Soundings: The best ideas

Soundings: The best ideas

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The best ideas

By Nis Kildegaard

After six weeks of hour-long conversations about the Island Plan, presented this February and March at the Edgartown Library, I come away with two central thoughts.

First, how fortunate we are to have such a reservoir of people who care about this place and are willing to work for its long-term health and sustainability. Second, how many of the best ideas in the Island Plan are tucked away, far from the headlines, in corners of the document.

I’ll remember Tom Chase of The Nature Conservancy and the excitement he expressed about the use of undevelopment and life estates as tools to undo, over the decades ahead, some of the unfortunate decisions we’ve made with regard to land use on the Island.

If you accept that the Monopoly-game phase of the Vineyard’s history is almost over – with conservationists on one side, and developers on the other, scrambling to buy the last remaining squares – then it follows that we’ll need new strategies for the next chapter in Vineyard history. The guess here is that undevelopment, accomplished with the use of life estates, will be one of the best of those new strategies in the decades ahead.

To see these emerging new tools already at work, take a walk on the next fine spring day at Hickory Cove, part of the Land Bank’s 312-acre Three Ponds Reservation on Chappaquiddick. This property, acquired by the Land Bank through a life-estate purchase, once had five buildings on its 20 acres. Now the ridge overlooking Cape Pogue Bay is bare, after a process of undevelopment that involved tearing down some structures, selling another and donating one historic building, the original Chappy schoolhouse, to the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust.

The story of Hickory Cove is hardly unique: In recent years, the Land Bank has quietly removed more than 20 structures from properties it has purchased for conservation. The realization that a property with buildings on it can be bought someday, undeveloped, and put into conservation, is game changing. The Land Bank and the Island’s private conservation groups already get this: They have lists of targeted properties – with houses on them – that are prime candidates for conservation, because their purchase would restore healthy function to blocks of habitat that are now fragmented.

In his conversation with me at the library, Tom Chase made it clear that the simple, binary view of land use – it’s either developed (bad) or conserved (good) – is as last-century as Benjamin Boldt, Louis Giuliano and their 200-home subdivisions. Tom prefers to talk about the importance of treading more lightly on the land where we live, allowing native plants to thrive and abandoning the aesthetic of the putting green lawn.

In his session at the library, Henry Stephenson of the Tisbury planning board said flatly that he’s not concerned about the pace of development on Martha’s Vineyard. What he wanted to talk about is the not the last war but the next one – exploring the possibility of fixing some of the bad things we’ve done to the Island’s built environment.

Mr. Stephenson spoke about what the Island Plan calls our community’s “opportunity areas” – areas we got wrong the first time around, but which we can repair over the next generation if we apply ourselves. He brought maps and shared his excitement about the opportunities involved in the diverter road that Tisbury will consider this month between the Edgartown Road and the State Road to West Tisbury.

And Angela Grant, administrator of the Vineyard Transit Authority, discussed the seasonal challenges faced by her agency – carrying half a million passengers in July and August, and another half-million in the other 10 months of the year.

Public transportation, she said, faces a funding crisis over the next few years – and we all need to appreciate that state and federal subsidies pay about two-thirds of every Island bus fare. But when I asked her what we can do as citizens to support public transit here, Ms. Grant didn’t talk about writing to congressmen or the governor. Just buy a pass and take the bus, she said – there’s a huge idle capacity for riders in those quiet 10 months of the off-season.

That comment sent me back to the final chapter of the Island Plan, on implementation of its 207 strategies for improving the Vineyard’s future. Each strategy is laid out in spreadsheet format, with a set of columns under the heading of “Who Could Do It?” There are columns for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the Island towns, other government agencies, the nonprofit sector, and the business community. Interestingly, there’s no column for you and me – for the impact that thousands of us, acting as individuals, can have for a better Island future.

Will the Island Plan deflect the supertanker that is Martha’s Vineyard to some new path over the decades ahead? It’s easy to be skeptical about that. But I do hope that when we look back a generation from now, we’ll see dozens of cases where people have grabbed some of the plan’s best ideas and run with them, to the betterment of community life on the Island.

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