MVC Votes No on Gas Station

Martha's Vineyard Commission Rejects Plan for New Station on State Road Corridor, Eight Votes to Three

Gazette Senior Writer

After a discussion that went well beyond the subject of gasoline prices on the Vineyard, the Martha's Vineyard Commission voted 8-3 last night to reject a plan for a new gas station off State Road in Vineyard Haven.

Members of the commission who voted against the Tisbury Fuel Services project spoke out at length about the need for better planning along the busy State Road corridor, and also about the need for a much broader planning effort aimed at understanding the complicated fuel distribution system and how it functions through the Steamship Authority and other transportation modes.

"I think it is a good goal, to lower fuel costs on the Island, but this all may be premature. I think what this project lacks is a real serious market study, and I think there needs to be a study of the town of Tisbury and how all of this impacts the Steamship Authority, Ralph Packer and others," said commission member Andrew Woodruff.

"I think everyone appreciates that they are trying to do something about prices, but the more successful it is, the more trucks there will be," said commission member Linda Sibley.

"I think to say, so we lower the prices and then everybody starts trucking fuel in - well, that doesn't work. I think State Road is in terrible shape, I think we just hired a new director whose specialty is planning and I think we need to look at the planning of this district, for the town of Tisbury, and for West Tisbury, which is not all that different. I think we have to call a spade a spade. We're not in a good place with this," said commission member Kate Warner.

The comments came just before the vote to deny the Tisbury Fuel Services plan for a three-pump gas station on High Point Lane in Vineyard Haven, adjacent to the old Coca-Cola plant.

The project was under review by the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI).

This marks the second gas station project to be turned down by the commission this year. In September the commission voted unanimously to reject another plan for a fuel station off High Point Lane, questioning the need and also questioning the impact on the smaller mom and pop stations up-Island.

After the vote on the first gas station project, the developers for Tisbury Fuel Services requested a delay in the vote on their project so they could prepare a report on the economic impacts of a new station on other stations.

The report was released last week and the public hearing was reopened, but there was considerable dispute about the numbers in the report. In the end the hearing highlighted many of the complicated issues surrounding the sale and distribution of gasoline on the Vineyard, where two of the wholesale suppliers (Ralph Packer and Drake Petroleum) are also retailers in competition with the service stations they supply.

Mr. Packer, the sole wholesaler who owns a storage facility and who ships gasoline to the Vineyard by barge, appealed to the commission to support an effort to get gasoline tank trucks off the ferries, saying they pose a threat to his business.

A proposal by the developers to offer a discount on gas to Island residents was later changed to a plan for one discount card to be sold for $10 to Island residents and for $50 to everyone else. Other benefits offered by the developers included contributions to the regional housing authority and the Tisbury fire department and an offer to open the gas station rest rooms to the public.

A number of Island residents testified in favor of the project, while existing gas station owners testified against it.

"We understand the need to come down in prices - it's so obvious there is a cartel and a limited market," said project developer Sean Conley at the hearing last week.

"I am not a rich man and I'm not ripping anybody off. We are getting punished the most and we are probably the most honest," countered Patrick Jenkinson, whose family owns Up-Island Automotive in West Tisbury.

During the deliberations last night, most members of the commission lauded the concept of lowering prices, but many said they were unconvinced that the Tisbury Fuel Services project would accomplish this objective.

"I would be shocked if it really brought prices down - this is a gimmick that is going to bring them some business," said Mrs. Sibley.

The three members of the commission who spoke in favor of the plan said lower gas prices are important to the people of the Island.

"You can go to the A&P to buy food on sale and you can go to Cronig's or the Reliable Market to buy food on sale. But where can you go on this Island to buy gas on sale?" said commission member Roger Wey.

"If we sent a ballot out on the Island that asked people, do you want to pay 20 cents a gallon less for gas, I think we would get an overwhelming yes," said commission member Alan Schweikert.

"Of course anybody will want to pay less, but what is the long-term effect?" countered commission member James Athearn. "What kind of fuel system do we have, and what is the cost of losing a storage facility like Packer's wharf? I am speculating that there is a dangerous future, it could be a line of dominoes," he added.

At one point the discussion strayed to the relative value of saving a few dollars a week on gasoline. Mr. Athearn said after much thought and analysis on his own part, he had concluded that it is less about the amount of money and more about the perception.

"I think it is more of an irritation - we look at gas and say, why is it so high? I think it's more of a conspicuous thing than a substantive thing," Mr. Athearn said.

Mrs. Sibley called it the wrong priority.

"The price of gas - it's the last thing we should be worried about bringing down on this Island. We should be concerned about food, and we should be desperately concerned about the cost of land and housing. But gas is not a renewable resource," she said.

Some tried to probe the more complicated themes.

"I have a personal concern about this commission getting into economic engineering," said Marcia Cini, who spoke in favor of the project.

Mr. Athearn argued the other side.

"Private enterprise - it's not one of the ten commandments," he said, adding: "Things work a little differently on Martha's Vineyard and one example is how the Jenkinsons do business, by choosing not to have a convenience store because that is what they have down the street at Alley's."

At the outset of the meeting last night commission member Richard Toole spoke in favor of the project, but after listening to the discussion he said he changed his mind because he had been convinced that a serious planning effort was the right call instead.

"We have some great discussions here - no doubt about it," Mr. Toole said.

Mr. Conley had another view.

"You've condemned the Vineyard to high prices forever," he declared just after the vote.

In the roll call vote, James Athearn, John Best, Christina Brown, Tristan Israel, Linda Sibley, Richard Toole, Kate Warner and Andrew Woodruff voted yes on a motion to deny the project. Marcia Cini, Alan Schweikert and Roger Wey voted no.