in recent years.)

“We need a longer term solution for shared services,” Mr. Grande said.