Chilmark voters rejected a large public-private improvement project at Squibnocket beach by a slim margin at the annual town meeting Monday night, instead deciding in favor of studying alternatives for the beach.
The vote followed six months of heated debate at public forums this winter and spring, as well as disagreement between homeowners in Squibnocket Farm and Blacksmith Valley about plans for the beach, which was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
The town had asked voters to consider a concept that included new construction of a raised two-lane roadway into the private Squibnocket Farm subdivision, the addition of 1,000 feet of beachfront, the relocation and expansion of the beach parking lot and an access area for small boats. The plan would have involved the negotiating a new 99-year lease of 10.5 acres of land.
After two hours of charged debate, a hand-written Australian ballot vote was taken on an amendment that called for forming a town committee appointed by the town moderator. The committee would study alternatives that address access to the private Squibnocket Farm subdivision and beach access, parking and recreational areas for Chilmark residents. The motion passed by two votes, 83 to 81.
A total of 167 voters attended the meeting.
Once article 28 was before voters, conservation commission and zoning board of appeals member Chris Murphy proposed the amendment.
“We're not trying to take something away from the selectmen, we want to build on what they've done already and do something we could all live with,” he said. “We need to listen to everybody here and all of the people that have important information to give us. I don't believe it's been done yet.”
Selectman and chairman of the board Warren Doty asked voters to consider the proposal.
“We're going to ask you tonight to vote on this proposal and see if we should continue with it,” he said. “It's up to the town meeting to decide how you want to go on this.”
Selectman Bill Rossi said the plan offered a balance approach of preserving beach access for residents and road access for the private homeowners.
“Beach and pond access is an important issue for most residents and this is an opportunity to restore Squibnocket to its natural state,” Mr. Rossi said. “Experts have said that this is a possible model for other coastal towns to achieve a win-win for the municipality and homeowners.”
Conservation commission member Pamela Goff said voters should trust the selectmen to make decisions on behalf of the town.
“We elect our selectmen to their position, which is the executive position in our town, they're the only ones who can negotiate deals for us,” she said. “My suggestion is if you don't like it, vote it down and say you don't want to proceed...but you might be throwing out the good in pursuing the perfect.”
But others disagreed and said a slower approach was needed.
Thomas Bena said the process of the project fell short.
“I'm really disappointed that you haven't had an open process at these meetings, not all options have been explored,” he said. “This is a community that cares. Take a deep breath everyone and let's find the best solution.”
Joan Malkin said she supported the amendment because it gave the town the option to proceed with the proposal while considering other possibilities.
“I am in favor of the amendment because it leaves the door open for consideration for the proposal, it could turn out to be the best one,” she said. “It doesn't force us to vote against the current proposal.”
Doug Liman agreed.
“This is a treasured resource of our community, something has to be done,” he said. “All we're saying with the amendment is before we do something that drastic, it should be an option of last resort. Let's make sure we explored every other option to preserve this beach that means so much to so many people here.”
In the end the article as amended was approved by a majority voice vote. Voters approved all other 29 articles on the warrant.
The meeting concluded just before 11 p.m. A stream of cars could be seen disappearing down Middle Road into the Chilmark night.