Oak Bluffs entered the summer season Tuesday with heated debate over issues from one end of Circuit avenue to the other. At the upper end of the avenue, unfinished construction on the Edgartown National Bank’s new building was a central point of contention. Later, selectmen grappled with whether to allow a stationary food truck on the lower end of the avenue.
The bank’s project at 57 Circuit avenue drew vocal complaints from abutting business owners, who said it has dragged on and has become disruptive. The bank bought the former Oyster Bar space last year, and originally planned to demolish the building to build a two-story building with retail space and apartments. Plans were later changed, and the bank is now renovating the existing building into a one-story space.
Construction is behind schedule. A town policy prohibits construction in the downtown area after June 1, and selectman Gregory Coogan noted the reasons for the policy. “You really have to be extra sensitive to the Camp Ground and those businesses along that street. We’ve never really allowed anybody to go this long,” he said.
Contractor Charles Hunt said three sides are completed and the roof is on, with the majority of the work left on the front facade. Selectmen were told that doors and windows are slated for installation June 3. Bank president Fielding Moore said the project is about 90 days away from completion, and he promised that no more work would take place on weekends. “We’re definitely trying to be sensitive to the businesses [in the area],” Mr. Moore said.
But business owners who attended the meeting said the project had a litany of complaints.
“Business has been terribly affected,” said Marguerite Cook, who with her husband David Cook owns the Good Ship Lollipop candy shop next door.
Showing pictures of trucks parked in front of the store, Mrs. Cook asked that the bank “try to work themselves back in front of that empty building instead of blocking a little store that’s struggling.”
“I welcome the project because it’s certainly needed down at the end of the avenue,” Mr. Cook said. “I do question whether the sensitivity is there,” he added, describing trucks and dumpsters blocking the candy store. One day last week, Mr. Cook said a truck was directly blocking the door and he talked to Mr. Moore, who was at the site. The truck wasn’t moved. “We couldn’t conduct business . . . I didn’t even open up,” Mr. Cook said.
“I kept my mouth shut for months because I was told it would be done by Memorial Day weekend,” he added.
Mr. Moore said he first learned of the problems last week, and gave his cell phone number to those concerned. The contractor said he wasn’t aware that the town policy applied to work inside of the building.
“I have never seen it like this,” said Kerry Scott, the owner of Good Dog Goods a few doors down from the bank site. “I can fight the weather, I can fight the economy. I cannot fight my town.” She said the construction was having a “catastrophic effect” on small businesses, and pointed out that construction work took place on the Memorial Day holiday.
“I think it’s setting a very dangerous precedent to vary from the policy of going beyond June 1,” said Christine Todd, the new executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association.
In the end the selectmen voted that work at the site had to end by June 14.
“I sympathize with the business owners at that end of Circuit avenue and I think there’s been little regard for where these guys are parking their trucks,” said selectman Walter Vail.
On the other end of Circuit avenue, selectmen faced a decision about whether to allow food trucks in town.
Bill Coggins purchased a small piece of land in an alleyway at 16 Circuit avenue this spring, after voters at the annual town meeting turned down a proposal to have the town buy the property for use as a small park.
Mr. Coggins said he wants to clean up the alley, create a well-lit and safe walk-through, and host two business: Akoya Pick-A-Pearl, a jewelry stand, and the Irie Bites food truck. He said abutters favor the idea.
Town administrator Robert Whritenour said food trucks must be licensed by the selectmen, and currently the town only allows the stationary food trucks on Beach Road. He said that the board met with Irie Bites owner Peter Simon last year to discuss working on food truck regulations, but declined to issue any licenses and has not approved regulations.
Mr. Whritenour included draft food truck regulations in his town administrator’s report.
Selectman Gail Barmakian said food trucks are a policy issue, and using the truck on private property is outside the norm.
Mr. Coggins said a food truck should be allowed by right on his property, because there are currently no ordinances outlawing them. He said the proposal should fall under the regulations of any normal restaurant. His attorney, T. George Davis, said he’s done research that shows the only constraint the selectmen have over the proposal is to issue a license.
Ms. Barmakian said she disagreed.
Mr. Coogan sided with Mr. Coggins and his proposal. “I don’t think this has a negative impact on the town,” he said. “Now he’s got a property that he’s paying taxes on and no viable income from it.” He noted that the town discussed regulations last year but did not follow through. “Shame on us. We should have done something over the winter and taken care of it. That’s on us,” Mr. Coogan said. “I personally think it’s an interesting idea and I would support this.”
Selectman Kathy Burton said she had concerns about precedent, as well as about the proposal itself. “I personally have an issue with food trucks and carts competing with brick and mortar businesses,” she said, suggesting the town get a legal opinion.
“I’m very disheartened to hear that this was brought up a year ago and not one thing was done,” Ms. Todd said. “It’s quite unfair to the applicant to have this delayed further because the board dropped the ball.”
Mr. Vail said the town should rely on the advice of their own counsel. “We’re just not going to rush into anything that changes the face of the town quickly,” he said.
“I’ve been stonewalled on this,” Mr. Coggins said, noting that he has been trying to get on the selectmen’s agenda since March.
“Delaying this for any length of time more than a week is telling me I can’t have any tenants on that property. I lose my two tenants, I lose my income for the season, and that is not correct or fair,” he said, adding that “it’s not due to anything I did or didn’t do.”
The selectmen said they were still not ready to vote on the food truck issue, and voted to refer the issue to town counsel, hoping to hear back in two weeks. The vote was 3-1, with Mr. Coogan voting no and selectman Michael Santoro abstaining.
“I’m sorry about your experience trying to get onto an agenda, I truly am. And that’s not right,” Ms. Barmakian said.
The selectmen did approve the Pick-a-Pearl application, pending approval from the building inspector.