A divided gathering of West Tisbury voters agreed on Tuesday night to take the first step toward allowing the sale of beer and wine in restaurants in this historically dry town in the rural agricultural heart of the Vineyard. And while the measure still needs another year of approvals, including at the state legislature and in the ballot box by voters, what was seen as a sleeper article on the annual town meeting warrant woke up with a start near the end of a long meeting that had its share of bumps and peppery debates on matters both fiscal and philosophical.

“I feel like I’ve been ambushed, we’ve had no real discussion on this issue,” said lifelong town resident Virginia Jones. Plucking a thread from a debate from earlier in the evening about whether to extend a sidewalk in the town center, Mrs. Jones added: “You’re concerned about changing the character of the town by the look of a sidewalk — well, this is a big change.”

But Kell Hicklin, co-owner of the Lambert’s Cove Inn, who is a backer of the petitioned article along with the owners of State Road restaurant and the Plane View at the airport, said the recent move by Vineyard Haven and Aquinnah to allow the sale of beer and wine in restaurants has been bad for business in West Tisbury. “It’s totally unfair, we are being ambushed by this whole scenario,” declared Mr. Hicklin.

It was just one exchange of the evening, when 270 voters argued their way through a 45-article warrant in the gymnasium of the West Tisbury School. Moderator Pat Gregory led the meeting.

There was plenty of spending. Voters backed a $13.6 million town budget with only minor adjustments, opened the town Community Preservation Act pocketbook to buy the landmark Field Gallery in the historic village center for $625,000, agreed to keep the library expansion project on track for a state grant application, and gave a green light to begin the design phase for a new police station at the public safety building. After brief debate about protecting the rural character of the town center, they agreed to spend $12,500 to build a sidewalk between the Congregational Church and Alley’s General Store. In a nod to the economic times, they approved a tax amnesty program that will forgive some interest and penalties for people who are behind on their tax bills.

But they were unmoved by the selectmen and finance committee to make even a gentle cut to the up-Island regional school budget.

In a detailed presentation of the numbers, finance committee Greg Orcutt said per-pupil costs in the up-Island region have climbed to $22,000 for 311 students. “Our costs are fast approaching the level of a college or university,” Mr. Orcutt said. He had strong words of praise for the high quality of public education in the region, but said something must be done to curb spending as enrollment in the region drops or levels off. “We agree the school committee has been a good steward of the West Tisbury academic program; where we disagree is on their stewardship of the school budget,” Mr. Orcutt said. The finance committee plan called for a total reduction of $233,000 on a $5.6 million budget, a $167,000 reduction for West Tisbury, trimming $750 from the per-pupil cost.

Selectman Cynthia Mitchell, whose board backed the budget-cutting amendment, joined the call for better fiscal management of the school district. “It is our view that the school committee has not managed the region well; they treat the [West Tisbury and Chilmark] schools as two schools . . . we find the data [for cutting the budget] compelling,” she said.

School committee chairman Dan Cabot defended district spending and took aim at the selectmen. “It’s [the finance committee’s] job to focus narrowly on the bottom line but I would expect the selectmen to take a broader view,” he said.

In the end the voters would have none of it, defeating the budget-cutting amendment and leaving the school budget intact.

They were agreeable on the Field Gallery purchase but not before a thorough airing. Owned by the Maley family, the gallery lawn with its dancing statues created by the late owner and sculptor Tom Maley has become a landmark in the town center where tourists stop for photographs and nonprofit groups host fundraisers. The purchase will be made using money from the open space reserve in the town Community Preservation Act fund. Mrs. Mitchell said the property had been appraised at $725,000, and she explained the “cost-neutral” plan to pay for the property, which includes using all available monies in the town CPA open space fund, committing future CPA open space monies for the next four years and paying debt service on a small remainder of borrowed money using annual rent ($35,000) from a gallery that leases the property. The selectmen took no position on the purchase. A conservation restriction will be placed on the approximate one-acre parcel. The total cost of the purchase to the town will be $685,000.

There were many questions, and Sharon Estrella took issue with the portrayal of the buy as cost-neutral. “It really isn’t a wash because the CPA comes from adding onto our tax bill,” she said. “It is an icon but are you willing to be charged on your taxes for the next four years to pay for it?”

In a quietly poignant moment Eileen Maley stood to speak. “I saw Shirley Mayhew recently and she reminded me that a lot of things have changed in town — we’ve talked about some of those changes tonight — but what hasn’t changed is the old town center,” Mrs. Maley said. “The wonderful old New England houses are still there, the town hall has been redone . . . and in the middle is a little 20th century art gallery. It adds to the flavor of the town and the tableau of the town center. It makes West Tisbury what it is,” she said.

Voters agreed and the purchase was approved.

Approval on the beer and wine question did not come as easily.

The question was complicated by the fact that selectmen had decided to amend the article to add a provision allowing them to issue licenses for one-day alcohol sales for nonprofit fundraisers. The problem came to light recently when town counsel issued an opinion that the longstanding practice of allowing fundraisers to serve alcohol may be unlawful in some circumstances without a license. It is unclear whether the timing of the opinion was coincidental or somehow tied to the beer and wine petition, whose backers had worked behind the scenes to line up support for the article.

The end result was considerable confusion on the town meeting floor. More than one voter stood to ask if the article could be broken in two — some voters supported the one-day license measure but not the beer and wine petition — but Mr. Gregory said no.

The one-day license amendment was approved; then someone moved to amend the article again by eliminating the beer and wine question. The motion failed.

Jackson and Mary Kenworth, the owners of State Road who are not West Tisbury voters, were permitted to speak as petitioners. Mr. Kenworth said the recent change in the town of Tisbury to allow beer and wine sales in restaurants has proven to be relatively problem-free. “And I believe a smaller, smoother transition can happen here in West Tisbury,” he said.

There were skeptics. Dr. David Gorenberg raised a cautionary note about the pervasive problems with alcohol abuse on the Island and the prospect of attracting even more drunk drivers on the rural roads in town.

Others said they like things the way they are. “Call me old-fashioned but I really like the idea of West Tisbury holding out,” said Nick van Nes.

“This is a big issue for this town,” said Prudy Burt, who criticized the selectmen for not holding a public hearing on the petition. Town building inspector Ernie Mendenhall agreed. “I’m sort of for more discussion also,” he said. “This is sort of for two restaurants and they are not cheap restaurants.”

Maria MacFarland agreed and took a shot at State Road for closing in the winter. “This is more for people who come here in the summer,” she said. “Those of us who are here year-round can’t even stop and get a cup of coffee in the winter because you are not open. This is not for the benefit of year-round residents,” she added.

“We close for seven weeks — that’s practically year-round,” replied Mary Kenworth.

In the end there was a strong silent majority and the article was easily approved in a show of hands.

And then the meeting adjourned, three and a half hours after voters had recited the Pledge of Allegiance along with Boy Scouts and heard verse written by the town poet laureate. The annual town report is dedicated this year to Daniel Prowten, who died in a tragic fire in January 2010. “When we first moved to West Tisbury in the 1970s Danny fell in love with West Tisbury,” said his former wife, Pat Waring, who addressed the meeting. “If Danny were here he would be surprised and embarrassed and he would really appreciate it too.”