After a two-hour debate that weighed the future of Menemsha against the town's other priorities, Chilmark voters this week passed on an opportunity to buy the Home Port restaurant and adjoining pondfront properties for $3.9 million.
In a near-record turnout for a special town meeting, 223 voters - more than 25 per cent of those registered - filled the Chilmark Community Center on Monday night to take up the single topic. Sentiment was strong and divided nearly down the middle, but at the end the purchase failed to receive a majority, falling 90-119, well short of the two-thirds approval needed. Though rendered moot, the purchase will still appear as a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exemption ballot question at a special election on Dec. 7.
Voters agreed on Monday that Menemsha has changed drastically over the last few decades, but they could not reach a consensus about what impact the sale of the Home Port property will have on the small fishing village that lies at the heart of the Chilmark community. Menemsha harbor was once home to a thriving commercial fishing industry, which has seen a steady decline.
"It pains me to see what's happened to Menemsha in my lifetime. And this is a wake-up call that Menemsha is going to change [even more]," said longtime resident Leonard Jason Jr., who spoke strongly in favor of the purchase and served on the town-appointed committee that studied its implications. "Menemsha used to be a casual, laid-back fishing community. Now it's mostly jet-setting, wine-drinking, cheese-eating people who want to watch the sunset," he added.
"Whatever happens to this property, we're not going to have Menemsha the way it was 30 years ago," countered Spring Point resident Carol Weichert. "It's sad, but it's so."
Longtime Menemsha wharf rats, including Warren Doty, who is a retired fish broker, and brothers Jonathan and Gregory Mayhew, who are commercial draggers and swordfishermen, said that they did not believe the Home Port purchase would benefit the fishing industry. But town shellfish constable and Menemsha Fish Market owner Stanley Larsen suggested it could be turned into a hatchery or fish-processing plant.
Town officials did not draft a definitive plan for the property, though many said that converting it to a public park was the most appealing option. Everyone seemed to agree that whether the town buys it or not, the Home Port building will no longer house a restaurant.
Other Menemsha business owners said they believe they will struggle to survive if the restaurant is sold as a private home and the parking lot is lost.
Selectman Frank Fenner, who owns The Galley restaurant across North Road from the Home Port, spoke in favor of the purchase. "I believe as a taxpayer that this is an opportunity of a lifetime for the town," Mr. Fenner said. "This piece of property has intrinsic value that could go on forever."
Voters also disagreed about whether $3.9 million was an appropriate price. Many felt the price tag was simply too high, and pointed at an appraisal conducted for the town that valued the property at $3.6 million.
Home Port owners William Holtham and Madeline Moore in September offered the town a chance to buy the property for $3.9 million before they place it back on the open market. The non-negotiable offer to the town expires Nov. 30, and after that the owners are expected to place the property on the market for $5 million. The Home Port went on the market in 1999 for $6.5 million, but failed to sell.
Well-known Chilmark Realtor Deborah Hancock, who said she would have an exclusive listing of the property if the town turned down the offer, urged voters to jump on the $3.9 million price tag. She said she had previously sold four other waterfront properties on Menemsha harbor, and had already spoken to potential buyers of the Home Port property - at least two of whom said $3.9 million was a great value. She noted that she was possibly talking herself out of a huge commission.
"I do not have all the answers," said Ms. Hancock, who is also a former town finance committee member. "But I do know that if we don't buy it, we are going to sit back in a few years and say: ‘We could have bought it, we should have bought it, but we didn't.' "
Another Chilmark Realtor, James Feiner, said he did not believe the property was worth the asking price. Mr. Feiner also questioned why Mr. Holtham would not offer the town a first right of refusal when it is placed back on the market.
Mr. Holtham attended the meeting on Monday but did not speak.
Sheep farmer Clarissa Allen, whose family ties reach back more than 300 years in Chilmark, suggested the town could preserve more open space elsewhere for the same amount of money.
"This is not a good allocation of our resources," Ms. Allen said. "It's about .8 acres, and I think close to $4 million is way too much for it."
Finance committee member and Home Port study committee chairman Douglas Sederholm urged voters to look beyond the numbers.
"You have to look at the intangibles," Mr. Sederholm said. "You can't look at it in dollars and cents."
Selectman Warren Doty, who also maintained that the property is overpriced, said it is in the Chilmark tradition to count each dollar and cent. According to state records, Chilmark this year had the lowest tax rate of any town in the commonwealth.
"I've worked very hard with the finance committee over the last few years to control our finances and keep our taxes low," Mr. Doty said. "And I think if you look at our neighboring towns, we're doing a tremendous job."
Many voters discussed the impact the purchase would have on the individual taxpayer. One voter noted that the average property tax bill would increase only $110 per year, equivalent to the cost of four cups of Menemsha Texaco coffee per week. But the Mayhew brothers said the specter of increased taxes could force them to sell their properties on Quitsa Pond, which have been in the Mayhew family for hundreds of years.
"There are a lot of people here who can afford this extra money, but there are also a lot who can't. If we keep raising taxes, a lot of us won't be able to stay," said town resident and artist Jay Lagemann. "We have a reputation of being frugal, and I think we should stick to it."
Mr. Lagemann also suggested that the pitchmen for the project had done their work well.
"I think this was a great marketing scheme," he said. "When the Home Port was for sale a few years ago, I don't remember a single person saying the town has to have it."
More than one resident said the purchase did not fit with town's long-term planning or priorities, which include a new firehouse and more affordable housing. Others noted it would double the town's debt while taxpayers are still paying off a series of other capital expenditures.
"The town has set out some major financial commitments that many people have sent years to put together," said finance committee member Katie Upson. "I just think we're jumping into this too fast. We're being strung up. This is just a shot in the dark."
Selectman J.B. Riggs Parker disagreed.
"Part of fiscal responsibility is making wise purchases when they present themselves," Mr. Parker said. "It may seem very inconvenient right now, but opportunities do not honor schedules."
Mr. Parker began the meeting by announcing late-breaking offers that would defray some of the cost to the town. He said a few taxpayers had already pledged $250,000 of their personal money toward the purchase, and moderator Everett H. Poole read a letter from John Keene Excavation offering free demolition of the building if the town bought the property and decided it wanted to take down the restaurant.
Mr. Parker said there would be other opportunities to lessen the financial burden on the average taxpayer - as well as develop a plan for the property - but only if town voted to buy the property first.
"I think so many of us are anxious because our backs are against the wall, and we've run out of time," said Merrily Fenner. "It's the eleventh hour. I think we need to buy more time."
Voters grappled with, and eventually passed, an amendment that called for selectmen to return to another town meeting in less than six months with a use and financial plan for the property that would require another two-thirds approval. But town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport noted later that such an amendment was non-binding.
And in the end the main article was defeated.
Guided by the practiced hand of moderator Mr. Poole, the debate on Monday was passionate and polite, and peppered with moments of levity.
Early in the meeting Tea Lane resident Trina Kingsbury spoke in favor of the purchase and suggested the Home Port building could be used for a children's educational center. "It would bring our whole town together, once again," Mrs. Kingsbury said. "Because it's like they say: It takes a village to raise a child. And it takes an idiot not to take up this offer."
More than one person returned to her statement when speaking against the purchase.
"In Trina's words," Mr. Doty said at one point, "I'll be the idiot."