A 10-month review of the Stop & Shop expansion plan came to a close Thursday night before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
Commission hearing chairman Brian Smith brought the gavel down just after 10 p.m. after more than four hours of public testimony, much but not all of it against the plan that has galvanized discussion in Tisbury and around the Island over how best to rebuild and expand an anchor grocery store in the center of a congested downtown area.
“We’re asking you to go back to the drawing board and give us a plan that we can all be proud of and then we will be supportive,” Vineyard Haven resident Nevin Sayre said. “Please go back and give us a scale that is right for the size of our village.”
“I ask that you put things in perspective,” countered Tisbury selectman Jeffrey Kristal. “Life is short and Stop & Shop is not an assault on Island character. I urge you to approve this so we can move on to debate some other issues that we have on this Island.”
The comments came during the eighth and final public hearing before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, where the proposal has been reviewed since last July as a development of regional impact (DRI). Stop & Shop wants to rebuild the Water street store by nearly doubling the entire size of the building and adding a 42-space parking garage on the first floor.
Size, scale, traffic and use of town property have all been points of concern during commission review.
The project has drawn widespread public interest and opinion. Two petitions are circulating for and against the expansion. A Facebook group was created last week to remind people to attend the commission meeting. The commission on Thursday printed stacks of correspondence that they’ve received from both sides.
Opponents and proponents crowded the Tisbury senior enter for the hearing. At the outset Tisbury fire chief John Schilling was on hand, concerned that the crowd exceeded the maximum capacity of 100 at the center. After a few crowd counts, the meeting was allowed to proceed.
It was the last night people could take the floor to speak, and public comment was running against the plan about two to one. Opponents cited concerns about the impact on traffic and parking in the area, which is across from the main and only year-round Steamship Authority terminal and near the busy Five Corners intersection. The Steamship Authority and the Vineyard Transit Authority have registered their concerns about the impact of an expanded store.
VTA director Angela Grant said at the hearing that mitigation offers from the developer so far have been vague. She asked that the VTA not “be left out in the cold” and said it is not in the community’s interest to lose bus passengers because of added traffic and delays. “The only way to mitigate that, in my opinion, is more bus service and that comes at a cost that should not be borne by taxpayers,” Ms. Grant said.
In a departure from previous meetings, two Tisbury selectmen spoke against the project. Selectman Tristan Israel called on the commission to turn down the proposal because of the scale and traffic concerns.
Selectman Jon Snyder said he was troubled on a number of levels.“My own personal opinion is that I find this design simply too large,” Mr. Snyder said. “It bothers me there is so much assumed to come from the town. I would also urge we go for a redesign, a smaller store, and not approve as it is.”
Tisbury planning board co-chairman Tony Peak said his board voted 4-0 Wednesday to ask “in the strongest terms for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to deny the Stop & Shop proposal.”
“At this time the board has come to the conclusion that the project is too big and relies too much on public space and town resources to satisfy the basic elements of DRI requirements.” The letter goes on to say that the project is compatible with “a small, waterside New England village” and that there are concerns about surface water and pedestrian safety.
Planning board member Tony Peak said one member of the planning board is in support of the project but was not able to come to the meeting.
Nat Benjamin, a Vineyard Haven boatbuilder, year-round resident and longtime waterfront businessman, said he supported the idea of a grocery store in that location but had concerns about the size. “I think we all feel that it should be small,” Mr. Benjamin said. “This is a great opportunity for the commission to engage the public and Stop & Shop and find some common ground.”
“I want to commend you commissioners for enduring this process,” he continued. “Never have I sat through such a long discussion about food service without getting so much as a cheese and cracker out of it.”
Others said the new building would be a vast improvement on the existing store and said Stop & Shop provides community service and affordable groceries.
“I’m a father of three, and the Island continues to become more and more and more expensive every day,” said Roy Cutrer Jr., noting the high cost of groceries at other Island stores.
Bruce Lewellyn said a vibrant downtown needs to have basic services and Stop & Shop has the right to expand their store. “This beautiful, friendly, historic, anachronistic little Island is still a part of America,” he said.
“We seem to fight about everything these days. Schools, libraries, windmills, roundabouts and now a grocery store,” said Susan Murphy of Chilmark. She urged approval of the project, citing the need for affordable groceries and improvements to the Vineyard Haven harbor area.
The hearing began and ended with commissioners asking Stop & Shop representatives final questions about the project. Commissioner Joan Malkin asked pointed questions about a recent memorandum of understanding between the town of Tisbury and Stop & Shop that called for $1.16 million in mitigation money for the town if the proposal is approved. According to Mr. Israel, the agreement has not yet been signed.
“Do we read the agreement as relevant or not,” Ms. Malkin asked, saying that project was referred to the commission by the town of Tisbury, but the town proceeded to hold their own negotiations about the project.
“That strikes me as undermining what we’ve been established to do,” she said
Geoghan Coogan, a Tisbury attorney who is representing Stop & Shop, said the company engaged in negotiations with Tisbury at the suggestion of the commission’s counsel. “You can take that piece of paper and rip it up,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, Mr. Coogan said Stop & Shop has reduced the size of the project by 6,000 square feet since it was first before the commission, and that because of federal flood plain requirements, any significant remodeling of the building would a significant increase in height. He also pointed to the Steamship Authority as a source of traffic.
“It’s divisive,” he concluded. “We know that at end of the day . . . ultimately your decision as a board is to weigh benefits and to weigh detriments.”
The public hearing was closed, and according to usual MVC practice, the written record will remain open until May 8.
A deliberation and decision on the project is tentatively scheduled for June 5.