Scars Linger from Past MVC Collisions
By JULIA WELLS
Getting out was hard.
When Tisbury and Edgartown voted to withdraw from the Martha's Vineyard Commission in the late 1970s, what followed was a procedural and political tangle that went on for years.
In Tisbury, the fight was over the second slip for the Steamship Authority. In Edgartown, it was about the rules for the coastal district of critical planning concern.
By the time both towns rejoined the commission in 1984, the tumult had died down, deep political divisions had faded and few people remembered what the fight had been all about in the first place.
But 25 years later the scars are still visible, especially in Edgartown, where quick-buck developers ran amok during the six years that the town was out of the regional land use commission. The legal bills alone added up to many times the amount of money the town would have paid to the commission in assessments.
This week, as the voters in Oak Bluffs face their own decision about whether to withdraw from the MVC, the cautionary tale out of Edgartown reads like a primer on high-density, suburban-style subdivisions. Here are the chapter headings:
South Shore Trust.
Vineyard Acres II.
In Tisbury there was less development because there was less open land, but the tangle of political affairs that followed the town's withdrawal from the commission lingered for years.
In fact, it took Tisbury three years - until 1980 - to actually leave the commission after first voting at town meeting to do so. The process in Edgartown took only one year, and it withdrew in 1978.
Both towns rejoined in 1984.
It started in 1977, just three years after the state legislature had created the unique land-use agency called the Martha's Vineyard Commission. Vested with powers that went well beyond those of local land-use boards, the commission had been a compromise to the Islands Trust bill, a federal bill proposed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy that would have placed the Vineyard and Nantucket under federal protection much like the national seashore on Cape Cod.
The early years for the commission were rocky, especially in the three down-Island towns, where there was an inevitable collision between the commission and an emerging development movement. In 1977 ballot referenda, voters in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown approved withdrawing from the commission.
But withdrawal was not so simple a matter, because it required action by the state legislature. After the vote in 1977, the local state representative filed bills to allow the towns to withdraw from the commission. The bills were approved, but they were contingent on a second majority vote in a referendum question on the annual town ballots.
The questions were again put to voters in the spring of 1978, with different results: Edgartown voted to pull out of the commission, but Oak Bluffs chose to stay in after all.
Meanwhile, also in 1977, Tisbury voters had also approved a ballot initiative to withdraw from the commission, but that vote was framed in specific language: Tisbury would withdraw if Edgartown and Oak Bluffs voted to withdraw.
When Oak Bluffs elected to remain in the MVC, Tisbury was left with a quandary. The town took a second vote to leave the commission, but in the end it would take three years of legislative gymnastics until the town actually withdrew. The shoe finally dropped in 1980.
The raging controversy at the time was a proposal by the Steamship Authority to build a second ferry slip in Vineyard Haven. After reviewing the project as a development of regional impact (DRI), the commission voted to deny the second slip. The decision created an uproar in Tisbury, where political leaders had favored the second slip.
Tisbury moved to get out of the commission and the SSA filed a bill in the legislature to exempt the boat line from MVC review.
The entire story is rich with irony. The town of Tisbury was in the camp of the Steamship Authority then, but today the second slip has become a target for complaints amid summer traffic congestion in the port town. Tisbury pulled out of the commission amid a call for more local control, but today the town would like to see the boat line comply with the rules for the harbor district of critical planning concern, adopted through the MVC.
But by far the hardest lessons came during the six years that Edgartown was out of the commission.
In 1978 the ballots had hardly been counted when the developers began to circle the town like vultures. South Shore Trust was one of the first through the door.
The Connecticut development company at the outset wanted to create 28 half-acre lots in the Katama section of town. The planning board denied the application, in part because the plan violated the roadside district of critical planning concern, one of the earliest DCPCs created by the commission.
South Shore Trust sued, claiming that the DCPC regulations were invalid because the town had withdrawn from the commission. More irony: After pulling out of the commission amid disgruntled views about the DCPC regulations, the town found itself turning to the same regulations for defense against South Shore Trust.
The dispute went on for years and today ranks as one of the more complicated legal battles in town history. By the time the dust had settled, the town was back in the MVC, but it was too late; South Shore Trust won permission to develop 51 lots in Katama after a settlement agreement with the town.
Eventually, the state supreme court would rule that the DCPC regulations were still in effect because the town had never voted to repeal them.
In a letter to the editor, Harthaven resident Maxwell Moore called the South Shore Trust development "another of the chickens hatched by Edgartown's withdrawal from the commission coming home to roost. And there surely will be more to come, unless the voters have the good sense to rejoin."
If South Shore Trust was one bookend in the story of the years Edgartown spent out of the commission, the other one was Vineyard Acres II. Rhode Island developer Louis Guiliano was the point man in the development scheme which called for subdividing 245 acres off the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road into 145 house lots.
Mr. Guiliano and partner Patricia Lett brought a distinct new tone to the development debate, salting it with threats and high-pressure tactics. Absent the protection of the MVC, the Edgartown planning board was directly in the line of fire. The pressure was enormous.
"I think we took it on the nose," recalled Tom Wallace, who was a member of the planning board at the time.
In the end the Vineyard Acres II subdivision was approved but never built; the property is now in the final stages of development as a private luxury golf club.
Mr. Wallace said he recalled the entire period that the town was out of the commission as extremely difficult.
"It was a painful time - it required a lot of sleepless nights by a lot of different boards on a lot of different issues. We had some pretty impressive legal bills and some pretty bizarre issues that would not have been issues at all had we had the commission to fall back on," he said.
He continued: "Looking back I think we as a town really suffered in areas we would have never been able to foresee, and we ended up struggling with decisions from development pressures that were all-consuming - that's my recollection of it - it seemed like we were being attacked from several different angles. I recall the planning board getting tremendous support from the town but we had limited capacity to deal with a lot of issues."
Edith W. Potter, a longtime town official who was an Edgartown selectman for 12 years, agreed. "I just remember it as a very difficult time because all the developers just rushed in like predators and there was really nothing we could do to stop them," she said, adding: "It was awful, and it was a free-for-all in Edgartown. Many people later said we had made a terrible mistake and I think the town got back in the commission because people were appalled at all the development that took place."
Will history repeat itself next week? The decision will be up to the voters in Oak Bluffs, but the issue still goes beyond the borders of a single town. In 1977, just before the votes in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, the late Andrew Marvel, then chairman of the Chilmark planning board, put it this way:
"People have to realize that things are more complex, and we have to give up some of our individual rights and desires and look at these problems as a social animal. We've got to look at the whole. Everybody can't just go in his own individual direction because we need to look at longer-range problems."
"Oak Bluffs and Edgartown are looking at it narrowly, and to me that's foolish. I'd argue like hell myself if I thought some good could come out in the end, but they're blindly fighting something without considering the consequences."
A statement issued by the Martha's Vineyard Commission in 1978 on the eve of the votes has withstood the test of time. The commission wrote:
"The debate is over. The time for a decision is at hand. It seems a characteristic of debates that the emphasis is often on what divides us, not what we share in common."