Authors Posts by Nis Kildegaard

Nis Kildegaard

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Peter Boak directs the Island Community Chorus in a rehearsal for this weekend's shows. — Photo by Nis Kildegaard

Peter Boak, director of the Island Community Chorus, decided to take a new approach to planning this weekend’s holiday concerts at the Old Whaling Church. Instead of putting the program together himself over the summer, he asked members of the chorus to help.

As it turned out, chorus members had lots of ideas — enough for Mr. Boak to put together a lively program that comes entirely from the suggestions of his singers.

The Island Community Chorus presents three concerts each year, its ranks growing and shrinking with the seasons, and the group is usually at its largest for this December event. This year, Mr. Boak says, a record 117 singers will fill the Old Whaling Church stage to perform at 7:30 pm on Saturday, Dec. 7, and again at 3 pm on Sunday, Dec. 8. They’ll be joined by two guest artists — violinist Susan McGhee and flutist Maria Johnson — as well as by the choir’s stalwart accompanist, Garrett Brown, and for two pieces which require four-hand piano accompaniment, also by Mr. Brown’s brother, Wesley.

Both performances will be followed by receptions in the Baylies Room downstairs, where tables will be decked with seasonal treats for all to enjoy.

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Since 2009, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has had a policy on transportation infrastructure, recommending that state and local governments embrace the policies of the National Complete Streets Coalition. If it seems odd that a health agency should take a position on the engineering of our streets, consider how closely the question of how we get from Point A to Point B is tied up with pressing issues of public health.

Our health, it turns out, is the result of myriad small decisions. Should I order the cheeseburger or the salad? Drive to work today or bicycle? Watch that Netflix movie or take an afternoon walk? And to the extent that the design of our communities affects these small decisions, our public expenditures on things like safe sidewalks and bicycle paths play a part in weakening or strengthening the public health.

Some recent surveys have raised the disturbing possibility that our children may be the first generation in many with a life expectancy shorter than that of their parents. Foremost among the culprits behind this decline in lifespan are obesity and its confederates, heart disease and diabetes. And last week in these pages, you read news of the recently completed study by the Rural Scholars, which finds that the children of Martha’s Vineyard are not immune to this national trend.

Peg Regan, who served as principal of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School for nine years, recently completed a two-year stint as Island director of Mass in Motion, a state initiative aimed at changes that enable people to eat healthier and move more. The recent study results on childhood obesity here, she says, were somewhat unexpected: “One assumption we made was that since we don’t have fast food restaurants on Martha’s Vineyard, kids would not have access to that kind of food, and we might in fact have lower BMI [body mass index] averages because of that. But that has just not proven to be true.”

Ms. Regan has worked with the schools to improve the healthy fare being served in lunchrooms across the Island, and the advances on this front have been dramatic. Thanks to new state rules, leadership from the superintendent’s office and cooperation with the Island Grown Initiative, school lunch menus today are far healthier than they were just a decade ago.

But changing habits of physical inactivity has been harder, Ms. Regan admits, because one important part of encouraging new habits is providing the public infrastructure that makes them practical and enjoyable for people in their everyday lives.

And for the past half-century and more, the main focus of our provisions for getting people from one place to another has been that most American of machines, the automobile.

Happily, however, there are signs that this focus is beginning to broaden. Recently, when Skiff Avenue in Vineyard Haven was repaved, a bicycle path was clearly marked along one edge of the street. It’s still a steep climb for cyclists leaving Vineyard Haven for Edgartown, but now it’s far safer, and the only public expense involved was a bit of paint.

The new roundabout in Oak Bluffs is a terrific example of how modern engineering can provide well not only for automobiles but for all users. Navigating the roundabout is a joy now for cyclists and pedestrians, thanks to the islands that provide safe pausing-places halfway across.

During her tenure as director of Mass in Motion, Ms. Regan made the rounds of the Island towns to suggest that they adopt, as bylaw, a Complete Streets ordinance like those already implemented in the Massachusetts towns of Plymouth and Northampton. The bylaw is fairly simple as these things go, stipulating that whenever a town undertakes a road project, it should be designed for the convenience and safety of all users — not just drivers of cars, but also riders of mass transit, pedestrians, cyclists and the disabled. The Complete Streets bylaw doesn’t call for costly, wholesale change, but for an incremental approach that considers all users of our transit infrastructure and provides for them, where feasible, at the most convenient and economical moment — when we’ve already decided to build or rebuild a section of road.

Peg Regan’s efforts to advance local adoption of Complete Streets bylaws were not well received in town halls across the Island, which is too bad. Because when we improve a street to make it accessible for everyone, we transform a barrier to public health into an asset. Every initiative that encourages even a few of us to get out of our cars and choose instead one of the alternatives — be it public transit, bicycling, or walking — is an initiative that advances the public health and improves the quality of life on Martha’s Vineyard.

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Tax subsidies are a wildly popular way for Congress to dish out money, because they have an indirect, backdoor quality. But make no mistake: If you cut Exxon-Mobil’s taxes by $100 million, the effect is exactly the same as writing a check – the oil company is richer and the government poorer.

So when free-market advocates say we shouldn’t be picking favorites by extending tax credits to emerging energy technologies like wind power, we should bear in mind that our government has already picked Big Oil as a favorite, with obscure deductions for “intangible drilling costs,” “tertiary injectants” and the “percentage depletion allowance” that might as well be handouts every year, straight from our taxpayer pockets to theirs.

Back in March of 2012, the U.S. Senate briefly took up the Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, would have ended the subsidies of nearly $5 billion per year that our biggest oil companies are enjoying even as they pocket massive profits in this era of $100-per-barrel oil and $4-per-gallon gasoline.

The Senate, voting mainly along partisan lines, failed to muster the 60 votes it needed to move forward on the bill, which also would have extended a critical support for emerging energy technologies, the Production Tax Credit. Over the past decade, Congress has repeatedly allowed the PTC to expire and then renewed it, creating an environment so uncertain that large manufacturers are afraid to tool up new factories to build things like wind turbines. The on-again, off-again nature of the Production Tax Credit is a big reason why, when American firms do build wind farms, they have to use so many European parts.

Against this backdrop of government subsidies for oil, of entirely unconvincing support for renewable energy investment, and of mounting evidence that climate change is a looming crisis created by our use of fossil fuels, a battle has played out now for more than a dozen years over the proposed Cape Wind project on Horseshoe Shoal. With 130 turbines, each of them 440 feet high, the project would send up to 420 megawatts of electricity into the Cape Cod power grid.

Depending on whether you read Cape Wind’s website or the pronouncements of their primary opponents, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the Horseshoe Shoal wind project promises either to “gracefully harness the wind” while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 734,000 tons per year, or to desecrate the Sound’s pristine environment with a noxious industrial development.

The Alliance, with lavish backing from Bill Koch, the multi-billionaire who makes his money in the fossil fuel business, has thrown every argument it can think of at the Cape Wind project over the past decade, from manipulated images that exaggerated the view of the turbines from shore to Native American protestations that the shoal is sacred ground. Most recently, the Alliance has seized upon an argument most of us would agree is more reasonable: that the cost of the energy Cape Wind proposes to supply is simply too high.

Now, I’m not convinced that Cape Wind is the right project in the right place, but I am sure that as we move toward the day when our energy comes from clean sources, we have to be prepared to pay more — especially in these early years as fledgling technologies mature. And I am sure we need to remember that fossil fuels, however cheap they might seem today, come with the hidden costs of environmental damage that our children and grandchildren will someday have to pay.

Sam Feldman of Chilmark, a man whose energy and initiative I greatly admire, once told me that one of his guiding principles is “ready, fire, aim.” Rather than analyze everything to death, he said, he prefers to get right to work: throw a solution out there and improve it as you go along. I recall his principle in the context of Cape Wind because the story of this project is the absolute antithesis of Mr. Feldman’s philosophy – it’s more a case of “ready, aim, aim, aim.”

In my reference room at the Edgartown Library is a shelf groaning with studies of the Cape Wind project that must weigh close to 20 pounds. The vetting this project has been subjected to at state and federal levels is equaled only by the quantity of lawsuits, many of them frivolous, that the Alliance and other groups have launched against Cape Wind.

When Commonwealth Magazine interviewed Bill Koch in February, asking him about his strategies for stopping Cape Wind, he said: “One is to just delay, delay, delay, which we’re doing. . . The other way is to elect politicians who understand how foolhardy alternative energy is.”

His paid mouthpiece, Audra Parker of the Alliance, naturally puts things in a greener, more palatable way, declaring: “We support renewable energy including offshore wind, but appropriately sited and without being an excessive burden to ratepayers.”

In the end, if the Cape Wind turbine project ends up not being built, I won’t be crying bitter tears of disappointment. I certainly won’t be joining in the opponents’ victory parties. However this story plays out, we’ll look back on it someday as a lesson in how difficult it was to change our ways of thinking about energy, and as an example of how hard the old-guard magnates of fossil fuel fought to protect their status quo.

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Across the street from our place in Edgartown, our neighbors have built a small guest house. This summer they moved into it for July and August, renting their main house to vacationing families by the week. That move, I think, is emblematic of the displacement all of us in the Island’s year-round community feel to some extent when summer’s influx hits.

The stresses of the high season involve more than the mere contrast between our winter population of 16,000 and summer’s quadrupling of that number. The starkest contrast of all is between the lives of the year-rounders who struggle to earn their money during the busy season and the seasonal visitors whose wealth is so great that they’ve lost all connection with the daily drama of a dollar less, a dollar more. For them the numbers have become an abstraction, just a way of keeping score.

They come here to unwind, but sometimes the quest for relaxation is complicated by the impatience that accompanies great wealth. When you have more money than you could ever spend, it seems unfair, somehow, to be stuck in the same traffic jams and long lines at the supermarket and post office that everyone else has to live with. Time, for the wealthy, becomes the most precious commodity, and so each summer we observe the spectacle of tailgating, tightly-wound vacationers in a hurry to get somewhere and relax.

Years ago a friend returned to her house after renting it out for August and found that a favorite oriental rug was missing from the living room floor. She frantically called her rental agent, who contacted the renters. “Oh, the children tracked sand on that rug so we took it to the dump,” they said. “Please just replace it and send us the bill.”

This is how the calculus of time versus money plays out when you have so much of the latter, it’s easier to replace an heirloom rug than to vacuum it. And in fact, that last bit of instruction from the wealthy renters was truer than they probably realized. In myriad ways, this has become the dynamic that shapes the relationship between the Vineyard’s year-round and summer communities: We send them the bill.

Enrollment in our public schools, which has been dropping steadily as year-round families give up trying to make ends meet on the Vineyard, stands somewhere around the 2,100 mark this fall. Altogether, our six Island towns will spend well over $50 million delivering a year of education to these students, which puts the average expenditure per pupil at more than $20,000.

Our per-pupil spending on public education is among the highest in the state, and yet property tax rates on the Island are among the state’s lowest. How do we accomplish this? Again, quite simply: We send them the bill.

On this Island where food pantries run year-round and the homeless count hovers consistently at more than 100 people, we enjoy the services of a modern hospital built with nearly $50 million in private contributions, a new $12-million YMCA, and more than 3,000 acres of Land Bank sanctuaries bought with fees charged on sales of the Island’s outrageously expensive real estate. The same seasonal residents whose wealth has driven the cost of a working family’s house far beyond a working family’s reach are investing heavily in the quality of Island life each year, not just with their property tax dollars but also with their charitable giving.

I’ve been told that the Navy, when training its submariners, places special emphasis on the social skills necessary to get along in cramped quarters – you need a lot of “excuse-me’s” when squeezing past each other in tiny passageways, and when each bunk is shared in eight-hour shifts. That sounds like the sort of training we could use for summer on Martha’s Vineyard. By late August, it’s hard for most of us to remember how much the summer people contribute that’s positive – not least of which is purchasing nearly two-thirds of all the goods and services sold here, by the estimate of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

The bright idea in economic circles, for more than half a century, has been to build up the Island’s shoulder seasons. The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, which starts a week from Sunday, was launched in 1946 with just that goal in mind. The derby is one of the Island’s great fall traditions now, but in early September it’s hard to be upset that efforts to boost this shoulder season have gone only so far. Our summer population does so many things that benefit the Island, and one of the most wonderful things they do each September is leave.

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The field of 70 runners, followed by 40 walkers, left North 18th street in Edgartown Monday morning and turned onto Pennywise Path at the start of the 5K Run to the Library. — Photo by Nis Kildegaard

Article updated September 4 at 4:30 pm

Cloudy skies gave way to sun as 107 runners and walkers took part Monday morning in the Pennywise Path Run to the Library, a 5K event sponsored by the Friends of the Edgartown Library.

Caleb Wright, 17, a promising high school athlete from Brooklyn, N.Y., was the overall race winner with a time of 15:27. Joe Schroeder, track coach at the Vineyard high school, provided race timing services for Monday’s event and noted that it was USTA-sanctioned, but not certified, because the length of the course was set using GPS equipment rather than more precise methods. Looking at the blistering times posted by the leading finishers, Mr. Schroeder suggested, “This course might be a little short.”

William Rhatigan of Edgartown finished second in 15:45, followed by David Metz, Cambridge, 16:15; Andrew Theall, Edgartown, 17:34; Reaan Steenkamp, Vineyard Haven, 17:40; and Lucas Kolm, New Castle, New Hampshire, 17:53.

The first woman across the finish line was Erin Tiernan of Oak Bluffs, who was seventh overall with a time of 19:29. Joseph Jims of Vineyard Haven took eighth in 19:32. Erin Tiernan’s friend and running companion, Kathleen Brown of Vineyard Haven was the women’s runner-up and finished ninth in 20:39. Ryan Sawyer of Edgartown rounded out the top ten with a time of 20:45.

The course followed a route from the trailhead of Pennywise Path, at the end of North 18th Street, to the bikepath beside the Vineyard Veterinary Clinic and along the bikepath to the school. “The sand on the path was pretty deep,” Erin Tiernan said after the race, “but it was fun.”

Race winners in several categories received prizes donated by Edgartown Books, the Dairy Queen, the Boneyard, and other local businesses.

Friends of the Edgartown Library president Mary Jane Carpenter explained that the group had been planning the event since March. “Herb Foster suggested we ought to do this for the library,” she said. “Pennywise Path is such a fun place to run.”

Mr. Foster, a member of both the library trustees and the Friends organization, not only helped organize the event but took part in it. The oldest entrant in the race at age 85, he finished with a time of 48:46.

Ms. Carpenter had special thanks for all her fellow members of the Friends group, for Mr. Schroeder, and for Kathy O’Sullivan of MV Multisports, who provided both expertise and labor for this inaugural event. David and Ann Thompson provided a grant of seed money for the expenses of mounting the event and printing of tee-shirts for all the entrants. The shirts were printed from a winning design by Molly Pogue of the Edgartown School, who competed in the event with her brother and sister, Spencer and Paige.

Ms. Carpenter also thanked her husband, Glenn, and Island Transport for providing shuttle service from the school to the race start. Watching Mr. Carpenter turn his bus around at the end of 18th Street provided almost as much excitement as the scene later at the finish line.

For complete results of the race, visit http://www.coolrunning.com/results/13/ma/Sep2_PennyW_set1.shtml.

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August on the Vineyard is the peak season for the vehicular misery we endure for two months because relieving it involves a trade-off we’re unwilling to make: changes to the Island road system that would damage the rural character of this place all year.

We all know the trouble spots, and we plan our errands around strategies designed to avoid them: Five Corners in Tisbury and the corridor from there up to Look Street; the Triangle in Edgartown and the whole miserable stretch from the veterinary clinic outside town past the Stop & Shop on Upper Main.

One notorious trouble spot has been erased from summer’s traffic equation, thanks to the Oak Bluffs Roundabout, which has accomplished everything the traffic engineers promised without causing any of the harm its critics loudly predicted. What is most disturbing, looking back on the whole public controversy over the Roundabout — and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s cliffhanger votes on the project — is how close we came to not building it.

Despite assurances from the traffic engineers that the roundabout was exactly the right tool for easing congestion at the Blinker, the commission needed tie-breaker votes on more than one occasion before it finally approved the project. Two Island towns spent taxpayer dollars trying to block the project. One up-Island candidate went so far as to run for an MVC seat on an anti-Roundabout platform.

How could so many people have been so wrong about a project that has turned out to be so right?

The Roundabout controversy, in retrospect, reads best as a parable of how our community’s greatest strength, in certain circumstances, can also be a weakness: the Vineyard’s deep-seated and stubborn resistance to change.

The suspicion that the highest ground in any political debate is to oppose change has been a recurring theme in Island life, and on the whole it has served us well. Our success in preserving the best of the Island’s past — the rural character of our roadways, our unspoiled open spaces, the unique architectural character of the six towns, the human connectedness in our communities — has been central in sustaining the quality of life here.

But when that instinct to resist change becomes a gut response, a substitute for critical thinking, we risk saying no to improvements simply because they’re new, and that’s what so nearly happened at the Roundabout.

Those members of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and Island political leaders who opposed it might fruitfully review, on their next pain-free passage through the Roundabout, the process by which they arrived at their position. While not abandoning our efforts to preserve the character of Martha’s Vineyard, could we perhaps also keep an eye out for those moments when change is good?

The selectmen of Oak Bluffs sent a mash note to the MVC the other week, thanking the agency for its work on the Roundabout project. “Placed in an unenviable regulatory role on this project,” wrote town administrator Robert Whritenour on behalf of the board, “the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and its staff throughout the process placed technical data and review in a primary position over widespread public skepticism and unfounded negative opinions.”

The letter continues: “With our summer season now into full swing, it has become evident that the roundabout has had a very positive impact on traffic flow and safety, and has helped to virtually eliminate one of the Island’s worst traffic problems. As the landscaping is completed this fall, it will also be one of the most attractive intersections on the Island.”

This week, I asked Mark London, director of the MVC, whether any of the lessons learned from the Roundabout have immediate applications for the Island’s remaining traffic hot spots. Sadly, his answer is no: “The Roundabout seemed like a relatively easy fix to one of the main congestion points on the Island. But the others don’t lend themselves to such easy solutions.”

The MVC has promised the state Department of Transportation that it will gather data on the Roundabout this August. But in July, the Commission has been focusing first, quite appropriately, on the traffic in Vineyard Haven on roads near the Stop & Shop supermarket, which is proposing to double in size.

The supermarket chain’s hired traffic engineers, unconvincingly, have presented a 49-page report which concludes that a Stop & Shop two times bigger will have “only a negligible impact” on traffic in the neighborhood. The MVC, rightly, is taking its own independent look at the situation.

By summer’s end we should have hard numbers from the MVC on exactly how much better the Roundabout is working than the four-way stop it replaced. But to paraphrase Bob Dylan, we really don’t need a traffic man to tell us how well the cars flow.

As it turns out, looking left and yielding is something Vineyard motorists are able to learn fairly quickly. Learning how to preserve the best of the Island and still allow room for improvements is proving much harder.

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Each July and August, the Island’s leading nonprofits pack the calendar with the fundraising events that will make or break their budgets for another year. Whether you’re a deep-pockets philanthropist or just a civic-minded citizen who wants to support the good work that holds this place together, you can choose your favorite Island cause and find a celebration that will make supporting it fun.

Except, that is, if the cause you’d like to support is affordable housing.

Visit the Vineyard Housing Office off State Road in Tisbury, and you’ll see the problem. The sign at the entrance has placards for the residents — Habitat for Humanity, Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, Island Housing Trust. Where the Island Affordable Housing Fund sign used to be, there’s a gap.

In the decade from its birth to its meltdown, the Affordable Housing Fund did more than raise millions of dollars for its neighbor agencies in the housing office. It also raised public consciousness and fostered a sense of urgency around one of the Island’s most pressing issues: the housing affordability gap that’s driving a whole generation of essential working people away, threatening to make this place a monoculture of millionaires.

“Preserving Community,” consultant John Ryan’s November 2001 report, first sounded the alarm on the housing issue, rallying activists and catapulting housing to the short list of important Island causes for several years. Then came 2008: the American economy tanked, the Affordable Housing Fund overextended itself on the Bradley Square project in Oak Bluffs, and suddenly this new Island fundraising organization had augured in as quickly as it had soared skyward.

Consultant Karen Sunnarborg’s follow-up to the Ryan report, unveiled June 19 at a forum in Tisbury, is unlikely on its own to have anything like the galvanizing effect of “Preserving Community.” Most of us by now are suffering issue fatigue where housing is concerned, and this is a sober assessment of accomplishments to date, concluding with a call for sharper focus and more realistic goals in the years ahead.

One of the biggest challenges, duly noted by the Sunnarborg report, is that the demise of Island Affordable Housing — which at its peak was raising close to a million dollars a year — leaves a huge gap in resources for housing initiatives. The new report dismisses the 2001 goal of 100 new housing units per year as simply unattainable, proposing instead a target of 50 units per year, and finally admitting, “A goal of 30 units might be more reasonable in the short-term.”

The estimated cost to create 50 affordable units per year is estimated at $10 million, about 10 percent of the six Island town budgets combined.

Voters across the Island have shown a steadfast willingness to support housing efforts — most notably the Rental Assistance program of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority — with tax money from the Community Preservation Act. But CPA funds alone will never be enough to finance housing on the Island. State and federal funding sources will need to be fully explored, but the problem is that this government money comes with program parameters that clash with what the Island is politically willing to do. (Propose a large new senior housing complex, and you can find political support; but propose something like another Morgan Woods in Edgartown, for low-income working families, and you’ll encounter heavy resistance.)

We stand at a political moment now with respect to affordable housing — the effort to preserve the diversity of the Island’s human community — that in many ways resembles the politics around the preservation of land here 30 years ago. Before the Land Bank’s creation in 1986, we had all these wonderful nonprofits doing what they could to preserve the landscape, but lacking the resources to do much more than nibble around the periphery of the problem.

The housing advocates I’ve spoken with don’t resent the Land Bank, but they do envy its reliable revenue stream. Unless and until such a source is found, private charitable support will continue to be critical to housing efforts on Martha’s Vineyard. Meanwhile, donors who want to advance the cause of affordable housing here will need to take a more direct approach than combing the summer’s calendar for celebrity galas to attend.

Right now, the local organization in the best position to convert serious funding into serious solutions is clearly the Island Housing Trust. IHT has worked effectively with enough Island towns to have traction and credibility, and with the right bankroll it could accomplish wonderful things. The trust recently had to walk away from an opportunity in West Tisbury because it just didn’t have the resources — and it’s looking now at six units in Tisbury that could be turned around quickly as permanent affordable rentals, if only it had the right financial backing.

If you give a donation to Habitat for Humanity, they’ll do nice things with it. And help for the Regional Housing Authority is always welcome, but its rental program isn’t easily scalable – it works by matching year-round rental properties with income-qualified tenants, and doubling its budget wouldn’t double the program’s reach.

But the Island Housing Trust recently won state certification as a Community Development Corporation (CDC), enabling it to give huge tax credits to its supporters, and it is poised now to scale up its work on the Vineyard. The IHT board wants to double the organization’s number of sustainable housing units from 50 to 100 by 2015, and the only thing standing between the Trust and this goal is a shortage of financial support.

So to conclude: If you agree that affordable housing belongs on the short list of important Vineyard causes, if you have an appetite for tax credits this year, and if you’re in a position to make a gift that makes a big difference, I’d recommend sitting down with Philippe Jordi, director of the Island Housing Trust. His organization is lean and efficient, with a sterling track record and a terrific grasp of the housing issue here. IHT is ready to make a real dent in the housing problem as soon as someone puts some serious fuel in its financial tank.

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One of the Island’s great seasonal traditions, the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market, opens for its 39th year this Saturday morning, June 8. The market, launched in 1974 with just a dozen stands around the Grange Hall, has grown steadily, now filling the property with more vendors than the market has had birthdays.

This growth is remarkable when you consider that agriculture on Martha’s Vineyard has been facing death by development for decades. With even the tiniest buildable lots now starting at close to $300,000, where’s the profit in trying to cultivate chickens or chard when a subdivision could make you instantly rich?

We have two historic developments to thank for the resurgence of farming on Martha’s Vineyard. One is cultural — the emergence of a new generation of farmers who find real satisfaction in the hard work of bringing good, nourishing food to market. Just when you thought hedge funds and the Internet were going to steal away the best and the brightest, along come smart, energetic young people like Lily Walter of Slip Away Farm on Chappaquiddick, putting their college degrees to unexpected use in agriculture.

The second force is the public agency that was created in 1986 to arrest the hemorrhaging of open land on Martha’s Vineyard and the shift of every acre into residential development. That agency, arguably now the largest public investor in agriculture across the Island, is the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank.

When we think of the Land Bank, most of us think first of walking trails at wonderful places like Waskosim’s Rock and Great Rock Bight. But in fact, preserving land for agriculture has been a priority for the Land Bank ever since its enabling legislation in 1985 placed it near the top of the list — second only to protecting our Island drinking water supply.

Although the Land Bank has always placed a high emphasis on agriculture, not all its agricultural land has found uses until recently. All the agency could do for many years was to put farming-friendly policies in place, and wait.

One such policy is the Land Bank’s standing offer to lease its farmland not to the highest bidder, but to the applicant with the best proposal for use of the land. Land Bank rental rates for farmland are jaw-droppingly low at $10 per acre, per annum, and no bidding wars are allowed.

“We’ve had people say to us, you don’t have any money sense at all — you could get so much more for that farmland,” says James Lengyel, executive director of the Land Bank. “We say, don’t you realize that’s the whole goal? We don’t want competition from people who will outbid a real farmer so that they can play on the land. We have this flat rate, and what we look at is not how much money is coming in, but whether we think the farmer can realize the proposal he’s putting together.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank wants to support real agriculture, not decorative gardens. That’s why the agency rewrote its policy on pasturing horses so it allows for working farm animals, but discourages leases to owners whose horses are simply pets.

The inventory of Island land owned outright by the Land Bank now includes more than 3,000 acres, only about 100 of which are farmland — but this measure vastly understates the agency’s stake in agriculture. From Morning Glory Farm to Thimble Farm, Flat Point Farm and Whippoorwill Farm, the Land Bank has purchased Agricultural Preservation Restrictions (APRs) which cover vast tracts, paying farmland owners the difference between the land’s developed value and its agricultural value in return for a permanent deed restriction which preserves it as farmland forever.

Looking ahead, says Mr. Lengyel, there will still be opportunities for the Land Bank to support the renaissance of agriculture on Martha’s Vineyard even after every acre of pastureland it owns is under lease to farmers:

“The Land Bank is sitting on a lot of prime agricultural soil that is not being used for farming. And we have said to farmers and to farmers’ groups, if you have a need for farmland that we can help fulfill, even if that land is currently woodland — that can be converted to fields. Come to the Land Bank with your ideas. The presence of a land plan that calls for woodlands to be maintained as woodlands doesn’t mean that the Land Bank is closed to the idea of converting it to farmland.”

Enjoy your trips to the Farmers’ Market on Saturdays this June (and, starting on June 19, on Wednesdays as well). As you chow down on greens and vegetables from Island fields, perhaps you’ll find yourself agreeing that agriculture actually is the land’s highest possible use.

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There’s been a lot of noise lately about how the federal budget sequestration has created backups at airports across the nation. Last week in a rare display of non-paralysis, Congress passed legislation that lets the Federal Aviation Administration shuffle money between accounts and avert furloughs for air controllers — at least through September.

Meanwhile, here on the Island, a program serving neither congressmen nor the lobbyists who influence them has suffered the blunt trauma of the sequester. The Early Childhood Center of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services got news of a deep cut in Head Start funding with only a few hours’ warning, in a conference call during school vacation week in February.

“It was a total surprise,” says Debbie Milne, program director for the Early Childhood Center. Suddenly Ms. Milne and Mary Brissette, the family services coordinator for the local Head Start Program, had to scramble to cut $20,000 from the budget for a fiscal year already three months gone.

Head Start on Martha’s Vineyard is a home-based, locally designed program serving 42 families. Half those families are below the poverty line and another quarter of them are near it. The program promotes school readiness for children between the ages of three and five; its approach is to focus the health of whole families.

The backbone of her staff, says Ms. Brissette, is the team of six Head Start home visitors who spend an hour and a half with each family, every week. Three of the six home visitors are parents themselves of children who’ve been through the Head Start program.

This year, thanks to the federal sequester, Head Start’s schedule of weekly home visits has been cut back from 10 months to eight. Home visits have been canceled from June 1 through September, and the home visitors will be put on furlough.

The Head Start parents, who participate in decisions about the program, said they wanted to deal with the budget cut this way. When they met to discuss their choices, says Ms. Milne, “The parents felt strongly about two things: They did not want to cut families out of the program, and they didn’t want any staff to lose their jobs.”

This strategy of absorbing the cuts by closing early and opening late has been taken by many Head Start programs across the country, says Ms. Brissette. It’s not like there’s much choice: “Our budget has already been tight for quite a few years,” she says, “and the only way to absorb a cut of this size is with salaries.”

Both program directors say they were struck by the way parents responded at the meeting when news of the budget cut was announced. Recalls Ms. Milne, “Nobody was saying, how dare they make this cut! It was all about, how do we solve this problem? It was about banding together and making this work.”

For a child already living in a rich social environment — say, a child whose parents can afford the tuition at a good Island preschool, the loss of a weekly home visit for two extra months wouldn’t be a terrible blow. But for many of the children in Head Start on Martha’s Vineyard, this program is one of their primary enrichments and a vital connection for their families to other parts of the social service network. Basic health screenings, parenting education, mental health services, and referrals for children with special needs are all part of the family services offered under the banner of Head Start.

“Because we’re working with three-year-olds,” says Ms. Brissette, “we’re often the first people to raise our hands and say, there’s something with this child that we need to take a closer look at.” Head Start, in short, is one of the earliest programs that identifies Island kids who could benefit from extra help.

Two years ago, the federal budget sequester was invented as a measure so noxious to both Democrats and Republicans — including, as it did, crude cuts to both human services and military spending — that its creators felt sure it would force legislators to the bargaining table. But when the deadline came, Washington had grown so deeply polarized that no alternative to the sequester could be found.

One of the problems here is a simple matter of human nature. We can see cause and effect at work when the two are closely connected – as in, stop paying air traffic controllers and the flights back up. But stop helping families raise healthy children and you might not see the results for years, in the form of fewer high school graduates and more dropouts.

There’s debate in some quarters about the value of programs like Head Start, but Debbie Milne and Mary Brissette are not among the doubters. Says Ms. Milne, “We’ve really tailored our program to meet the needs of this community. I think it’s one of the most powerful programs we have.”

Now, however, instead of concentrating on how to make their Head Start families healthier, happier, and more resilient, its directors have resigned themselves to hunkering down and weathering the cutbacks. “It’s so disappointing,” says Ms. Brissette. “This shouldn’t have to be our focus.”

Disappointing? That’s a polite way to say it. We should be outraged that our nation’s leaders are willing to make sure the planes fly on time but not to support a program that serves our most vulnerable citizens, the children who can’t speak for themselves.

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The chorus, led by director Peter Boak, rehearsed for this weekend's shows at the Trinity Methodist Church in Oak Bluffs. — Photo by Nis Kildegaard

After his rehearsals with the Island Community Chorus on Monday nights, director Peter Boak admits, “I’m pretty exhausted.”

It’s an intense two hours. Directing the singers is 90 percent of the job, and listening to them is the other 90 percent. Looking up from our music, we’ll occasionally see Mr. Boak with his eyes closed, or gazing at the ceiling in his effort to concentrate on the task of listening. If a section hits the wrong note in a difficult passage, you can almost always be sure that at the next pause, the director will take them right back to woodshed the problematic phrase.

Every Monday night since January 7 — except for a couple of dates canceled by blizzards — the chorus, Mr. Boak and accompanist Garrett Brown have been gathering in their new rehearsal space, Trinity Methodist Church in Oak Bluffs, to practice a concert program of two pieces that could hardly be more different: John Rutter’s “Requiem,” and a lively compilation of show tunes by Stephen Sondheim.

The fruits of this semester of work will be shared for all to enjoy in a pair of concerts this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, April 6 and 7, at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center.

Mr. Boak discovered the choir’s new rehearsal space last November, on a Monday night when both the high school rehearsal room and the usual backup space at St. Andrew’s Church in Edgartown were unavailable. Mr. Brown, who is organist for the United Methodist parish, suggested the church on the Campgrounds. The choir tried the space, and Mr. Boak was impressed with its acoustics.

“I love the sound of the chorus in there,” he says. “We’re singing so much better as an ensemble. Do you remember how, at the high school, I would spend a lot of time wandering up into the middle of the bass and tenor sections? That was because I couldn’t hear from the podium.”

More than a few members of the chorus were wondering, when the music for this weekend’s concert was handed out in January, what Mr. Boak could possibly have been thinking when he put two such dissimilar pieces of music together on the program. Contrast, it turns out, was precisely what he was looking for.

Rutter’s Requiem, first performed in 1985, is one of the best-loved and most widely performed choral works of the 20th century. Its texts, in Latin and in English, are adapted from traditional elements of the Catholic and Anglican funeral masses, and its seven sections form a meditation on the themes of life and death. It’s a powerful, exalting work, but it’s decidedly not light entertainment.

When he realized that he wanted to present the Requiem again — the chorus last sang it in 2000 — Mr. Boak raised the idea with Mr. Brown, pointing out that with this 40-minute work on the program they’d need something else to fill out the spring concerts. Recalls Mr. Boak: “Garrett said he thought performing the Requiem was fine, but for the other half of the program, we’d need something that is totally opposite.”

After some research, he settled on a 20-minute piece featuring songs from seven of Sondheim’s most famous Broadway musicals. It’s filled with humor, hummable tunes, and Sondheim’s signature witty lyrics. “I think what we’ve got in this collection is some of his best music, in terms of audience appeal,” says Mr. Boak. “And his texts are just wonderful.”

The director has pulled together a small orchestra to join Mr. Brown at the organ for the program’s opening Requiem. Sophia Saunders-Jones, the second recipient of the choir’s Peter Boak Music Award, is playing flute. Jan Hyer will play the beautiful cello solo that’s a centerpiece of the Requiem’s second movement, “Out of the Deep,” based on Psalm 130. Also accompanying the chorus will be oboist Cheryl Bishkoff from Woonsocket, R.I., and harpist Juli Miller from Newton. Abigail Chandler, one of the Island’s most gifted sopranos and a music teacher at the high school, will be a soloist in both the Rutter and the Sondheim pieces.

The Island Community Chorus performs three times each year, and Mr. Boak traditionally picks the most difficult music for this spring concert. “I think we need something to do in the winter,” he says. “Something that keeps our intellect and our energy piqued.” He’s proud of the way the choir has risen to the challenges presented by this program: “We’ve really had intrepid people for this term – more than 90 singers for this concert.”

Island Community Chorus Spring Concert, Saturday, April 6, 7:30 pm and Sunday, April 7, 3 pm, M.V. Regional High School Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. $15. For more information, visit islandcommunitychorus.com.