Soundings : Fighting the last war
Efforts to regulate development on the Vineyard were so much simpler three decades ago, it's tempting to pine for those days.
Remember the era of Ben Boldt, when all the developers seemed to wear black hats, and all the regulatory agencies rode gleaming white chargers into battle against those mercenaries bent on defiling the Island? The modifiers were so predictable - "greedy" was always attached to developers and "fragile" to the community they threatened, as if by super glue.
It was impossible to stem the tide, of course - there was simply too much money to be made carving up subdivisions and giving them pricey-sounding names that ended with Cove or Woods or Hole. So the regulators, in our town boards and at the Martha's Vineyard Commission, had to satisfy themselves with a strategy of dragging their feet wherever possible. And in many cases, their efforts focused on driving down the density of residential projects across the Island.
The very term that sits at the center of the Martha's Vineyard Commission's work, Development of Regional Impact, frames the issue by suggesting that to reduce the regional impact, perhaps all we need to do is reduce the development. And so the commission has evolved an institutional culture in which knocking a 14-home plan down to 10, or a seven-home plan down to five, sounds to some like an excellent day's work.
Back in the simpler days of Us Against Them, when the defenders of the Vineyard were arrayed against the money-grubbing developers, this approach had a certain logic. But in a generation of Island time, the game has changed profoundly. Now, increasing numbers of proposals being brought before the officials who regulate land use on the Vineyard are grassroots community exercises like the remarkable Bradley Square plan for the arts district in Oak Bluffs, or like the Cozy Hearth project in Edgartown, proposed by a group of Islanders hoping to build affordable homes for themselves.
It's not enough simply to say that the old approach of reducing the density doesn't quite fit new proposals like Bradley Square and Cozy Hearth. What our regulators face is a new wave of projects whose regional impact - preserving the social landscape of Martha's Vineyard - is positive. But too often, our generals persist in fighting the last war, treating the people who are trying to save this community as if they were the people attacking it.
I sat with Jim Athearn, the Edgartown farmer and Martha's Vineyard Commission commissioner, at a forum in the Edgartown Library last November, when the book up for discussion was The Rural Life, a collection of essays by New York Times columnist (and upstate New York farmer) Verlyn Klinkenborg. Jim shared some vivid impressions from a trip to England, where he'd been struck by that nation's success in maintaining rural land. "The fields are still wonderfully open," he said, "and the towns are tight, with all the houses close together."
Imagine what would have happened if England had regulatory boards bent on curbing the density of residential development. That's a recipe for sprawl: Instead of tight villages surrounded by agricultural land, you'd soon have houses on big lots everywhere and no land left for farming at all.
Members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission and of our town land use boards are fluent in all the latest jargon - smart growth, cluster development, mixed use, and my favorite new term, the walkshed. But as you watch the regulatory dance between proponents and boards, it's not at all clear that the new realities and new urgencies of Vineyard life have yet been absorbed. It's still too easy to declare, as the Vineyard Gazette recently did on its editorial page, that the Bradley Square project is "too much of a good thing," and to argue, "The Island...is a big place, with pieces of land more appropriate for developments of this proportion." It's still too easy for members of the Edgartown zoning board of appeals to feel as if they're fighting the good fight when they knock a Cozy Hearth project down from 11 houses to nine, effectively rendering it infeasible as affordable housing.
The motivation for this new wave of developers isn't profit, but community preservation. And when we block their plans, as we once tried to do in the era of Ben Boldt, we thwart our own community's efforts to preserve what is arguably the most fragile and endangered part of the Vineyard landscape - its human diversity.
I'll mark my calendar in bright red ink on the day when the first Vineyard regulatory board considers a developer's plan and says, "You know, we like what you're doing here, but housing is such an urgent priority and land is so scarce and costly, why don't you see if you can fit another home into this project?" That will be a bit of history - the day we stopped battling the Ben Boldts of yesteryear.