Soundings : What we really want
In their progress report to the community on the Island Plan, published on this page last week, Jim Athearn and Mark London of the Martha's Vineyard Commission point out a disconnect between the way things are going and the way Island folks say they'd like things to be. "When it comes to growth," they report, "there seems to be a big difference between what people say they want and what we will be getting."
They note how, in survey after survey, Islanders say protecting the quality of our environment should be a top priority, that traffic growth should be curbed, that we need strong controls on the quality and quantity of development. And they go on, predictably, to raise the specter of runaway growth that so alarmed this community in the 1980s and 1990s - housing and year-round population could grow by 50 percent, they say, if we don't tighten zoning further.
But somehow, at this moment when Island population growth is actually cresting, traffic growth is relatively flat and enrollment in our Island schools is dwindling, conjuring up the threat of growth just doesn't scare us the way it used to.
In fact, one of the most remarkable aspects of this multi-year exercise in navel-gazing, the Island Plan project, has been the way the issue of growth and development has taken a place almost unimaginable 20 years ago - not at the urgent top of the list, but back in the middle of the pack. There's a growing sense that the key to the Island's future lies in the other issues on which the Martha's Vineyard Commission also has task forces at work - housing, water resources, livelihood and commerce, energy and waste and the natural environment.
The Martha's Vineyard Commission deserves a huge amount of credit for the remarkable job this community has done, over the past three decades, preserving its quality of life in the face of development pressures. (Give credit also to the Land Bank for saving scores of our most beautiful places, and more recently to the Vineyard Transit Authority for taking pressure off our road system). Anyone who thinks the Vineyard hasn't done well on this front ought to get out for a walk (or pay a visit to Cape Cod). And anyone who thinks the Vineyard doesn't have a robust and vigilant land use regulatory environment ought to try building something - just about anything - and see what the gauntlet of local and regional boards feels like from the applicant's side of the table.
Mr. Athearn and Mr. London are right in saying that there's a powerful disconnect at work in Island life today - but it's important to describe this dynamic precisely. The central tension, in fact, is not between "what people say they want and what we will be getting." It's between the way we want all the watchdogs and gatekeepers of Vineyard life to treat everyone else, and the way we want to be treated ourselves.
How much traffic is just right for a sunny day in August? Well, that depends. If you're trying to sell hardware or newspapers or sunglasses on Main Street, what we need is four lanes funneling customers into town, not this measly two. If you're behind the wheel, trying to get to work or town hall, where did all these people come from, and how do we get rid of them?
How much carrying capacity should the Steamship Authority provide for passage to and from the Island? If the hordes of summer are getting on your nerves today, it's already way too much, and let's pull up the drawbridge. But if you're planning an off-Island trip and can't get space on the boat of your choice, those incompetents at the SSA should all be fired.
And ideally, just how difficult should this community's regulatory apparatus make it - how many hoops should applicants have to jump through - to add a deck, build a house on a half-acre of Vineyard land, put in a pool or convert a basement to bedrooms? If it's your neighbor up the street, bring on more hoops, preferably higher and smaller. If it's your basement or deck, hey, whatever happened to property rights?
In the end, Mr. Athearn and Mr. London do acknowledge this dynamic in their essay of last week. After posing their central questions - should we tighten zoning to limit development? shift the places where development happens? place caps on growth rates? - they allow, "Many of these questions imply trade-offs between what people might feel is best for the Island, and what they might want to do with their individual properties."
That's it, exactly. It's not our own, individual impacts on the quality of Island life that we worry about, or want our local and regional boards to regulate - it's the impact of all those other guys.