Convinced there's no way to make rental mopeds safe on the Vineyard, Oak Bluffs selectmen this week threw their support behind proposed state legislation that would require anyone renting a moped to have a motorcycle license.
While they took no official vote, their comments, bold and critical, called for officials Island wide to back a bill that would essentially take rented mopeds off Vineyard roads.
For the short term, selectmen also demanded that police clamp down on dealers who violate town moped bylaws, specifically a regulation that bans anyone wearing sandals or flip-flops from renting a moped.
Selectmen's action drew applause from the roughly 50 residents who attended the Tuesday meeting.
"It's about time that we back this legislation," said Roger Wey, who raised the issue at the outset of the meeting. "I don't see any other solution."
Selectman Richard Combra was even more emphatic as he called for his board "to take a firm stance" in support of state legislation requiring a motorcycle for operation of a moped.
"Over the last three weeks, I've spent a great deal of time investigating this," he said. "And I believe that mopeds cannot be operated safely on the streets on Martha's Vineyard. I've heard enough about meetings and forming new regulations. These regulations are being ignored as if they don't exist."
He concluded his statement, promising "to do whatever I can to remove mopeds from this piece of Martha's Vineyard." Oak Bluffs is home to seven of the Island's 10 moped dealers and three-quarters of the nearly 700 mopeds licensed to dealers on the Island.
It's been a politically brittle year for moped dealers and their opponents. An accord reached this spring brought forth a nine-point plan for improved safety, but last month two separate moped accidents left one tourist dead and another one critically injured with severe head trauma.
That victim, 60-year-old Barnard Lorence, was released last Thursday from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and transferred to a rehabilitation facility, according to a hospital spokesman.
Meanwhile, back in Oak Bluffs, selectman Todd Rebello embraced the calls for legislation but also urged the board to implement a short-range strategy, enforcing bylaws already on the books. "Some of the regulations are vague and without substance, with the exception of one regarding footwear," said Mr. Rebello.
By town law, dealers aren't supposed to rent mopeds to people who aren't wearing shoes that cover the entire foot. But Mr. Rebello pointed out that he's witnessed more than a hundred people renting mopeds while wearing sandals and flip-flops.
"Some dealers enforce that regulation, but not all do," he said. Dealers found in violation would face a series of fines and possible license suspension.
Selectmen said they might take an official position on mopeds at their next meeting. Mr. Wey urged his board to decide before the September meeting of the all-Island selectmen. And selectman Ken Rusczyk asked that selectmen invite moped dealers to their next meeting on August 21 to hear their side.
"Obviously, something has to be done, but we've not heard from the moped dealers," he said. "Do they agree or do they disagree?"
There was an audible groan from many members of the audience at that suggestion, and no other board member endorsed it. Mr. Rebello, himself a downtown businessman, addressed the potential impact on dealers, by saying, "Of course, I'm concerned about all business here, but public safety comes first."
State Rep. Eric Turkington this week welcomed the news that Oak Bluffs selectmen had taken a public stand in the debate about mopeds, but he stopped short of promising to re-introduce legislation that has already failed to gain support on Beacon Hill.
"I'm glad they're reaching a consenus on the board," he said, while adding a note of caution. "It's possible state legislation is the route, but it's also possible local legislation is the route."
Mr. Turkington said there was considerable resistance in the statehouse to his bill for two reasons. "They viewed it as a statewide solution to a very localized problem," he said. "And the fact that it was going to put out of business a bunch of folks with a legally operating business was a hard thing to ask the state to do. We found it slow going."
Moped dealers, who met as a group Monday, have come up with a number of responses to the growing controversy. Fran Alarie 3rd, who runs Two Wheel Traveler in Oak Bluffs, told the Gazette that political leaders need to talk to the dealers before pushing for stricter regulations.
"If this is about safety," he said, "then we can come to a compromise. They just want the statehouse to do it. They're taking the easy way out by passing the buck."
Mr. Alarie said he is planning to buy new four-wheeled vehicles similar to golf carts that he believes would be safer on Island roads than mopeds. They have the same size engine and travel the same speed as mopeds. But Mr. Alarie said he would decide on a "day by day" basis whether he will get rid of his mopeds.
Dealers, he said, have also considered pushing for state legislation that would lower the Island speed limit on all roads to 25 miles per hour. Plus, he added, some dealers have broached the idea of a buy-out of their businesses. "I couldn't see anything less than a half million [dollars] per shop," he said.
Where such money might come from, he didn't say, but some dealers have likened such a buy-out to the practice of buying conservation land on the Island with money raised from private sources.