Oak Bluffs will spend $15 million for a new town hall and fire station, Edgartown intends to change its town clerk from an elected to an appointed position, and West Tisbury will pay to complete a watershed study of the Mill Pond — but not to dredge it.
These were the highlights of annual town meetings the three towns Tuesday night. All three finished in one night and also saw healthy turnouts, especially in West Tisbury where all the chairs were filled and many more voters stood.
Poet laureates Steve Ewing in Edgartown and Justen Ahren in West Tisbury read verse at the outset of their meetings that was specially composed for the night.
Regional questions that will come before every Island town this spring saw strong support. Voters in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury agreed to back funding for the Gay Head Light relocation project and for ACE MV, the Island’s continuing education program. They also agreed to endorse an Islandwide fertilizer control plan, but an amendment passed in Edgartown could possibly throw a monkey wrench into the effort.
In West Tisbury the key issue of the night was the Mill Pond and advocates for and against dredging welcomed voters at the West Tisbury School with Save the Mill Pond buttons and pamphlets.
A total of 221 voters attended.
As expected, two Mill Pond articles drew the most debate of the evening: one for $15,000 in additional funding to complete a watershed study of the Mill Pond river system and another for asking for $30,000 to dredge the pond. There has been disagreement for two years over the best method for maintaining the dammed freshwater pond.
In the end the majority of voters found wisdom in study before dredging.
“The Mill Brook is largest stream on the Island,” said Ebba Hierta. “This is a very complex system. We can’t dive in with back hoes before we really take a look at what’s going on.”
Sue Rhuby agreed. “We are living in a much warmer climate than we did 40 years ago,” she said. “We don’t have enough information and it’s irresponsible to spend money for dredging when we need to understand the climate we have and what kind of environmental threats and changes are going on.”
Others took a different view and said dredging was needed to preserve the pond.
“If nothing is done to control the growth situation it will accelerate and the pond will eventually become a wetland,” said Anna Alley, a member of the Mill Pond committee. “The Mill Pond is an Island gem . . . please vote yes to preserve our pond.”
The three town selectmen also split on the issue, with Richard Knabel and Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter 3rd voting in favor of dredging, while Cynthia Mitchell voted against it.
Voters also approved a $15.8 million operating budget, up $1 million or seven per cent over last year largely due to school spending, debt retirement and the new West Tisbury Library.
In a series of Community Preservation Act questions, voters readily agreed to spend $81,000 to put toward the relocation and restoration of the Gay Head Light and $30,000 for repairs to the Old Mill building. They stopped briefly on a $75,000 request for a new picket fence at the town cemetery on State Road.
“What’s the fence keeping in and what’s the fence keeping out?” asked Paul Schneider.
“I think we’ll take that as a rhetorical question,” answered moderator F. Patrick Gregory.
Voters agreed to the new fence. The meeting concluded just before 10 p.m.
Edgartown voters dispensed with the town’s business in just under three hours, approving a $30.7 million operating budget and agreeing to spend Community Preservation Act funds for a range of projects including a $350,000 renovation of the town hall.
Most issues on the 66-article warrant won easy approval, with controversy kicking up in unexpected places. By a vote of 88-68, voters turned down a request for $250,000 from the town affordable housing committee for a proposed project on Meshacket Road. The no vote came at the urging of resident Jim Athearn, who said the housing group had not presented a plan that preserved open space nor consulted adequately with the neighbors about it.
Voters approved an Islandwide fertilizer regulation, but only after selectman Michael Donaroma successfully amended it to remove an exemption for agriculture and horticulture.
“I think this article is a great article. I just don’t feel agricultural and horticultural people like myself should be exempt from it,“ he said. “I think this town could lead on this.” Since the rules are part of a pending Islandwide district of critical planning concern, the effect of the amendment was not immediately clear.
Two other articles of regional interest were also approved: an appropriation of $27,765 to support the community education program ACE-MV and $149,704 in funds to help relocate the Gay Head Light, in imminent danger from erosion.
A total of 190 voters took part in a special and annual town meetings in the Old Whaling Church.
In Oak Bluffs, officials worked to enhance confidence in town financial planning with lengthy presentations from the town administrator and capital programs committee. In return, voters showed overwhelming support for the two capital projects the town will undertake in the next two years: construction of a new town hall and joint fire and emergency services station.
Karen Achille said the projects will enhance the town just as bringing the town library to 21st century standards had done years ago. “For that reason, I personally endorse bringing the town hall and fire up to speed, so to speak,” she said.
The town hall will cost $6.8 million and the fire and emergency services station will cost $8.3 million. They were voted in separate articles.
Some voters wondered if one project might be tackled at a time and other questioned the wisdom of taking on long-term debt, but in the end both were approved.
The evening began at the regional high school performing arts center with a tribute to outgoing Oak Bluffs school committee member Priscilla Sylvia. Principal Richard Smith praised the former school teacher’s go-gettedness and fierce passion in her school career, giving her a bouquet of lilies. Former town clerk Deborah Radcliffe also received a farewell from her successor, Laura Johnston. “She is funny, wise and kind and I have seen her go above and beyond many times for the voters of our town,” Ms. Johnston said.
Voters approved a $25.7 million operating budget despite interruptions at many line items for questioning. At several intervals, voters pressed the officials to explain the significance of budgetary terms and finance decisions, calling on department heads to defend their spending choices.
A total of 282 voters attended. While attention lagged toward the end of the three-hour meeting, moments of hilarity also graced the auditorium, as voters called out commentary about both the content of the warrant and procedures governing the meeting.
Oak Bluffs joined Edgartown and West Tisbury in backing funding for the Gay Head Light project, for ACE MV and in approving Islandwide fertilizer rules.
In her endorsement of the Gay Head Light question, Community Preservation Committee chairman Joan Hughes said: “We felt there were some things we should support as being part of the Island.”
Voters also agreed to have the town accept ownership of the East Chop Bluff. This should help the town in its quest for federal funding, said Craig Dripps, president of the East Chop Association.
“I think everybody would hopefully agree that we need to save the road,” he said.
At the annual town election Thursday, voters will be asked to approve a $600,000 Proposition 2 1/2 override.
Remy Tumin, Olivia Hull and Jane Seagrave contributed reporting.