Oak Bluffs voters came out in favor of making the annual shark tournament catch- and-release only, narrowly turned down a temporary moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries and approved extensive repairs for town roads at a lengthy annual town meeting Tuesday.
The town moved quickly through some items, approving a $25.5 million operating budget and a host of community preservation act projects. Voters also easily approved more than $975,000 for repairing about two dozen town roads and sidewalks that are listed in poor, incomplete or failed condition. The project still needed approval from voters at Thursday’s town election.
The assembly of 208 residents at the performing arts center at the regional high school had dwindled considerably by the time some of the more controversial agenda items were debated. An amendment to town bylaws that would ban public consumption of medical marijuana was easily approved, but a proposed zoning bylaw calling for a one-year moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries in town was defeated by two votes. The amendment would have needed a two-thirds majority to pass; the vote was 79-42.
There was brief debate about the measure, with the planning board explaining that the moratorium would give the town time to come up with zoning regulations for the dispensaries. Some said they felt a year was too long for the moratorium period.
At the end of the meeting, selectman Gail Barmakian made a motion to reconsider the issue. Moderator Jesse (Jack) Law 3rd denied her request, and the meeting adjourned at about 10:30 p.m.
A nonbinding resolution submitted by petition calling for any shark tournaments in Oak Bluffs to be catch-and-release only was the last item on the agenda. The annual shark tournament held at the Oak Bluffs harbor has been controversial, with some protesting the crowds that gather and the practice of bringing dead sharks back to the harbor for weigh-ins. Mr. Law originally tried to limit town meeting debate, noting “we’ve discussed this for five or six years.”
But voters were eager to continue the discussion, and division was evident.
“I strongly oppose the town of Oak Bluffs taking on the role of regulating catching fish,” Kris O’Brien said. “We will be saying goodbye to the Oak Bluffs monster shark tournament, goodbye to the revenue, and the tourism that it generates.”
“I don’t think it’s about sharks,” Peter Palches said. “Oak Bluffs is a treasure. . . we put at risk the really wonderful assets of Oak Bluffs when we give our weekends to crowds we can’t control.”
Walter Vail said that as a selectman, “I have deep respect for everyone’s feelings about fishing for sharks.” But the event organizer has said that if the tournament is catch-and-release only it will not be in Oak Bluffs, Mr. Vail said, with Newport issuing an invitation to hold the tournament there. “They will disappear and the revenue along with it. My job is not to protect the sharks, my job is to make sure we do what is good for Oak Bluffs and the finances of this town, period, and this is a revenue generator.”
Others questioned whether the tournament brings in revenue, noting the harbor is often full during summer weekends and some avoid the town during the tournament.
The vote was 64-50 in favor of making the tournament catch-and-release only, with Ms. Barmakian and selectman and board chairman Kathy Burton voting in favor. The same question was on the ballot for Thursday’s town election.
A proposal to spend $220,000 to buy a small piece of land on Circuit avenue to create a public park was defeated. The project, proposed by the board of selectmen, the park commission and the community preservation committee, aimed to place a perpetual conservation restriction on the .2-acre piece of land which they said would serve as a public walkway and provide access to rest rooms on Kennebec avenue. But several voters said they felt the land should be commercial and generate tax revenue for the town. The proposal was defeated 69-83.
A proposed $45,172 for the town’s share of architectural fees for a new superintendent’s building was also up for debate. Though some questioned using funding from the stabilization account, the proposal was ultimately approved.
At a three-item special town meeting that began the evening, voters quickly approved $75,000 for design services for structures damaged by recent storms.
After some discussion, a $426,000 project to construct a fuel facility at the harbor was also approved. Harbor master Todd Alexander explained that the project aims to provide consistent fuel to the marina, in order to continue having a “full-functioning and successful marina.” After an existing fuel facility was closed most of last summer because of a fuel spill, he said, his office received 59 calls in three weeks about where boats could fuel up.
Mark and Mike Wallace, who operate the private fuel facility at Church’s Pier that is currently closed, said they want to work with the town to provide an option. On the town meeting floor, Mike Wallace said he had offered to have the town connect to their existing tanks, and questioned why the town asked for a request for proposals from private individuals to operate a business. Others suggested the town should focus on things that private enterprise does not provide, like schools and roads.
The proposal was approved by a two-thirds majority.
Two years after the Oak Bluffs town meeting was marked with spending cuts and fiscal uncertainty, Tuesday was about stability and cautious spending. When town administrator Robert Whritenour announced that the town’s free cash deficit, once almost $ 1 million, would be erased by July 1, 2013, the room erupted in spontaneous applause.
During discussion about a proposal to grow oysters in Sengekontacket Pond, voter Dan Martino told residents to pick up a brochure describing the environmental benefits of oysters “after the show,” eliciting laughter from the assembly.
“What a show, huh?” Mr. Law said. “Only one night a year. Hell of a show, isn’t it?”