Citizens Reject Town Hall Plan at West Tisbury Meeting


Calling it a potential note of discord in the distinct rural melody of their up-Island village, voters in West Tisbury this week scrapped a $3.7 million plan to expand and renovate the historic town hall.

With a final vote of 160-89, the project failed to win the needed two-thirds majority by a wide margin at the annual town meeting on Tuesday night.

The plan to build a large asphalt parking lot with room for 37 cars adjacent to the 132-year-old town hall drew the most darts.

"The heart of West Tisbury is a beautiful place, and I respect the fact that this committee has worked hard to come up with a good plan, but I hate the parking lot - that's one ugly, untraditional looking thing," declared town resident Linda Sibley.

"That parking lot is truly objectionable in a historic district," said Richard Knabel

"The parking lot is what kills it for me," said Andrew Woodruff.

"There is no one in this town who will like the parking lot, but it is unfortunately a necessity because people use cars," replied Bill Christopher, an architect with Gale Associates who designed the project.

Held in the West Tisbury School, moderator Patrick Gregory presided over the annual meeting. A total of 355 voters turned out to take action on the 27-article warrant, although constables reported that about 100 voters left early in the meeting, after a vote on the town share of the high school and local school budgets.

School supporters were in evidence at the outset, including high school students, who stood outside the school and handed leaflets to voters.

But as the meeting got under way, it became quickly apparent that school spending - or for that matter general government spending - were not the central concerns of the evening. Voters breezed through a $10.1 million town budget with barely a ripple of debate, waving at a long list of spending requests as they went by, including $6.5 million in school spending ($4.4 million for local schools and $2.1 million for the town share of the regional high school budget), a $629,000 police department budget, a $174,000 fire department budget and a $103,000 highway department budget.

A number of department requests were singled out for separate votes as partial overrides to the Proposition 2 1/2 tax cap, with corresponding votes on the town ballot yesterday. All told the overrides added up to $800,000, but for the most part voters passed up the opportunity to discuss the requests on the town meeting floor.

Early in the meeting, at times it seemed as if the predominant sound in the room was the soft clack of plastic needles as women of all ages worked on their knitting.

But when it came to the town hall building project, the mood changed.

Plans to renovate and expand the three-story town hall have been in the works since 1998. On Tuesday night the town hall building committee, chaired by West Tisbury selectman John Early, took the stage. Mr. Christopher led the presentation, as a rotating computer illustration of the new town hall was projected onto the wall behind the stage of the school gymnasium. Many voters said later that the illustration appeared to highlight the parking lot as a central feature of the plan.

Mr. Christopher described the plan to build two additions - a one-story addition on the Music street side of the town hall and a three-story "core" addition on the rear of the building. The one-story addition was meant to house office space for town departments and a meeting room with capacity for 99 people. The core addition was for restrooms and an elevator.

The cost of the project was tagged at $3.7 million, with a plan to pay for it through a 20-year bond. Including interest, the total cost of the project would have come to $5.5 million.

For an hour and a half voters peppered the members of the building committee and the architect with questions.

Among other things, voters learned that the plan called for putting seven bathrooms in a building that holds 14 town employees, only 10 of them full-time employees, and they learned the annual operating cost of the town hall would rise from $8,000 to about $22,000.

Lisa Amols, chairman of the town park and recreation committee, criticized the building committee for not consulting with her board about the way the new town hall would fit with a children's playground located behind the town hall.

"That playground is an integral part of our town center and it is used by hundreds of families all year long. We were never asked about it," she said.

Mr. Early assured her that the committee cared very much about the playground. "We want to work with park and rec on this," he said.

"This is not all done yet," said Ernest Mendenhall, the town building inspector and a member of the building committee.

Mr. Christopher said the plan calls for building a four-foot tall picket fence around the parking lot to separate it from the playground and he said the plan also calls for screening the parking lot with vegetation.

But many voters were unmoved.

Victoria Phillips, who works with the West Tisbury Farmers' Market, criticized the plan to locate a large, new macadam parking lot next to the popular summer agricultural market.

Eileen Maley complained the design for the ramp for people with disabilities was too obtrusive and insensitively planned to share a service entrance at the rear of the building.

Some voters spoke in favor of the project.

"Something has to be done. I've looked at the plan and I find it is in good taste," said Shirley Mayhew, whose husband, John, attended first grade in the building when it was a school 77 years ago.

"We really need this, and just once I wish we would plan for the future," said town librarian Mary Jo Joiner.

Some, including Mrs. Sibley and Mr. Woodruff, said they supported the project but not the parking lot.

Mr. Mendenhall said the size of the parking lot was required under zoning rules, but he quickly recanted when one voter asked if the town could not simply waive its own rules.

Mrs. Sibley suggested that the building committee consider adopting a practice that has been used in the past, laying out the required number of parking spaces but leaving a large part of the parking lot as grass.

"When you have more cars than usual, they can just park on the grass," she said.

As the discussion wore on, Mr. Gregory stepped in to invite an amendment for compromise on the parking lot. "Is the parking lot set in cement, so to speak?" he said. An amendment to reduce the number of spaces from 37 to 28 was approved, but in the end the vote on the main article failed.

The penny-pinching mood appeared to linger, and on the next article voters killed a request for $49,400 for two new police cruisers.

In other business Tuesday, voters approved a handful of language changes in the zoning personnel bylaws. A new town wetlands protection bylaw was indefinitely postponed on request from the town conservation commission.

At the end of the meeting Mr. Gregory allowed the voters to consider one item that was not on the published warrant: A resolution against the war in Iraq that had been crafted by the Martha's Vineyard Peace Council.

One voter challenged Mr. Gregory on the rules. "This is an issue of national policy. Voters are here to discuss West Tisbury policy," said W.R. Deeble.

Most voters appeared to agree, and the resolution was defeated in a voice vote.