The streets are bustling in Oak Bluffs as the summer begins to reach its peak — restaurants are crowded with eager visitors, and parks and beaches are full of families enjoying the sun. But as crowds return in earnest this year, striking a balance for outdoor space use in Oak Bluffs has become an ever-present issue for the town’s select board.
“We’re in a place where people want to have fun. We want people to have fun,” board member Emma Green-Beach told the Gazette. “But there’s also people who are here to have fun in a quiet manner — and there are people who live here.”
Since May, requests for special event, entertainment and amplified sound permits have appeared on the Oak Bluffs select board agenda more than 20 times. Each request tasks the board with drawing the line for appropriate entertainment as the town sets new standards following two years of pandemic restrictions.
At the board’s last meeting on July 26, the issue was on full display as the board decided on requests spanning road races, craft fairs and entertainment.
At the meeting, Sarah Brown’s Comfort Food co-owner Ken Brown withdrew a slate of requests for entertainment and one-day alcohol licenses after the board pushed back against the way he uses his business.
Board members argued that his restaurant, which he told the board in a mid-June meeting would operate as a takeout spot in the former location of Sea Smoke, had become something of an event space.
“This is kind of turning into an entertainment venue instead of a restaurant,” select board member Jason Balboni said. “I think it’s becoming too much for me, to be honest.”
Board members also said Mr. Brown’s use of picnic tables outside his restaurant went beyond the takeout business model, and asked that he either screen the outdoor tables from view or move to an indoor seating model.
“My point is that it’s a residential neighborhood,” select board member Ryan Ruley said.
In a phone call with the Gazette after the meeting, Mr. Brown said there’s a high demand for spaces to gather, indoors and out, on the Island.
“Space is tight on the Island and my restaurant is a potential venue,” he said. “We don’t do a lot of alcohol. We’re not loud…We can provide a space for people to gather, as restaurants do.”
He added that his is not the only business in his neighborhood on the south end of Circuit avenue: Tony’s Market is situated right across the street.
“The fact is, everywhere is residential in Oak Bluffs,” Mr. Brown said.
In recent phone conversations, select board members Gail Barmakian, Brian Packish and Ms. Green-Beach spoke about the challenges in finding a middle ground for the use of outdoor spaces.
“I see more requests for events on public property,” Ms. Barmakian said. “It oftentimes comes in waves.”
The board has heard a handful of applications for parties on public beaches at recent meetings, from sorority reunions to family gatherings — often including requests for amplified sound.
“I think that’s a trend that’s difficult for our infrastructure,” Mr. Packish said.
Broader public events have begun to take shape in town, too. The Oak Bluffs Association put together the town’s inaugural Pride celebration in June, complete with a parade.
Oak Bluffs Association president and Ritz Cafe owner Larkin Stallings told the Gazette he feels the will of the business community to build new events and bolster existing ones has grown.
“I think we’ve always wanted to do stuff,” Mr. Stallings said.
Ms. Green-Beach said she feels it’s hard to strike a balance with entertainment in Oak Bluffs, adding that the question has only grown more complicated since the year-round population has grown throughout the pandemic.
“Now the priority of our residents may have shifted because the population itself has changed,” Ms. Green-Beach said. “No small town is like, ‘Sure we need to change things’ — no one says that.”
Ms. Barmakian echoed the sentiment.
“We’re definitely more crowded than we used to be,” Ms. Barmakian told the Gazette. “So the challenge of managing is definitely harder.”
Another discussion at the July 26 meeting revolved around a complaint lodged by Lynn Vera about noise, crowding and disturbances on the line for Back Door Donuts late at night.
Ms. Vera showed the select board video taken from her home of a busker using a microphone to sing to a long line of donut hopefuls, times when conversation on the line grew particularly loud and one occasion in the wee hours of the morning when a man was yelling indistinctly in the parking lot.
“There is no sleep here,” Ms. Vera said.
She called for the board to take action against Back Door Donuts and suggested that they host their line at the front of their store instead of in the Reliable Market parking lot. She also called for a 10 p.m. close of the business, which now has daily hours until midnight, according to its website.
“The hooting and the hollering and the noise, but no consequences,” Ms. Vera said.
She added that she has called the police with noise complaints several times since the start of June.
The board was largely sympathetic to Ms. Vera’s complaint but agreed to avoid making a decision on the matter until a representative from Back Door Donuts is present at a select board meeting.
“We’re not willing to do it without the owners or the managers here,” Mr. Ruley said.
Calls to Back Door Donuts management were unrenturned at press time.
With the summer season near its midpoint, town officials feel they’re closing in on finding the right balance between fun and tranquility.
“We haven’t found a new normal just yet,” Mr. Packish said. “I think we’re on the cusp of that.”