During a standing-room-only special town meeting in Oak Bluffs that featured more emotion than a game-winning home run, voters on Tuesday defeated a motion to rescind money to expand and improve the baseball park at Veira Park.
The decision proved one of the closest town meeting votes in Oak Bluffs history.
The motion to rescind $200,000 in Community Preservation Act funds for Vineyard Little League to add a second baseball diamond to Veira Park was defeated 89-80 after more than an hour of emotional debate at the Oak Bluffs school.
Plans call for building a second baseball diamond, new seating for fans, an unpaved parking area off the road and a picnic and play area. Voters approved the expenditure at the annual meeting in April, but since that time opposition to the plan has grown.
Following the April meeting, a group of neighbors calling themselves the Coalition to Save Veira Park circulated a petition calling for the funding to be rescinded. The petition netted more than 100 signatures, and selectmen earlier this month agreed to place an article to rescind the funding on the special town meeting warrant.
Neighbors on Tuesday argued there was not enough room for a second diamond in the small park, which is framed by a dense residential neighborhood, and raised concerns that the expanded park would create problems with noise, traffic and safety.
"You already take your life in your hands every time you try and cross the road when there are games being played," said Spindles Path resident Charles Ratte. "And now we're talking about adding a second field? It's crazy."
But proponents of the expanded baseball park, which included Little Leaguers who greeted voters as they arrived at the school, argued the project would provide young athletes with a safer, vastly improved and more aesthetically pleasing place to play their games.
"I feel the town of Oak Bluffs can find it in its heart, and in my neighborhood, for another baseball diamond - these kids deserve it," said Wing Road resident Judy Searle.
On the surface the tension was between the residents worried about their neighborhoods and young ball players needing a larger facility. But on a deeper level, the issue served as a break point for some residents fed up with the town as a stage for Islandwide programs.
"Once again the town of Oak Bluffs is being asked to bear the burden for the entire Island. I think it's time [the town] stood up and said we are willing to contribute, but we are not willing to do it all," said Harvey Beth.
Mr. Beth is a member of the town community preservation committee, which voted to recommend the $200,000 for the improvements to town meeting, but he was not present at the time of the committee vote. On Tuesday, he questioned whether the baseball field project was an appropriate use for community preservation funds.
"The [Community Preservation Act] was passed for particular purposes; I question whether its purpose was to dedicate a field for baseball and take it out of the public domain," he said.
Town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport said the question of whether the funds could be used for the baseball park was not a simple yes or no.
The preservation act is relatively new and open to broad interpretation, Mr. Rappaport said, and there have been no court decisions pertaining to funds used to create new recreational space.
"I cannot stand here and give a definite answer," Mr. Rappaport said. "But I will say that if the town votes yes to approve it I would defend that, and I would not choose to defend something I wasn't comfortable with."
The hourlong debate over the park started with a long line of neighbors coming to the microphone and criticizing the plan for various reasons.
Wing Road resident Debbie Deane lamented the plan to cut down several oak trees that date over a century. "Oak Bluffs does not have a lot of oaks left... you can't replace these ancient beasts. I knew Tony [Veira] and I don't think we should take out these trees in his memory," she said.
Wamsutta Road resident Anne Margetson said she was a big fan of Little league, but Veira park was not the right spot for expansion.
"It's a good cause in a bad place. I think more can be done to find a way to share this park as open space and for baseball. It should not be taken out of the public's hands," she said.
Anne Brownell said an expanded baseball park would ruin the character of the neighborhood.
"We're talking about converting a small neighborhood park into an Islandwide baseball park, and it's bad planning. I, for one, believe that neighborhoods are still important on Martha's Vineyard," she said.
But a large number of proponents of the project took the microphone as well.
"[The neighbors] raise the issue of safety, but this project will actually improve safety substantially," said Jamie McNeely, a coach for Vineyard Little League. "There will be fencing to stop players from running across the road for foul balls; there will be new parking that will allow drivers to better see the players. This is a great project that was very well thought out."
Herbert A. (Bert) Combra Jr. stirred widespread emotion when he recounted playing in the park with his father and his memories of Tony Veira, the former owner of Tony's Market for whom the park is named.
"You have to remember that Tony started baseball here on the Island. He loved the kids and he loved the game, and if he was here today he would be yelling loud and clear, ‘Give those kids the park they deserve,' " Mr. Combra said.
When moderator Duncan Ross (who filled in for regular moderator David Richardson, the current owner of Tony's market, who recused himself) called for a vote, it was evident that a close vote was at hand.
A motion for an Australian ballot was narrowly defeated, and in the end the head count told the story - by nine votes the funding for the Veira Park project would stay in place.
The park plan is under review by the Martha's Vineyard Commission as a development of regional impact (DRI).
On Tuesday night outside the meeting two Little Leaguers, one dressed in his uniform, provided an astute assessment of the evening as voters exited the school and made their way to their cars.
"We don't get what all this is about, we just want to play baseball," one player said, his friend nodding in agreement.
In other town meeting business voters:
* Agreed to spend $1.1 million to buy about three acres near the town wastewater plant.
* Agreed to allocate $35,000 from the resident home site trust fund to buy a home now in foreclosure and designate it as affordable housing.
* Agreed to spend $12,000 to repair and replace plumbing and showers and perform other repairs to facilities at the waterfront stretch commonly known as pay beach.
* Appropriated $6,500 from the ambulance reserve fund to buy radios and pagers for ambulance vehicles and personnel.