The West Tisbury selectmen voted Wednesday to send a letter to the board of directors for the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, urging members to reconsider their plan to buy a piece of residential farmland off Old County Road and convert it to a permanent home for the nonprofit festival.

“As protectors of the town of West Tisbury’s trust, this board must call to your attention the unprecedented outcry regarding your intentions,” the letter says in part.

MVFF has signed a purchase and sale agreement to buy 12.5 acres and a house at 694 Old County Road formerly belonging to the late Cynthia Walsh. The purchase price is $1.4 million, festival leaders have confirmed. A closing is set for June 22. Plans for the property were discussed informally with the town planning board in March, although nothing definitive has been presented.

But reports of the film festival’s plan to buy the property have drawn a strong public backlash, with neighbors and others balking at the prospect of what it might mean for what is now a rural residential neighborhood. For the second week in a row Wednesday, the selectmen’s meeting was packed and the MVFF purchase was on the agenda for discussion.

MVFF has signed a purchase and sale agreement to buy 12.5 acres and a house at 694 Old County Road. — Graham Smith

No members of the film festival attended the meeting, and MVFF leaders did not return telephone calls from the Gazette seeking comment Thursday morning. Later, film festival managing director Brian Ditchfield confirmed in an email that the letter had been received. “We have not had time yet to confer as a staff and board about the letter, but we take whatever the selectmen say seriously,” he said, adding: "We look forward to meeting with them. If this is not the right piece of property for us, I hope we can have a kind and open conversation about where might be.”

A statement issued by the film festival staff earlier in the week said there was misinformation, and public forums will be held in the fall to help shape a plan for use of the property.

“There are no concrete plans yet for our land purchase in West Tisbury. We are in the early stages of planning. We know that we want to conserve the forested area and consider farming some of the land, and that anything we build will be simple, barn-like, and fit the landscape,” the statement says in part.

At the planning board meeting in late March, film festival founder and executive director Thomas Bena outlined a concept that included a 6,000-square-foot barn for events, commercial kitchen and farming activities on the property. In recent interviews with the Gazette, Mr. Bena has said repeatedly that nothing is set in stone and he hopes to have a community visioning process for the project.

Last week selectman Richard Knabel issued a personal call for the film festival to reconsider the property purchase.

This week, he arrived at the selectmen’s meeting with a letter he had drafted for consideration by his colleagues. Read aloud at the meeting, the letter is framed in expressions of respect and praise for the festival and its mission, but nonetheless urges MVFF board members to revisit the issue in the face of widespread public opposition and questions about the appropriateness of the location. The Walsh property lies in the town historic district which encircles the village.

Calling the film festival “an important cultural component of the Island,” the selectmen’s letter also says in part:

“Your wish, at long last, to establish a permanent home or a headquarters for the festival is quite understandable . . . It is also understandable that you have in mind to expand both the scope and number of you annual programs, and it is for those very reasons that we write and are greatly concerned regarding your interest in the Walsh property off Old County Road. As we understand the broad outlines of your relocation plans as they have been revealed in the planning board minutes, the Island newspapers and your website, they are of such a scale as to be beyond all reasonable limits and capacities that could coexist in the long established, peaceable rural neighborhood that surrounds the Walsh parcels.”

The letter continues: “We ask only that your board consider not only our concerns, but those expressed by the community, and assesses the impacts on the small rural setting, as well as the community trust that your board and organization could easily and irretrievably lose. Of no lesser concern to your board may be the distraction and diversion of resources to your organization that a lengthy regulatory process could produce. We believe all of this is avoidable.”

On Wednesday, neighbors and residents reiterated a litany of concerns to the selectmen.

“It’s entirely possible that they’re proposing a very large scope and then hoping that when they tone it down, instead of 6,000 square feet they go to 4,000 square feet,” said Harriet Bernstein. “My suggestion would be not to give them any opportunity to scale down their project, but to not be there at all, even in a smaller version. I know that program is going to expand, it has every right to expand it’s a wonderful program, and I think that if they get a foothold, they will grow.”

Nancy Dole, a member of the town historic district commission, agreed that it is not a question of scale.

“It’s not that people are going to be happier with 100 cars instead of 200 cars,” she said. She asked the selectmen whether the historic district commission ought to send their own letter to the film festival board.“I feel very badly about the abutters in that area and everyone in the district who so wholeheartedly joined into it and willingly put restrictions on themselves, it’s so sad to see,” Ms. Dole said. “We need to stand by [the abutters] no matter what part of town we live in.”

Mr. Knabel suggested if the historic district commission does draft a letter, to send it before next Wednesday when he reported the film festival board will be meeting.

In the end the three selectmen voted unanimously to sign and send the letter. The letter was sent by email Thursday morning, town administrator Jennifer Rand confirmed.

The letter is addressed to eight board members for MVFF: Steve Bernier, chairman, Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte, Mitch Rubin, Anne Evasick, Thomas Bena, Joanna Cole, Dawn Porter and Henry Louis Gates Jr.