Chilmarkers at their annual town meeting this week backed a $1.5 million plan to expand their town hall, but shot down a proposal that would have banned piers on their ponds.

Brevity was not a hallmark of the town meeting. While the question of piers on the pond sparked the night's only dissension, the meeting lasted until past 11 p.m., largely because town moderator Everett Poole opted for an Australian ballot on the town hall project question. Of the 782 registered voters in Chilmark, 195 turned out for town meeting.

Not one voter rose to speak against renovating and adding on to the town hall, but Mr. Poole felt obliged to give voters an option for a secret ballot. "I have a long petition from people who requested it," he said. "But a lot of people who signed have not bothered to come."

Still, one voter spoke up, saying he'd prefer the Australian vote, and that was all it took to put Chilmarkers in a queue to cast their ballots. The final 162-23 tally was a resounding endorsement, affirmed again on Wednesday at the annual town election when voters decided 189-55 to borrow the $1.5 million and avoid a permanent hike in their tax levy limit.

The only contested race in the annual election was for tree warden, and incumbent Keith Emin was returned to office, beating challenger Joshua Scott by 81 votes. Total turnout was 254 voters, or 32 per cent of the town electorate.

Back at town meeting, voters also approved a $4.6 million annual budget for next year plus an additional $68,905 override of Proposition 2 1/2 to cover a variety of needs from dredging to staffing for the ambulance.

But it wasn't money that got voters heated up. It was a proposal to declare Menemsha, Nashaquitsa and Stonewall ponds a special district and prohibit piers. In their place, the proposed zoning bylaw recommended seasonal floating docks.

"There is a permanent loss of shellfish with more piers, according to the state biologist," said conservation commission member Richard Steeves.

"Without doubt, piers do irreparable harm," said Pam Goff, another conservation board member. Conservation commissioners argued that the bylaw would treat everyone the same and put an end to the complicated permitting process under which people who can afford lawyers and engineers are the ones who win approvals.

"Better regulations would protect the shellfish and eelgrass beds," said Mrs. Goff.

But many voters objected to the regulations, arguing that waterfront property owners had the right to build a pier if they wanted.

"There are enough rules and regulations governing docks so the process of building one isn't easy," said Trudy Taylor.

While no one mentioned Mrs. Taylor's son, the singer James Taylor, by name, some townspeople acknowledged privately that they understood Mr. Taylor would like to build a pier on his property on Menemsha Pond. He has not yet filed any application with the town.

About halfway into the discussion, Leonard Jason Jr., the town building inspector, proposed an amendment to the proposed bylaw that would make piers allowable by special permit from the zoning board of appeals.

"The zoning board has done a good job in town, and we should trust them," said Robert Zeltzer.

"The biologists we're listening to are overreacting with fear. Fishermen know more than biologists," said Lois Mayhew. "This is a vote for common sense. It allows our town to review each request."

"We're not going to ruin a pond by a few docks," said J.B. Riggs Parker. "We shouldn't have this Draconian legislation that prohibits docks."

Conservation commission members tried to rally support for the original bylaw. Mrs. Goff warned that Mr. Jason's amendment would render the bylaw useless. Mr. Steeves reminded voters that "the land under the water belongs to the town, not the landowner."

But when Mr. Poole called for a tally on the amendment, it was 83-69 in favor of holding onto the right to build piers on the ponds. A voice vote followed, ratifying the amended bylaw.

Later in the week, Mrs. Goff said the bylaw will still afford the ponds more protection than wetlands laws alone. "This overlay district is created under the legislature through the Martha's Vineyard Commission," she said. "When you go to court under this new bylaw, it will be much stronger."

But Mrs. Goff pointed out that while the town received only three applications for piers in 2000, the demand for docks is growing. "Realtors tell us that a pier adds a million dollars to the value of a property," she said. "The way things are going in Chilmark, people are trying to max out the value of their investment. After they get their tennis court and swimming pool, they have to have their pier."

On the matter of renovating and expanding town hall, voters were more unified. Town treasurer Judy Jardin told voters that the impact on their taxes would be about 40 cents per $1,000 valuation, or $40 a year for a home assessed at $1 million. That figure didn't seem to frighten anyone.

"There's no question that the present town hall is at the point of explosion," said Edward (Tip) Kenyon, a member of the planning board. "It's essential that we do this."

Voter after voter rose up to speak in favor of the proposal, citing the need to improve conditions for the staff.

In other action, voters approved spending articles that will fund repairs to town roads, a new four-wheel-drive police vehicle, the replacement of garage doors at the fire station and the dredging of the floating dock area of Menemsha harbor.

At the polls on Wednesday, there was little suspense with only one contested race for tree warden. All others ran unopposed.

Incumbent selectman Warren Doty received 190 votes to win another term. Elizabeth Oliver will join the board of assessors, having garnered 213 votes. Incumbent Michael Renahan pulled in 209 votes for another term on the board of health.

Elected to a five-year term on the planning board was incumbent Russell Walton, with 194 votes. John Flender, another incumbent, won reelection with 186 votes.

There will be new faces on the finance committee. Patricia Rossi earned a three-year term with 194 votes, and Sarah Mayhew received 211 votes for a one-year term. Michael Carroll 3rd was reelected to a three-year term on the finance committee.

David Flanders was returned to his posts as fence viewer and as surveyor of wood, bark and lumber, winning 210 and 205 votes, respectively. Jacqueline Sexton received 199 votes for another three-year term as library trustee. And 191 voters put their support behind Stephen Gallas for a three-year term on the cemetery commission.