Soundings: Not the last word

Soundings: Not the last word

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Since early November, I’ve been working freelance for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to copy-edit and wrestle onto pages the final, printed version of the Island Plan. I note this at the outset so that if you feel my work in this largely mechanical capacity somehow disqualifies me from having a helpful take on the Island Plan, you can turn the page right now.

Having grappled with this document, and having followed the coverage of the Island Plan with interest in our local press, I’ve come up with a sort of parlor trick: I can hand you a draft of the Island Plan, and depending on the two or three sentences I use to introduce it, I can make you like this document or seriously dislike it.

Introduction number one: Over the past four years, the Island Plan project has engaged hundreds of Islanders in spirited conversations about Martha’s Vineyard today, and as it might be in our dreams for the future. Here, in the pages of the printed Island Plan, is a record of this community’s four-year conversation.

Introduction number two: This document, formally adopted by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission on Dec. 10, 2009, is our official regional plan, a blueprint for the Island over the next half-century. The Island Plan outlines more than 200 specific strategies, as well as a process for monitoring their implementation. The document’s subtitle is "Charting the Future of the Vineyard."

What I like most about introduction number one is that it lets the document speak for itself, with all its powerful insights and its occasional oddities and contradictions. What I like least about the second is that it smacks of hubris, the "We’re smarter than you and we’re going to tell you what to do" attitude that epitomizes the MVC at its tone-deaf worst.

The Island Plan explores hard truths that we will have to grapple with as a community if we want to preserve aspects of the Vineyard that we love. Central among these, in my view, is the insight that the level of water protection we’ll need to save our ponds is much higher than what suffices to protect our drinking water supply.

These pages also contain moments of the silliness that results when enthusiasm outruns common sense. Hey, how about promoting energy conservation by letting all Prius owners advance to the front of the Steamship Authority boarding line? And why not give a big boost to public transportation on the Island by coming up with a catchy new name for the Vineyard Transit Authority? Sure, that’ll work.

But such is the nature of a robust conversation. It’s certainly the nature of this Island community. And no public effort in the history of Martha’s Vineyard has ever tried so assiduously to bring both passion and discipline to bear in a conversation about the future.

All through the four years of the Island Plan process, the MVC tried to position this not as an internal project, but as a broad community effort. Suddenly at the end of the process, on December 10, the commissioners sent the wrong message by formally adopting the Plan.

Even as they did so, commissioners took pains to qualify their votes. "If we adopt this, I don’t think it gives us any incredible power," said Ned Orleans of Tisbury, "that all of a sudden we can do whatever we damn please."

Linda Sibley tried to soften the idea of formal adoption by describing the Island Plan as "a living, breathing document." That certainly sounds like the opposite of something chiseled in stone, although I must admit that as the person hired to wrestle it onto pages, I’m not sure exactly what’s involved in designing or laying out a document that breathes.

Even the printed plan straddles this issue of self-definition, describing itself at one point as "the official regional plan," but later as "an iterative process that constantly cycles back to re-imagine and adjust, rather than a static reflection of a moment in time."

In the end, my guess is that the commissioners felt adoption of the Island Plan was a necessary gesture to honor the hard work of everyone who contributed to the project. Certainly the members of all the working groups who volunteered their time to struggle with issues from development to energy and water quality deserve the thanks of the MVC and the Island community.

Very probably, the commissioners also felt the need for some sort of closure at the end of a four-year process. "There has to be a point," Ms. Sibley declared, "where we stop talking about it and adopt it."

This is where I’d disagree. More than a year ago in this space, I quoted a favorite definition from the educator, Parker J. Palmer: "Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline." The insight here is that the pursuit of the truth stops when you close the conversation.

I’m not the author of the Island Plan, only the guy who’s placing the words and pictures onto paper. But if I were allowed to write the final page, I’d say, "Thanks to everyone who participated in this project. Now, let the conversation continue!"