Crowd of 300 Convenes To Debate Withdrawing Oak Bluffs from MVC

By JULIA WELLS Gazette Senior Writer

Pull out, go it alone, use the assessment money to pay for a planner, stick to the town's own knitting. Stay in, continue to be a member of the six-town team and use the protection and power of a unique regional planning agency created by an act of the state legislature 27 years ago.

This was the point-counterpoint on Tuesday night when an overflow crowd of Oak Bluffs voters turned out for a forum to discuss the burning issue of the day: Should the town withdraw from the Martha's Vineyard Commission?

The question will be decided by a simple majority vote at a special election on May 13.

"We are here tonight to decide the future of the Martha's Vineyard Commission. It's not about golf or Corey Kupersmith. It's about us. We are not like anyplace else. The founders of the Martha's Vineyard Commission knew that, and the courts knew that. And the stakes are higher now than they have ever been," declared Manuel deBettencourt.

"We believe that the [Corey Kupersmith] golf plan is a definition of smart growth in Oak Bluffs. The Martha's Vineyard Commission thinks otherwise. These are challenging times in Oak Bluffs - are you proud to be an Oak Bluffs citizen?" countered Cheryll Sashin.

Mr. deBettencourt is a member of a citizen group called Keep OB in the MVC. Ms. Sashin is a member of an opposing group called Citizens to Protect Oak Bluffs. Mr. DeBettencourt's group is fighting to keep the town in the commission. Ms. Sashin's group is fighting to get the town out of the commission.

The two town residents gave opening statements at the Tuesday forum, held in the cafeteria of the Oak Bluffs School. About 300 people attended the session, which was moderated by Judy Crawford, chairman of the voter services committee for the Martha's Vineyard League of Women Voters.

The panel for the forum included the five Oak Bluffs selectmen, the three town members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the chairman of the town planning board and town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport.

MVC executive director Mark London was invited to make a three-minute statement at the beginning of the forum, but questions and comments from the floor were limited to Oak Bluffs voters, and all speakers were limited to one minute.

The rules - and also Mrs. Crawford, who presided over the meeting with a sure hand - helped to set a civil tone for discussion on a highly emotional topic.

Oak Bluffs voters took the first step toward town withdrawal from the commission at a special town meeting 13 months ago. The move to withdraw from the commission is rooted in the decision by the commission to reject - three times in two-and-a-half years - Mr. Kupersmith's plan to build a private luxury golf course and housing development on some 270 acres he owns in the southern woodlands. Mr. Kupersmith, a Connecticut businessman, later threatened to build a massive affordable housing project on the property under Chapter 40B, a state law that allows affordable housing projects to skirt most local zoning rules.

Three of the five town selectmen are strong supporters of the golf club and also town withdrawal from the commission.

The withdrawal question has been fraught with a number of complicated side issues, including legal issues. Among other things, Mr. Kupersmith challenged the right of the commission to review 40B projects, but last June the chief justice of the Massachusetts Land Court strongly upheld the commission, recognizing the unique powers vested in it by the state legislature. More recently the Oak Bluffs selectmen hired an outside attorney to help them craft what was termed a "settlement agreement" for the litigation that the town and the commission had in fact won. In practical terms, the agreement was a blueprint for a new development plan on Mr. Kupersmith's property.

In a related move, the selectmen had solicited a legal opinion from the same attorney who had crafted the settlement agreement, this time on the subject of a recent state supreme court case involving the town of Dennis and a historic district commission. Mark Bobrowski, a Boston attorney with a private practice, wrote that the Dennis case is a threat to the land court ruling on the MVC.

These subjects were all fodder for discussion on Tuesday night, and at the outset a series of questions were aimed at Mr. Rappaport, the seasoned town counsel who grew up in Oak Bluffs.

Mr. Rappaport took no formal position on the ballot question. But his opinion on the Dennis case was markedly different from that of Mr. Bobrowski.

"In my opinion the Dennis case has no impact on the ruling by [state land court] Judge Kilborn," he said.

Mr. Rappaport had a blunt assessment of the settlement agreement, which he had no part in crafting.

"I regard that as a political document, not a legal document," the town attorney said. Later in the forum Oak Bluffs selectman Richard Combra said he disagreed with Mr. Rappaport's characterization of the settlement agreement.

On another legal front, Mr. Rappaport said if the town votes to withdraw from the commission, all the regulations for districts of critical planning concern (DCPCs) would be reduced to simple zoning regulations.

Citing two court cases that date back to a period in the 1970s when Edgartown pulled out of the commission, Mr. Rappaport said the regulations would "stay on the books" as zoning regulations, but would no longer carry the extra legal weight and authority of districts of critical planning concern.

Special overlay planning districts permitted by the commission's enabling legislation, DCPCs are an extra layer of protection for sensitive planning areas, including ponds, shorefronts, Island roads and historic places. The entire southern woodlands was designated a DCPC four years ago.

Elected officials who support town withdrawal from the commission argued repeatedly during the forum that there is no worry about the DCPCs because the town intends to continue to enforce the regulations. They said that they if the town pulls out of the MVC they plan to use the assessment money to pay for a new town planner.

At times there were blunt questions for the selectmen.

"The gossip on the street is that you are in bed with the developers - how can the town trust you?" one voter asked selectman Todd Rebello.

"The town of Oak Bluffs and taxpayers entrusted us with a $17 million budget. We worked on a settlement agreement with the developer much like we worked on a recent agreement downtown with the Martha's Vineyard Cooperative Bank. Does this suggest that we are in bed with the Cooperative Bank? I think not - we are the keepers of the tax rate," Mr. Rebello replied.

Selectmen also defended their decision to accept money from Mr. Kupersmith to pay for Mr. Bobrowski's legal work on the settlement agreement. The selectmen have confirmed that money from Mr. Kupersmith has been placed in a town escrow fund, but to date no information has been made public about how the fund was set up or about how much money is in it.

"How can you avoid a conflict of interest when the lawyer for the town is being paid from an escrow account funded by the developer?" asked Tom Walsh.

"It's quite simple and it is not unusual for a developer to provide funding for legal work, it's not unusual and it's very appropriate," Mr. Combra replied.

There were also blunt questions for the town members of the commission, and more than once Richard Toole, a longtime member of the MVC, found himself defending his own decisions.

"Is it fair to conclude that you support housing if you voted no on the golf course?" Kevin Cusak asked Mr. Toole.

"All we can deal with is the next plan that comes in front of us," Mr. Toole said.

Citing a list of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money procured for the town by the commission over the years, Mr. Toole said if the town pulls out of the commission Oak Bluffs will no longer enjoy the benefit of many projects that cross town boundaries, such as water quality and water testing programs for the salt water ponds.

"Money is very tight, and any projects that are under way would be completed but after that the service would end," he said.

Mr. Rebello downplayed any concern about grant money. "I think the town of Oak Bluffs has done a very good job for us in getting outside money and I have tremendous confidence - I think there is an old saying that says ‘show me the money,' " Mr. Rebello said.

But after all the talk about court cases and regulations and Chapter 40B housing, the discussion returned to the central topic at hand: town membership in the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

Oak Bluffs selectman Greg Coogan, who was the second top vote getter in the recent town election and was also a member of the commission in its early years, spoke eloquently about the need to stay in.

"I think the Martha's Vineyard Commission has done a very good job - all you have to do is get on the boat and head into Falmouth or beyond and you can tell the difference between Martha's Vineyard and the rest of the world and that's why we come here," Mr. Coogan said.

"The commission has a lot of power and that's precisely why we should stay in - because it offers us real protection," he concluded.