Oak Bluffs selectman Todd Rebello this week all but admitted that town officials have done a lousy job making moped dealers abide by town regulations, and selectmen agreed Tuesday night to improve local enforcement.
An examination of town records revealed just how lax the town's enforcement has been. For well over the past decade, Oak Bluffs leaders have given moped dealers virtually a free ride, letting them transfer licenses when bylaws forbid it and allowing dealers to open shop even when they've filed no papers and paid no licensing fees.
Currently, four of the seven moped dealers in town don't even have a valid license for 2001, according to documents in the selectmen's office.
And as recently as 1999, selectmen wrote a letter to moped dealer Mark Wallace, pleading with him to pay his outstanding fees for four separate dealerships. "Our office has been extremely lenient in allowing you to operate without imposing penalties," states the letter dated August 6, 1999.
Mr. Wallace operated without a license in both 1998 and 1999. If selectmen had enforced their own bylaws, they could have refused to issue him a new license. The bylaw states: "Licenses shall not be transferable and licenses not used during one year's time shall be null and void."
But according to official documents, the political leadership in Oak Bluffs has routinely turned a blind eye when it comes to enforcing moped regulations on the town books.
Even though a local bylaw bans the transfer of licenses, businesses have changed hands repeatedly over the last several years, the records show. Before Mr. Wallace took over a moped dealership in the Dreamland Garage called Vineyard Bike and Moped, the business belonged to Douglas Abdelnour.
Mr. Wallace, in turn, has traded dealerships over to others. It happened three times in the last few years. Mr. Wallace used to be the license holder for Harbor Bike and Moped and Porthole Rentals, but now Colin Young holds licenses for both rental shops.
Then came Two Wheel Traveler. In 1998, according to official documents, the shop was part of Mr. Wallace's mini-empire of outlets, but now the owner is Francis Alarie 3rd. Licenses changed hands, and town officials signed off on the permits.
Selectmen also violated moped regulations when they issued licenses for new dealerships and failed to refer the applications to the Martha's Vineyard Commission as a development of regional impact (DRI). MVC regulations clearly state that new or expanded moped rental businesses must be referred to the commission because of their regional impact on the Island.
But in 1994, Oak Bluffs selectmen unanimously approved a request from Mr. Wallace for a new license for Harbor Bike and Moped, allowing 72 more mopeds in town. Mr. Alarie's operation, Two Wheel Traveler, also bears characteristics of a new business that bypassed that MVC regulation.
On May 26, 1998, Mr. Alarie applied to selectmen for a new business license, describing Two Wheel Traveler as a boat repair shop on Lake avenue. The next year, there is no license on file for Two Wheel Traveler. Then on June 20, 2000, Mr. Alarie applied to selectmen to renew a license, but it wasn't for boat repairs and it wasn't on Lake avenue. It was for a moped rental business on Circuit avenue extension right behind Mad Martha's. Again, officials signed the permit.
Mr. Alarie is currently operating Two Wheel Traveler without a valid license. Only Sun 'n' Fun, DeBettencourt's Lazy Pedaler and King's Rentals have up-to-date licenses.
While lax enforcement over the years has coddled moped dealers, voters have also played a part. At a 1995 annual town meeting, voters unanimously endorsed a measure that allowed at least two moped dealers to have easements onto public property, Circuit avenue extension. That action benefitted King's Rentals, DeBettencourt's and Terry McCarthy, who now rents space to a moped dealer.
In their last two meetings, selectmen in Oak Bluffs have vowed to reverse this trend, calling for tougher enforcement and possibly a new battery of bylaws and regulations. Mr. Rebello, a first-year selectman and a downtown businessman himself, was the most vocal in demanding better scrutiny of town moped bylaws.
"I don't know if a fine's ever been paid in this town [by a moped dealer]," he said Tuesday night. "Let's take back the reins, and let's enforce."
Selectmen voted unanimously to support state legislation that would ban moped rentals to anyone without a motorcycle license. And they will urge their fellow Island selectmen to back that vote next month.
But almost all selectmen this week were skeptical about how successful another push for state legislation might be. Previous attempts have failed, and Mr. Rebello said, "We've gone down that road before."
And while selectman Ken Rusczyk agreed that the prospects for state passage of such a bill were dim, he urged his board to move cautiously on a local level.
"It's a very emotional issue right now, and the reaction is to try and just do something," he said. "But in the calm of winter, we should work with the owners. We need to provide better training because training is the bottom line. We need to make [the renters'] experience as safe as possible. If mopeds were to be banned, we'd switch to bicycles, and people would be talking about bikes."
But selectman Richard Combra couldn't have disagreed more, not only refusing to sit down with moped dealers but also asking his board not to delay action.
Putting the pressure back on Oak Bluffs selectmen, he said, "We need to adopt regulations and enforce them. Every moped dealer in town just flies in the face of regulations."
Then selectman Roger Wey said, "We need to do this in September while everything is still fresh."
And chairman Michael Dutton added, "At this point, we've heard loud and clear from our constituents who want mopeds off the roads."
But townspeople have heard tough talk about mopeds before. What they haven't seen, acording to town records, is action to back it up. Mr. Combra, sensing that gap, said Tuesday night: "What we've done is important, but there will be a perception if we don't follow up."