In Oak Bluffs, ‘a Lot of Work' Lies Ahead as Town Tries to Heal Rifts from Election

Stay in Commission, Says Record Vote

Gazette Senior Writer

Marking history and closing one of the most divisive chapters in the annals of the town, a record number of Oak Bluffs voters went to the polls this week and said no to pulling out of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

The final count was 1,031 to 933 in favor of staying in the commission, a margin of 98 votes. A total of 1,964 voters turned out for the special town election, 63 per cent of the 3,194 registered voters. There were 174 absentee ballots. Town clerk Deborah deBetttencourt Ratcliff said the turnout is a record for a special election.

The town was bitterly divided over the question of whether to withdraw from the 28-year-old regional planning agency.

"I came here tonight and I knew that either way the vote went, it was going to be be a lot of work tomorrow," said Oak Bluffs selectman Greg Coogan after the votes were counted. Mr. Coogan was opposed to town withdrawal from the MVC.

"I am clearly disappointed, but as chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen it is now time to reunite this community," said selectman Richard Combra, who campaigned for the town to leave the commission.

"I said before that we are at a crossroads in this town and that history will decide whether we chose the right path. And now we are going to need to have a healing process," said selectman Todd Rebello, who also campaigned for the town to pull out of the commission.

Mr. Rebello and Mr. Combra have been supporters of Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith and his Down Island Golf Club project, a plan to build a private golf club and luxury housing development on some 270 acres he owns in the southern woodlands. The southern woodlands is the last unbroken stretch of oak and pine forest in the town. The golf club project was turned down by the commission three times in the last two and a half years.

Mr. Kupersmith, a Connecticut businessman, later threatened to build a massive affordable housing project on the property under Chapter 40B, a state law that allows affordable housing projects to skirt most local zoning rules.

Oak Bluffs voters took the first step toward town withdrawal from the commission at a special town meeting 14 months ago. A home rule petition was rushed through the state legislature early this year, and the vote on Tuesday was the final step.

Citizen groups formed on both sides of the question and in the final weeks and days leading up to the election, the campaigning grew fierce - and at times unpleasant. Last Friday morning the organizers of Keep OB in the MVC reported that most of their signs had been stolen from yards throughout the town overnight.

Soon many yards sprouted new, handmade signs, declaring: "Who stole our signs?"

Citizens for the Protection of Oak Bluffs, the group campaigning for the town to pull out of the commission, produced a mock newspaper over the weekend designed to look like the Vineyard Gazette. The four-page broadsheet was filled with the group's campaign propaganda.

On Monday, one day before the election, campaigners on both sides of the question worked the sidewalk in front of the town post office.

On Tuesday the weather was sunny and springlike and voting was heavy throughout the day at the Oak Bluffs School, the polling place for the town.

In the late afternoon on Circuit avenue it was business as usual. Shopkeepers readied their storefronts for summer, and Larry Bilzerian, the well-known proprietor of the quirky clothing store Take It Easy Baby, was out on the street holding court. Two young children chased each other down the avenue, laughing and spraying each other with cans of silly string.

But out on Wing Road and the road to the school, the scene was far less ordinary. Supporters on both sides of the question lined the roads, holding signs and waving gaily at voters and passersby. Cars streamed in and out of the polls with almost no letup. Mr. Coogan, who was one of the many campaigners in evidence, had his yellow Labrador retriever in tow with a sign hung around her neck that said: "Vote no."

Many longtime residents said it was a scene unlike any they had witnessed in recent memory.

"I was stunned at the turnout," said Mr. Coogan. "Truly incredible," agreed Mr. Combra.

When the votes were counted just after the polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Mr. Coogan approached Mr. Rebello in the parking lot of the Oak Bluffs school and shook his hand.

"That was a good fight," Mr. Rebello told his fellow selectman.

Mr. Rebello said he thought the high turnout hurt his side in the end. "When I saw the vote go over 1,800, I knew it was probably not a good number for our position," he said, although he could not explain why. Mr. Rebello also called the margin of 98 votes a clear message for the commission. "I hope the Martha's Vineyard Commission will see this number for what it is," he said.

As the election results were announced, word went around the Island like electricity. On the extreme western end of the Island the Aquinnah annual town meeting was just getting under way; the results from Oak Bluffs were announced on the town meeting floor and Aquinnah voters burst into applause. Later in the town meeting voters in the tiny town resoundingly defeated a sleeper article on their own town meeting warrant requesting town withdrawal from the commission.

When it was all over, MVC executive director Mark London expressed relief.

"It is reassuring that the people of Oak Bluffs have confirmed their faith in the Martha's Vineyard Commission and we look forward to working with all six towns of the Island," he said.

"Thank goodness, just plain thank goodness," said commission chairman James Athearn. "I am concerned that there are 900-some people in Oak Bluffs who don't feel there is a Martha's Vineyard Commission that responds to the long-term needs for the Island. That bothers me, and I'd like to see that change," he added.

"I think the town did the right thing," said Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington. "This was a tough issue because reasonable people could be on both sides," he added.

It is unclear what course Mr. Kupersmith will now take, although Mr. Combra and Mr. Rebello both said they expect to see the developer follow through with his earlier threats and file a large housing plan.

MVC review will now be required for any plan.

The day after the election the sun came up on a changed town landscape, mysteriously scrubbed free of signs, but perhaps not divisions. The mood turned reflective.

"Everywhere I went people said, ‘What now?,' " mused Kerry Scott, a town resident who was a leading member of Keep OB in the MVC.

Ms. Scott said she was troubled by what she called an undercurrent of fear during the election campaign. "Fear was the hallmark of this election - this wasn't based on a real understanding of the issues. The people who ran the campaign to leave the commission did everything in their power to make people afraid. People were afraid of an off-Island developer's retaliation, and that is a terrible thing. We came really close to giving up the amazing protection of the commission; we came within 98 votes of sacrificing Oak Bluffs."

Cheryll Sashin, chairman of the Citizens for the Protection of Oak Bluffs, had another view.

"There is a message from the town when you have 48 per cent of the town making a statement, and we're not going to lose that," she said, adding: "We knew this vote was going to be close and needless to say we were disappointed, but I feel that we still have an opportunity ahead of us for some positive outcome."

Mr. Kupersmith did not return telephone calls from the Gazette.

But Mr. London, who took the helm at the commission six months ago and has already launched an ambitious reform project, was sanguine about the outlook. "There were a lot of concerns raised about the commission. We heard them and we are working on them. We will, I hope, turn a page on this and get on with the positive work that needs to be done," he concluded.