BY DAVID LOZELL MARTIN, Eastern Shore Post
The noise heard in Onancock last Wednesday, Dec. 14, might have been the bombshell that Onancock City Council member Maphis Oswald dropped when she told an audience at the Historic Onancock School that the performance pavilion being described at that meeting “was not the performance pavilion described to the Town Council when the council approved the building of the pavilion.”
Joani Donohoe, chief executive officer of the Friends of Onancock School, which sponsored the meeting, said that “everyone in that room” was shocked by Oswald’s statement.
The Dec. 14 meeting was standing room only, with 200 people in attendance and another 70 or so on Zoom. The purpose was for FOS to explain why the performance pavilion was being built, how it would be financed, and to what uses it would be put.
That explanation was needed because FOS, which operates the nonprofit Historic Onancock School, was getting pushback from neighbors and others in Onancock who weren’t sure a performance pavilion was compatible with Onancock’s qualities as a quiet small town.
As previously reported by Carol Vaughn in the Eastern Shore Post, Lynne and Caleb Fowler, who live on Queen Street, were originally in favor of the pavilion but they thought it would be a covered structure for picnics, not a “bandstand with music blasting every weekend.” Lynne Fowler said when there’s outside music at the HOS property, her home “actually vibrates.”
Greg and Patricia Felthousen, who live on Ames Street, said in a Nov. 1 letter to the town that they had concerns about traffic, crowd control, noise, bathroom facilities, alcohol sales, trash removal, and potential vandalism of the venue.
“A beautiful, quiet, serene residential neighborhood will be changed forever,” the Felthousens wrote, “and no one was asked.”
At the meeting, Friends of Onancock School were upset with the criticism the pavilion received from anonymous flyers, for example, calling that pushback “fraudulent” and saying they had been accosted by pavilion critics.
In an interview with the Post, Oswald clearly separated criticism of the pavilion from opinions about the worth and benefits of HOS.
“I appreciate what FOS has done for the building and has accomplished for the town but that positive marketing about FOS accomplishments is different from the issue of a pavilion bringing in 500 people for weekly events.”
Speaking with people on both sides of the issue, it becomes clear that the pavilion developed into a problem after or because of two developments.
First, FOS asked the town of Onancock for $100,000. People thought FOS was funding the pavilion (current estimated cost is more than $400,000) on its own, and now there was a concern that public monies — tax dollars — would be going to the project. That $100,000 request has been put on hold.
Second, neighbors resented that they hadn’t been surveyed regarding their opinions of the pavilion and what impact it might have on their way of life.
Donohoe said the school is under parks and recreation zoning and, as such, is not required to survey adjoining properties.
“It didn’t occur to us, and it’s not required of us,” she said.
The Post asked Haydon Rochester, president of the FOS board of directors, if, in retrospect, he wished the school had surveyed neighbors.
Rochester turned the question around: “What I wish, in retrospect, is that neighbors and others who had concerns would’ve come to us first and given us an opportunity to explain ourselves and the pavilion and how it would be used.
“No one said anything to us about their concerns and suddenly they’re going to TV stations and passing out flyers to protest the pavilion.
“In retrospect, I wish the town had held a meeting before approving the pavilion so people could ask their questions. We did everything that was required of us. Do churches survey neighborhoods before they hold an event? Does Ker Place survey neighbors before they hold an event with music and serving alcohol?”
Oswald made a different point: “A proposed Airbnb can be shut down by one neighbor complaining.”
“And while checking with neighbors was not required for the pavilion, you would think a good neighbor would want fellow neighbors to know what’s coming.”
Oswald said when she approved the pavilion, she was under the impression the pavilion would support events (weddings, reunions, picnics, acoustic music) that were compatible with Onancock being a small, quiet, family-oriented town.
She believes other council members had the same impression. Instead, it seems the pavilion is being planned as a revenue stream for the school that at least on occasion will involve rock bands, alcohol, and 500 people in attendance.
But Oswald is adamant that the pavilion’s approval is a done deal:
“The council voted to allow the pavilion and that’s done. I hope FOS builds the pavilion and I hope its use will be compatible with our town. I especially hope the pavilion doesn’t become a longstanding battle and I don’t believe it would be a battle if the pavilion’s uses turn out to be as they were originally presented to us.
“The pavilion’s uses will come later and if anything is done to disrupt the peace and quiet and the small-town feel of Onancock, we will deal with that at the time.”