Blizzards and Tax Trials, Victorious Vineyarders; Looking Back on 2005
By JAMES KINSELLA
Gazette Senior Writer
The blizzard, the worst snowstorm in decades, came roaring across the water, burying Martha's Vineyard under more than two feet of snow.
Starting Saturday, Jan. 22, the storm raged throughout the following day. Winds hit 70 miles per hour, creating white-out conditions, rendering roads impassable, and essentially cutting off the Vineyard from the mainland. Schools remained closed for the following week.
"It was not the biggest but I'd say it was probably the most powerful storm we've seen here in a long time - the wind, the cold, the blowing snow, near-zero visibility," said Stuart Fuller, Edgartown highway superintendent. "You couldn't see the road, you couldn't see the trees on the side of the road, you couldn't see the fences at Katama - you were just guessing."
The storm also raised the curtain on what would be a sometimes tempestuous Vineyard year, in which an esoteric tax trial would galvanize an Island town, a court defeat would rattle Dukes County government, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) would decide against pursuing a key land use case.
Islanders, no strangers to disagreement, also would come together: to donate money for the reconstruction of Martha's Vineyard Hospital and the Gulf Coast victims of Hurricane Katrina, to raise a record amount at the Possible Dreams auction for Martha's Vineyard Community Services, and to turn out for a 27-12 thumping of archrival Nantucket in the annual Island Cup high school football game.
On the Vineyard, 2005 was a year when the price of gasoline skyrocketed and the increase in real estate values slowed; when the Island would suffer a near-drought, but avoid a red tide that effectively shut down shellfisheries elsewhere in New England; when Islanders would ponder continuing the Monster Shark tournament in Oak Bluffs even as they celebrated the 30th anniversary of Jaws, the legendary shark movie shot on the Vineyard.
Vineyarders, facing epidemic levels of Lyme disease, would back an increase in deer hunting. Humphreys, the Island's beloved sandwich shop, would become the subject of a family legal squabble. Vineyard school busses would roll only after the regional school district took over the operation at the last minute.
Much of one of the biggest Island stories of the year did not even occur on the Vineyard, but in a government building in downtown Boston.
West Tisbury property owner William W. Graham appealed his 2003 and 2004 fiscal year tax assessments, saying that the values were too high and questioning how the West Tisbury assessors arrived at those values.
Mr. Graham owns 235 acres at Mohu off Lambert's Cove Road. His tax payments represent about three per cent of the town's annual tax levy. The town valued the parcels at more than $50 million, which Mr. Graham holds is about $30 million too high. In those years, he paid more than $500,000 in property taxes.
The Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board heard the appeal.
"I think I should be paying a lot of taxes," Mr. Graham said before the tax hearing started. "But I also think a fair system should be in place."
The hearing, initially expected to last about four days, expanded into 36 days of testimony spread over four months. The dispute became the talk of West Tisbury, especially after a state tax official said that town assessors might have "massaged" property values in town.
By late December, the tax board had yet to render a decision. Mr. Graham, meanwhile, offered to settle with the town. Talks were scheduled, but the chairman of the board of selectmen, Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, later called off the talks.
The tax hearing, the longest residential tax appeal in state history, presented the town with an accompanying problem: more than $275,000 in legal bills. At a special town meeting voters subsequently refused to pay the legal bills.
Dukes County, meanwhile, had its own legal headache: a turf war arising from a complicated salary dispute case involving the county commission, the Martha's Vineyard Airport commission, and two airport managers.
The airport commission - which is appointed by the county commission and includes county commissioners among its members - had hired William Weibrecht as airport manager and Sean Flynn as assistant manager. The commission negotiated salaries with the two men outside the county pay scale. The county commissioners declined to pay the men at the negotiated levels.
Three years ago the managers sued the airport commission for breach of contract, and the airport commission in turn sued the county commissioners. The matter came to a head during a three-day trial in February in Dukes County superior court.
The Hon. Robert H. Bohn Jr. found for the defendants, ordering the county to pay triple damages plus attorneys fees. The ruling added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the judgment.
County attorneys appealed the treble damages. Judge Bohn later died, and the appeal was scheduled to be shifted to another judge. Costs and prospective damages stand at more than $830,000.
The intramural dispute prompted some Vineyarders to question whether county government was worth continuing.
In other court matters, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) decided not to appeal a landmark land use decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to the United States Supreme Court.
In late 2004, the state's highest court ruled that the tribe must abide by state and town zoning rules, reversing a lower court decision that found the Wampanoags cannot be sued because of sovereign immunity - and preserving the integrity of a historic 1983 Indian land claims settlement agreement that was the crux of the case.
The state supreme court found that the Wampanoags waived sovereign immunity when they signed the settlement agreement, which led to federal recognition for the tribe in 1987. The Wampanoags are the only federally recognized tribe in the commonwealth.
Tribal chairman Donald Widdiss said the tribal council decided that government-to-government discussions with the town would be a more fruitful avenue than continuing to fight the issue in court.
The Steamship Authority always looms large on the Vineyard, and 2005 was no exception.
Islanders learned that, thanks to Hurricane Katrina, the venerable double-ended ferry Islander would continue service longer than planned on the Woods Hole-Vineyard Haven route.
Construction started this year on a replacement ferry, the $31 million double-ended Island Home. VT Halter Marine Inc. in Pascagoula, Miss., was building the vessel when the hurricane hit.
The damage to both the Halter facilities and the surrounding towns where the shipyard workers live threw a delay of about six months into the construction schedule.
Traveling to and from the Vineyard by water took longer this summer, following the London terrorist bombings. The Coast Guard raised its security level, which translated into identification checks, searches of packages and vehicles, and armed escorts of ferries to and from Woods Hole.
The rising price of energy also came home to haunt the SSA, prompting governors to enact $4 million in rate hikes for passengers and vehicles on both the Vineyard and Nantucket routes for the coming year.
Higher wholesale energy prices also turned up at the gasoline pump, where Island prices pushed past $3 per gallon, and in electricity prices, where Cape Light Compact, the organization that represents most Vineyard electricity customers, signed a new contract that would entail an increase of more than 30 per cent in monthly bills.
On an Island where the price of housing had scampered away from most wage earners, the issue of affordable housing remained a key concern. Residents of Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and West Tisbury voted to put the state Community Preservation Act into effect in their respective towns. Aquinnah and Chilmark previously had adopted the legislation, which allots money from a surtax toward affordable housing and other community needs.
Housing advocates hailed the adoption of the act by all six Vineyard towns as a necessary prelude to gain support in the state legislature for creation of a Martha's Vineyard Housing Bank.
Voters in Chilmark, which has some of the most expensive real estate in Massachusetts, also stepped forward to approve an affordable housing development off Middle Line Road.
An increase in inventory cooled the broader Vineyard real estate market. Properties continued to sell, but the double-digit sales price increases of the years around the turn of the century were fast becoming a memory. The slowing of the market rippled into the residential rental market, where some landlords reduced prices to draw tenants.
In health care, the Martha's Vineyard Hospital launched a capital campaign to raise $42 million to build a new 19-bed hospital at its existing Linton Lane campus in Oak Bluffs. By the end of the year, the hospital had raised more than $30 million toward its goal.
Another concern on the Vineyard and the nearby Elizabeth Islands - the ready availability of Coast Guard emergency medical evacuations - survived a major scare when the federal government decided against closing the Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod.
The marine fisheries around the Vineyard yielded a mixed bag in 2005. Atlantic cod continued to be scarce, both close to the Island and in the once-teeming waters of Georges Bank. So scarce, in fact, that scientists saw the species in collapse. But haddock, another groundfish, seemed to be starting a somewhat unexpected comeback.
In early summer the worst outbreak of red tide in New England waters in decades yielded a good news-bad news scenario for Vineyard shellfishermen. The red tide left the Vineyard and its shellfish mostly unscathed, but shellfish sales plummeted. Vineyard shellfishermen turned to landscaping to make ends meet.
Good news rebounded in the closing months of the year, as bay scallop landings increased over recent years.
The structurally failing Lagoon Pond drawbridge, a key link in the Island road network, became a lightening rod for political debate when town and state highway officials banged heads over a complicated solution that calls for building a temporary bridge, followed years later by a permanent bridge.
Each Island town grappled with its own issues.
In Oak Bluffs, longtime building inspector Richard Mavro resigned amid controversy.
Late in the year, the Oak Bluffs selectmen mulled what if anything to do about the Monster Shark tournament, a privately sponsored event that engulfs the town one weekend every July.
The Tisbury selectmen fought a running skirmish with the Steamship Authority on several issues. First, the town refused to use ferry embarkation fee funds to pay for traffic control around the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal. Later, the SSA decided to shift one of its evening boats during the summer to Oak Bluffs, despite open displeasure from Tisbury. A truce of sorts came when the boat line agreed to continue to help fund the Tisbury Park and Ride for another year.
Chilmark voters had the opportunity to buy the Home Port restaurant and adjoining pondfront properties in Menemsha for $3.9 million - but turned it down.
In a pivotal election, Aquinnah voters named Camille Rose selectman, marking the first time in more than 30 years that a Wampanoag did not sit on the board.
Edgartown faced its own taxpayer unrest after waterfront property owners on Chappaquiddick questioned a sharp rise in their assessed values. But the board of assessors later acknowledged many parcels had been overvalued, and granted 127 abatements.
The widely admired Martha's Vineyard Land Bank drew some tarnish after the agency bought two key properties using a blind trust. Later in the year, the state refused to sign off on the land bank's management plan for property acquired at Ice House Pond.
Vineyard leaders arrived and departed in 2005. James H. Weiss accepted the post of Vineyard schools superintendent. Peter O. Bettencourt, the longtime town administrator in Edgartown, retired after working full-time for the town for nearly 40 years. Gillian Lamb Butchman resigned as director of Camp Jabberwocky.
There were bright spots.
Molly Fischer, 12, of West Tisbury caught the biggest fish in the Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, a 49.22-pound striped bass.
A new teen center opened at Cottagers Corner in Oak Bluffs. Coop's in Edgartown was named among the top 10 tackle shops in the nation by Field & Stream magazine. M.J. Bruder Munafo, artistic director of the Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven since 1995, received the Ruth Bogan Creative Living Award.
David McCullough of West Tisbury, author of 1776, transfixed an audience at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs with his vivid telling of the crucial first year of the American republic.
And a perennial summer favorite, the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair in West Tisbury, drew record crowds in its 144th year.
The Island said farewell to a number of older friends who died this year.
They included George Mathiesen, 84, who co-founded the Chicama Vineyards in West Tisbury, the first successful winery on the Atlantic Coast. Mr. Mathiesen was a charter member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
Della Brown Hardman, who moved to the Vineyard in 1986 after spending three decades as an art professor at West Virginia State College, died at 83. Mrs. Hardman wrote the Oak Bluffs column for the Vineyard Gazette.
Anthony J. (Tubby) Rebello, born and bred in Oak Bluffs, died at 71. Mr. Rebello had served as a selectman and town moderator for many years.
Tragedy also touched the Vineyard.
David Honey, 49, of Oak Bluffs died from injuries he received after his motorcycle collided with a car at a West Tisbury intersection.
James Rogers, 55, of Oak Bluffs died when his self-built airplane crashed shortly after taking off from Martha's Vineyard Airport.
Ivy Maris Marcella, 19, of Edgartown died when she slipped on a rock and was pulled over waterfalls in Huntington Gorge near Richmond, Vt.
The weather, especially the ferocious winter at the start of 2005, retained its status as a reliable sparkplug for Vineyard conversations. By mid-summer, the Island was experiencing near-drought conditions, prompting increased concern about fire at the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. September and October belatedly brought torrential rains. The year departed on a relatively balmy note, especially in contrast to the Christmas storm of 2004.
The final weeks of the year contained a pair of worthy Vineyard bookends: one on a football field, the other in a historic Island church.
On the weekend before Thanksgiving, the Vineyard football team defeated Nantucket 27-12 in the annual Island Cup.
The win was especially sweet for defensive coordinator Bill Belcher, who was stepping down after 15 years as the chief assistant to head coach Don Herman.
"Coach B is the best," senior Tony Cortez shouted in the celebration after the win. "This is for him. We were glad we could let him go out on top like this."
In early December, the Island Community Chorus gave two concerts at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown as thanks to the Vineyard for its support of the chorus over the past decade.
The chorus, conducted by Peter Boak and performing to a packed house, performed pieces ranging from David Pinkham's Christmas Cantata to Here's a Pretty Little Baby, based on an African American spiritual. The audience was invited to sing along with the finale, Silent Night.
Della Brown Hardman, in one of her last pieces for the Gazette, posed a final question: "How to adequately describe the majesty and power of 100 carefully trained, dedicated and talented voices?"