Zealous — but clumsy and tone-deaf — at best; and narcissistic and without empathy at worst, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission (MVLBC) board and staff have imposed a polarizing change in the experience and use of the Trade Wind Fields Preserve property in Oak Bluffs. All of the preserve’s singular attributes — open meadows and fields — have now been fenced off to keep humans and dogs out, in defense of a threatened plant (purple needlegrass) and a beetle listed as a special concern.
After lengthy consideration, the Land Bank board and staff have, finally, lost patience with those of us who don’t agree with their rigid interpretation of their mission.
All but a few details remain to be disposed of. As executive director James Lengyel put it in his letter to The Times, published on June 9, the Land Bank commissioners and staff are done trying, and have washed their hands of us. Tradewinds visitors are still invited to offer advice on suitable (meaning not the shabby green plastic chairs already contributed) seating “for individuals with limited mobility,” and dog owners are advised to seek development of a dog park facility somewhere else. A bit of Marie Antoinette with your because-I-said-so, anyone?
If the Land Bank were a private conservation organization utilizing support from philanthropists and conservation-minded property sellers, it would make sense that it would set its own priorities, exercise its own judgment, and live or die on its ability to satisfy private constituents (not to mention on a modicum of public grace). At least 7,000 acres of important Island real estate is now owned by such organizations, in addition to significant properties and acreage under various conservation easements, and their collective contribution to the Island’s quality of life is extraordinary.
The immensely powerful (it can even acquire property via eminent domain, and can fall back on the bonding authority of the Island’s six towns, if needed) and well-heeled Land Bank, though, isn’t like these private organizations, in an important and dispositive way: It is funded by tax money, a transfer tax of 2 percent on real estate transactions, and it gets its considerable funding (some $40 million in the past 2½ years, equal to approximately 10 percent of the combined expense budgets of all six Island towns) in exchange for doing the public’s business. If nothing on-Island — demographics, economics, land use, Islanders’ needs — had changed in the years since the Land Bank was created, then the original thinking that informed what their mandate and constraints were might not have needed to change.
But despite our diligence and best efforts, change happens — on Martha’s Vineyard as everywhere else. Our population has increased by 70 percent since MVLBC was chartered; open land has become harder to come by, and the once- predominant, live-and-let-live attitude toward sharing available space is strained. The off-Island economy we welcomed to the Vineyard dominates our housing market, and brings costs we can’t afford. Our conservation organizations themselves take land off the market through acquisition, creating further scarcity. And as our population has grown, even in the face of relentlessly restrictive zoning, we acquired obligations for a modern infrastructure to assure clean drinking water and sewers and runoff control and modern schools.
The MVLBC legislation created much opportunity, but the Land Bank was not handed an unaccountable charter in perpetuity. The availability of the transfer tax windfall depends on conforming to and serving the ongoing planning efforts and ultimate political authority of the six Island towns. The Land Bank’s entire governing structure turns on the support of the towns — individually at the directly elected commissioner level, and collectively at the level of the essential positions of the appointed town advisory committees. The enabling legislation makes clear that each acquisition, each management plan, and each change in plan needs to be developed by the Land Bank in consultation with the plans of the affected town(s), and ultimately can be adopted only with the approval of the affected town’s advisory committee. And failing all else, each town has a clear out — the towns can withdraw if the Land Bank fails to do what the towns require.
Brian Dowd’s reporting on last week’s Oak Bluffs selectmen’s discussion of the Tradewinds debacle (June 13, 2018) makes clear the general sense of exasperation selectmen Coogan, Packish, and Santoro expressed, fueled no doubt by the unhelpful refusal of Land Bank director Lengyel to deign to appear. Packish, in particular, has it right: “I have a lot of questions around the Land Bank. Have they exceeded their mandate? Are we at a point to make a change? Is housing a bigger priority? Every taxpayer on Martha’s Vineyard subsidizes the Land Bank with their taxes, because this is untaxed land. There’s so many levels that they’ve become autonomous, operating in their own vacuum, with their own voices, patting themselves on the back, and, quite honestly, that’s not healthy. It shouldn’t happen with any organization in any community, so I’m ready to have a full conversation.”
At the least, the town should insist on effective mediation for this public relations disaster. More broadly, Oak Bluffs now — because it is the scene of this assault on equitable thinking — and all towns soon, because so much is at stake, need to step up. We need to be talking about redirecting transfer tax money, including the Land Bank’s 2 percent, and more if we need it, to help pay for the equitable and effective infrastructure all Islanders need.