It’s the voters’ job to decide what’s a nuisance


The dirt bike noise debate in West Tisbury illustrates sharply some of the ill-fitting characteristics of growth and change.

Neighbors — even newcomers to older neighborhoods, even newcomers who might have thought deeply and coldly about what their new home site had in store for them — grow quickly hostile to irritating activities that affect their lives. That’s true, although the irritation may have predated the new house or the new subdivision or the newcomer.

Resentment by longtime Islanders and even longtime Island summer residents toward newly arrived year-rounders and summer types has been pronounced since about the 1960s, when growth began to gather steam. Earlier, Islanders generally welcomed the arrival of the summer folk and the few new year-round residents. Their contributions, after all, made all the economic difference for a small community whose circumstances were narrowly straitened for nine out of every 12 months each year.

The owner of a moving company, now 50 years in business, recalled the other day that when the summer folk of the 1950s arrived on Memorial Day to occupy their West Chop or East Chop houses, their luggage was generally steamer trunks. He said the charge was 25 cents to put the trunk on the truck and take it to the house, but another 10 cents if it had to be taken to the second floor. It was business, after all, good business too, following a long, lean winter.

Since then, growth and change, no matter how feverishly we resist, have had their way with Martha’s Vineyard and with some of the rules and practices Islanders thought were settled and immutable.

Neighbor complaints about the dirt biking on the track at Nip ‘n Tuck Farm in West Tisbury is the current standout illustration of the tide of change rising.

West Tisbury zoning officer Ernest Mendenhall, after comparing the written zoning rules about noisy activities with his first hand experience of the noise during a visit to the neighborhood when zooming motorcycle riders did their thing, concludes forthrightly that the activity does not violate current town bylaws. Neighbors believe the noise is both unacceptable and a violation of the rules. They may take their opposition beyond Mr. Mendenhall to the zoning board for adjudication.

“I have been back and forth through the bylaws, and I have been over there to listen, and I have to say that in my opinion it’s a residential accessory use,” Mr. Mendenhall told the selectmen last week, and the dirt bike critics. who naturally enough became Ernest Mendenhall critics when they heard his judgment. “Quite honestly, it is noisy, but I do not think it rises to being a ‘public nuisance.’ I think that is probably an unpopular decision on my part, but that’s my decision and I can be appealed to the zoning board of appeals.”

But, ultimately, as Mr. Mendenhall and the town selectmen suggested to dirt bike critics, a higher authority will need to resolve the conflict. That means voters. It means a planning board review of the issue of noise, however it is created and wherever. It means proposed changes, if the planners want them, and hearings and ultimately a decision by voters at town meeting whether to amend the bylaw as it now provides. It is a perfectly reasonable, democratic process, and it is the process by which communities such as West Tisbury define and redefine themselves, in response to changing circumstances.

It is better than a decision on this particular dispute by the zoning board alone. It is better too than a court decision on the applicability of the current zoning language to the current dirt bike issue.

In the end, whether dirt bikers or unhappy neighbors prevail will be a matter of opinion. But asking voters at town meeting to consider a zoning change will result in an opinion delivered by the people whose job it is to describe the nature of the community in which they share their lives.