Edgartown Planning Board Has Rough Ride in Marathon Night


Twelve minutes after midnight Wednesday morning, Edgartown residents emerged from the Old Whaling Church, worn and quiet after conquering a record-length annual town meeting warrant in a single sitting.

Moderator Philip (Jeff) Norton Jr. managed to hold a quorum of 141 by a single voter for the last articles of the 92-article warrant.

By the end of the Tuesday night meeting, Edgartown voters had signed off on more than a dozen big-ticket expenditures with little scrutiny. They were not so generous with a handful of zoning changes - killing all but two of the planning board's recommendations.

"The planning board's not having a very good night," Mr. Norton muttered into the microphone shortly before voters killed a request to extend a building cap for another year.

The proposed zoning articles affected everything from outdoor lighting to wind turbines, from building height measurements to excavation work. Edgartown voters, however, were not in the mood to accept any more controls on their properties.

"This is a sleeping cobra of a regulation change that affects many of you in ways you don't know because it's so subtle," said Benjamin Hall Jr., an Edgartown attorney, criticizing a zoning change which would prevent homeowners from gaining extra house height by burying the structure into a hill.

Planning board members crafted the zoning change after watching a Chappaquiddick homeowner haul more than 10,000 yards of earth off this Wasque Point property this year, effectively embedding his house in the bluff to meet height regulations.

"He found a loophole, and we're catching it early so neighbors don't do it as well," said Roger Becker of the planning board. "This is going to continue to happen if people with enough money to blow their landscape to smithereens building these big houses keep coming."

But some voters argued that this Wasque Point instance was an anomaly and not sufficient cause for a new zoning rule. "It's happened once in 25 years. We don't need to change the bylaw for something that happens once," said Richard Barbini, a civil engineer involved in many Island building projects.

"Maybe if he'd been able to build his 10,000-square-foot house, he wouldn't have taken the bank down," said Larry Mercier, citing the planning board's decision last year to reject the homeowner's original home request. The board later approved a 7,500-square-foot version.

In the end, that planning board measure gained support from a simple majority, but failed to win the necessary two-thirds vote. Ninety voters favored the article, while 79 opposed it.

Voters urged the planning board to go back to the drawing board on a number of the zoning changes - arguing that the amendments were poorly researched and crafted.

In an article that would have extended excavation regulations to the Cape Pogue and the Special Places districts of critical planning concern (DCPC), voters were not convinced these protections should extend to Sampson's Hill, the only spot covered under the Special Places district. Sampson's Hill, Chappaquiddick resident Ronald Monterosso argued, is special because a historic chapel was once located on this high point, not because of rare habitat.

Resident Ann Floyd agreed: "I have a real aversion to a board that doesn't have expertise in conservation [presenting this regulation]. I don't see any scientific basis for this. This really oversteps your bounds, and I think you are out of place."

Other residents worried about runaway regulation if voters approved this initial step. "If we approve this for Sampson Hill, will they be back in here next year recommending this for Katama and Ocean Heights?" asked Mr. Mercier.

Residents roundly rejected the article, 182-37.

Voters also shot down an effort to extend the Island Roads District and limit roadside activity within its boundaries. Residents along several roads would have been required to secure a special permit from the planning board before undertaking significant building or clearing projects within 25 feet of the road.

Deborah MacInnis said she resented the town having any more control over her front lawn than it already does.

"The town already owns the first 10 feet of my property," she said. "Is it our land or the town's land? If they want to take it by eminent domain and pay us for it, fine."

Planning board members said they proposed the bylaw change after fielding complaints about the proliferation of stockade fences along Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, one of the roads already protected under the district.

"It does not make any sense to regulate the horse once it's gone out of the barn," said Mr. Hall, who added that the new regulation would not undo the 18 stockade fences already built along this road.

Voters eventually killed the article.

The topic of light pollution also stirred an impassioned debate. All agreed that they loved to see the night sky, but many questioned whether an outdoor lighting bylaw - which restricted homeowners to no more than six low-wattage lights - would actually protect the darkness of night.

"Who will enforce this?" one voter shouted from the back of the sanctuary.

"The lightbulb cop," Mr. Norton deadpanned.

Edith Potter, longtime Edgartown official and Chappaquiddick resident, argued for the amendment, saying: "We're fortunate enough to go to Bend of the Road and see the most awesome night sky in the world. But what concerns me most is that our children will be missing out on something."

But the logistics involved with enforcing light bulb and wattage limits seemed to worry voters.

"Are we going to ask our building inspector to be saddled with checking lights?" asked former planning board member Norman Rankow. "Let's face it, we live in a carriage house town."

A move to kill the article succeeded.

Voters again mounted opposition to a zoning change aimed to tighten wind turbine regulations. The planning board drafted this bylaw - which would have capped wind machines at 80 feet - after reviewing a turbine proposal for the shores of Edgartown Great Pond last summer. The board eventually rejected the 100-foot tower.

"Because of the sheer physics of the way wind turbines work, no one would seriously pursue wind energy in Edgartown," said Kitt Johnson, the town's representative to the Cape Light Compact.

Only a second-story deck bylaw and a special permit requirement for clearcutting within a special way zone won voter approval Tuesday night.

The deck bylaw will require these structures to measure no less than eight feet by eight feet - a size large enough for emergency personnel to maneuver a stretcher.

Edgartown tradespeople mounted a feisty campaign against the building permit cap. Contractors said they've endured four years of uncertainty under the permit limit. A lottery system has doled out 84 permits a year for the last two years. Some hopeful builders have waited as long as seven months to start a project - a delay presenting a logistical challenge for some.

One voter said the cap has forced her household into economic uncertainty. "You just don't know when you'll be getting your paycheck," she said.

In any case, some tradespeople argued, the cap is not working. Projects are still pouring into town.

"I make my living banging nails. I'm as busy as I've ever been. I don't know anyone who has gone away because of this cap. [The lottery] just puts an incredible strain [on tradesmen]," said Norman Rankow, who owns Colonial Reproductions, an Edgartown contracting company.

Others argued that slow growth, particularly while planners revamp the town's master plan, is still needed.

"There's nothing that affects my peace of mind more than the growth of the Vineyard," said James Athearn, an Edgartown farmer and chairman of the Martha's Vineyard Commission. "Let's take it slow."

But many voters said town planners have already had plenty of time to produce studies and freshen master plans.

"We keep hearing, ‘We'll gladly give you a reason for a moratorium some other time if you'll approve a moratorium today,'" said Mr. Monterosso.

Voters also faced scores of money questions Tuesday night - accepting a $20 million budget and 16 budget override requests costing a total of $2.86 million. At the polls, two of those requests were rejected.

On town meeting floor voters supported the sewering of Curtis Lane, Pine street and Clark Drive, an override question in the amount of $350,000. But at the ballot box yesterday, voters narrowly rejected the measure, 516 to 501.

Five departments asked for new vehicles, and all received support at town meeting. The police department, the dredge department, the highway department, the animal control officer and the water department all won approval for their vehicle requests, but not without some good-natured banter.

"I'd like to congratulate the water department for keeping a vehicle so long," said Edgartown resident James Joyce of the department's request to replace a 1993 truck.

Yesterday at the polls, voters rejected the new pickup truck for the dredge department.

The water department faced questions on a $1.5 million request to build a new office complex, revamp the long-dormant Wintucket pump station and construct a new well at Pennywise Path. But in the end, water superintendent Fred Domont won over voters by explaining the department's pressing need for well development.

"We're just trying to keep up with the natural growth of the town. It's not our goal to increase development, we're just here to serve the town," Mr. Domont said, explaining that the department has been looking for a replacement well site since 1993.

Town voters also rejected a proposal to appoint rather than elect the town collector. Officials argued that an appointment would ensure continuity in a town financial office responsible for helping protect a $20 million budget. Voters, however, found no compelling reason to change a system that enabled the previous collector to remain in the office for more than 15 years.

Throughout the meeting of nearly five hours, not even the pouring rain and howling wind outside rattled the focus of Mr. Norton and his audience. Peter Look, a citizen known for speaking out on a broad range of town meeting issues, missed Tuesday's annual forum, but won a moment in the spotlight nonetheless. A request to extend the sidewalk to the post office - a longtime crusade of Mr. Look - finally made it onto the warrant.

"Ah, the Peter Look article. Too bad he's not here. Don't you miss him?" Mr. Norton said into the microphone. His weary audience managed a chuckle.

Edgartown Voters Reject Two Overrides and Elect Acting Town Collector to Stay