Authors Posts by Nis Kildegaard

Nis Kildegaard


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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

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The story of the Chilmark School, built just 14 years ago and already needing a third round of repairs that will cost the better part of a million bucks, raises a question at the heart of what’s wrong with municipal building projects today: Why do we persist in thinking it’s better to build cheaply now and fix it later than to build it right in the first place?

West Tisbury just went through a $1.5 million round of repairs to the exterior of its school building, and now Chilmark is poised for another turn. In both cases, the question driving the repair work seems to be how to fix these problems for the least cost. But here’s the irony: In both cases, that emphasis on low initial cost is the main reason taxpayers are being asked to cough up so much money to fix things now.

John Abrams, the founder and president of South Mountain Company and arguably the godfather of affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard, has a great perspective on what affordability really means when we talk about the buildings we use and live in. He’s convinced that lifetime cost, not initial cost, is the best measure of affordability, and you can see that philosophy at work in South Mountain’s affordable housing projects.

At the Jenney Way project in Edgartown, for example, the residences have the same high-end windows that South Mountain installs in homes for their wealthiest clients. They do cost more at first than the windows at the Chilmark School, but they work better from day one, and when the houses at Jenney Way reach 14 years, or 20 or 30, they won’t need replacing.

I called Mr. Abrams for some perspective on the Chilmark story this week and he told me that as much as he loves the Chilmark School, he cringes each time he walks inside and sees his name on a plaque as part of the building committee.

“Actually,” he says, “I resigned from the committee halfway through because I thought it was going in the wrong direction. The biggest problem was that the town was looking for lowest first costs as the only concern –— to get the space they needed for small money. That’s just not the right way to do it.”

The concern, looking forward, is that Chilmark and the school district will repeat history, choosing the cheapest and least-complete solutions again this time around.

“I understand they’re thinking about doing all these envelope improvements,” says Mr. Abrams. “Those improvements shouldn’t be done to the standards to which the West Tisbury School did them, or to the standards that most projects are done — they should be done with the best-performing building science and engineering they can get. Do it once, and do it right.”

Looking at public buildings from the standpoint of how the state regulates them, there is good news to report on two fronts. First, the new state building code now going into effect would never allow a new school that performs as poorly as Chilmark’s does from an energy standpoint.

Second, the state since 2004 has required an owner’s project manager for all large public projects. The OPM is the sort of independent expert who would have noticed that the builders of the Chilmark School were putting water pipes in the unheated roof space before they froze and flooded the place.

One responsibility of the OPM is to consult on value engineering, a critical aspect of planning any new public project. One of the tenets of value engineering is that it’s fine to cut costs, but not at the expense of function.

And when you look at a building’s function, durability and lifespan are huge. Buying cheap windows and doors to shave a building’s cost is like trying to hide something by throwing it way up high — an excellent strategy, but only if your time horizon is really short.

One of the saddest ways we cut corners on municipal buildings on Martha’s Vineyard, I think, is in the area of energy efficiency. Super-insulation is an investment that adds to initial cost but pays dividends for taxpayers every year of a building’s life. Second-rate heating and cooling systems don’t always fail as dramatically as cheap doors and windows; they do make our public spaces less comfortable while costing us extra money, year in and year out.

Rick Pomroy, the owner’s project manager for Edgartown’s public library project, says he talks with his clients about the lifetime costs of energy systems all the time — and sometimes they actually do take his advice and choose systems that cost more up front while saving a bundle over 10 or 20 years.

But Mr. Pomroy admits, “In many cases, building committees will make a choice for short-term gain over long-term cost savings. It’s extremely difficult to educate people on that front.”

Chilmark and West Tisbury can’t set the way-back machine and retroactively improve the school buildings that have failed them so dramatically. But town building committees across the Island can take the costly lessons of Chilmark and West Tisbury to heart, by asking their project managers to analyze their options from the standpoint of durability and lifespan.

Finally, the challenge becomes a political and cultural one: persuading taxpayers to stop duplicating the construction mistakes of the past — to invest a bit more today and enjoy less expensive, better-performing public buildings for years to come.

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Imagine for a moment that Martha’s Vineyard had one single, Islandwide property tax rate: what would that look like?

Computing the rate would be easy enough. Just add up all the money the towns need to raise with property taxes, divide that against the Island’s total assessed value of about $20 billion, and voila! – a single tax rate applicable to every owner of property on the Island.

Town property tax rates actually range widely, from a low of about $2 per $1,000 in assessed valuation in Chilmark to a high of about $8 in Vineyard Haven. But if for some reason you did want to generate all the money the six towns raise through property taxes at one single rate, you’d need to set it at about $4.65. Tax bills in Chilmark would more than double, and they’d jump pretty dramatically in Aquinnah and Edgartown, too. Taxes would drop a little in West Tisbury and a lot in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury.

It’s important to understand that the current disparities in tax rates across the Island are not a reflection of either frugality or largesse on the part of our six town governments. They do reflect differences in the value of taxable property in each town.

Chilmark enjoys one of the state’s lowest tax rates for the simple reason that it has almost $3.7 million in taxable property for each resident of town. That’s more than four times the value of property, per person, that either Tisbury or Oak Bluffs can tax. (It’s more than 50 times the value of taxable property per person in Fall River, which is one good reason why Fall River gets more than $9 million in state aid for education, while Chilmark gets nothing — but that’s a story for another day.)

Depending on where you live, a single Island tax rate would be either a dream or a nightmare. But it’s already a reality, right now, in the case of one agency of government that’s funded with our property taxes: the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

My favorite line in each January’s reporting on the MVC budget is the one that begins, “Edgartown will pay the lion’s share this year.” Of course Edgartown pays the lion’s share: The MVC assessment applies a single tax rate to every property on the Island, and Edgartown has 37 percent of the Island’s taxable property. So — surprise, surprise — Edgartown pays 37 percent of the MVC’s operating costs.

Actually a better way of describing the situation is to say that the MVC doesn’t tax towns, but property — all the property on Martha’s Vineyard, at the very same rate. The towns are merely responsible for collecting that money and passing it along.

Nevertheless, each winter as the Island towns prepare their budgets for annual meetings in April, we brace ourselves for what has become a seasonal tradition, Edgartown’s ritual bashing of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

Remember the year when Edgartown, in high dudgeon over the MVC’s cost-of-living increases for its staff, symbolically withheld that money, only to face the expense of calling a special meeting later to appropriate it because the town was obligated to do so by law? Remember the year when town leaders placed a cage-rattling “Let’s withdraw from the MVC” article on the annual warrant, used the occasion to complain about every real and imagined slight Edgartown has suffered at the hands of the commission, and then tried to look all statesmanlike by withdrawing the article when it was clear they didn’t have the votes?

This year’s increase in the commission’s budget, about 10 percent, is attributable mainly to pension costs and legal fees. Covering pension costs is a universal issue for government agencies in Massachusetts, but the MVC’s legal fees have a specific connection to Edgartown. The commission is fighting the Hall family, in three separate matters, to defend Edgartown’s interest in protecting its ancient ways. And both Edgartown and the commission incurred legal expenses last year when Edgartown joined West Tisbury in suing the MVC over its approval of the Roundabout in Oak Bluffs.

This year’s MVC budget increase will add about two bucks to my property tax bill. Your millage, of course, will vary. I’m not worried about scrounging up that $2, but I am curious to hear what new form this year’s howls of outrage might take from the powers that be in Edgartown.

I’m hoping they come up with something creative, because the whole “It’s so unfair that just because we’re the richest town on the Island, we pay the most for this regional service” thing is both misguided and tiresome.

One great irony lies just behind this story of Edgartown, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and the town’s share of its budget. Back in the late 1970s, Edgartown withdrew from the MVC, was clobbered by an explosion of development at Katama, and quickly rejoined the agency whose powers to regulate land use are so much greater than any town’s. Now every year, a bit of Edgartown’s payment to the MVC is attributable to the value of those houses that we couldn’t stop from being built because we spurned the regional agency and briefly tried to go it alone.

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Margot Datz in front of her canvas, the front wall of the Whaling Church. — Photo by Nis Kildegaard

Thanks to a single grainy photograph from almost a century and a half ago, a remarkable restoration project is underway this winter at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. Artist Margot Datz is recreating an architectural mural whose striking effect will be to convey the illusion of a classical arch behind the stage wall, leading to a light-struck room beyond.

For Ms. Datz, whose murals adorn the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, the former Hot Tin Roof, and both Island terminals of the Steamship Authority, this project is her magnum opus — the largest she’s ever undertaken in a career spanning more than three decades on the Vineyard. For Chris Scott, the mural represents one more checkmark on his “bucket list” of projects completed on his watch as executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, owners of the Whaling Church.

The story of this project begins in 1840, when the wealthy whaling captains of Edgartown were making plans for the grandest church ever built on the Island, and when a 20-year-old artist named Carl Wendte came to America from Germany to establish himself as a muralist.

Between 1840 and his death from pneumonia eight years later, Wendte worked closely with architects to create grand, illusionistic murals in churches of the day. His murals at the Old South Church on Nantucket and the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Provincetown have both recently been restored.

The sea captains of Edgartown engaged architect Frederick Baylies to design a church whose lines and dimensions are a direct reference to the Parthenon, and Mr. Baylies worked with the artist Wendte to foster the magical illusion of even more expansive spaces inside.

We’ll probably never know what prompted a photographer to set his heavy camera in the church balcony and record the mural sometime around 1870. Muses Mr. Scott: “When this photo was taken, the mural was already 25, maybe 30 years old. Maybe the mural was already in trouble and they wanted to document it. Maybe it was just before they painted it over.

“Here’s a photographer who undoubtedly thought this was a beautiful thing to document — never knowing that this would be the very fragile link to the past that came down to us in the 21st century and allowed us to recreate it. Without that photograph, this mural would have been lost for all time.”

Mr. Scott has known about the mural since he joined the Trust in 1992. Ms. Datz learned about it a decade ago. “When Chris first showed me the photograph,” she recalls, “my jaw hit my chest. I could not believe that this church had been so richly embellished. Like everyone else, I had kind of surrendered to its beautiful austerity – when really the intention from the start was completely different.”

The Preservation Trust secured $25,000 from Edgartown’s Community Preservation Act funds and as much again in private donations for the restoration project. Mr. Scott and Ms. Datz traveled, in December, to Provincetown and Nantucket to view Wendte’s murals and meet with the people who restored them.

The style of all three murals is called trompe l’oeil, which is French for “fool the eye.” Says Ms. Datz, “This style of mural messes with your sense of space. It affects how you physically experience it.”

Having viewed Wendte’s artistry in person, Mr. Scott says, “You think, a shadow is a shadow is a shadow. Not necessarily. I’ll never look at things the same way again.”

After their field trips, Ms. Datz’s recreation of the Old Whaling Church mural continued with scrutiny of that single photograph. She enlarged it, studying every line and shaded contour, then created a line drawing two feet square. That linear rendering gave her what she calls “the bones of the project.”

Next, working with a palette of warm grays based on the color research done in Nantucket, Ms. Datz painted a four-foot-square tonal rendering which conveys the play of light and shadow in the final mural.

For the Nantucket restoration, says Mr. Scott, “They took paint samples; they did chemical samples, and they’ve been extraordinarily generous to share this information with us. We did not have to reinvent the wheel here — all this analysis has just been handed to us. It’s a tremendous help.”

John Anderson has set up sturdy scaffolding against the front wall, and Ms. Datz (with some help from her artist brother, Steve) has been clambering up and down for two weeks transferring first a precise grid, then the chalked lines of the mural onto the prepared surface. As the project advances in the weeks ahead, there’ll be lots more clambering as Ms. Datz works up-close to paint rendering onto the wall, then steps back to see how the illusion works from twenty and forty feet away.

Murals are a unique art form, says Ms. Datz, who shares this definition: “I don’t think something is a mural until you have to turn your head to see it. Otherwise you’re just looking at a big painting.”

Given the expanse of wall in the Old Whaling Church and the task of creating a mural so vast from one old photograph, this project could terrify an artist without Ms. Datz’s years of experience. “For some reason,” she says, “I feel really calm about this job. A big part of that, I think, is just time in the saddle.”

She explains: “Mural painting has offered me an opportunity to paint a hundred different ways. I’ve painted in every style, and I’ve experimented with different palettes — because I wanted each client to have something unique. What that has afforded me is 30 years of unending artistic expansion.”

Looking ahead, Ms. Datz isn’t worried about completing this project in time for Edgartown’s annual town meeting in April. “A project like this is a bit like Chinese cooking: there’s an intense amount of preparation, but if one prepares well, it comes together. Once I get my colors mixed and all of my notations down, things will start to move. People who come in will be saying, whoa – that wasn’t here last week.”

Chris Scott knows that the Preservation Trust, as caretakers of Island landmarks from the Flying Horses to the Grange Hall, has to focus first on essential maintenance. A leaky roof needs repair right now – but the years also bring opportunities for special projects that enhance the Island’s built landscape.

“This project is not only important culturally,” he says, “but so interesting from an intellectual and academic perspective.

“Putting this mural back in the Whaling Church is really important to do. It’s a piece of our cultural history.”

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Lately, the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Needs Assessment Study Committee — don’t worry, there’s no acronym quiz later — has been batting around an early draft of the preliminary report prepared by their consultant, Karen Sonnarborg. It’s a policy wonk’s dream, packed with data that lets you drill down as deeply as you like into the dynamics of the housing problem on the Island today.

Consider, for example, the storied Affordability Gap — the financial chasm between the cost of the home a family earning a median income can afford, and the actual median cost of an Island house on the market today.

Ms. Sonnarborg crunched a lot of numbers to develop what first appears as Table 3 in the early draft that’s circulating now. The report applies assumptions which only reduce the size of the affordability gap — for example, that buyers can secure 30-year mortgages at 5 percent and have cash on hand to pay 20 percent of a home’s price up front. (Surely you’ve a spare $80,000 rattling around in your checking account – don’t you?)

Even with these optimistic assumptions, the affordability gap for home buyers across Martha’s Vineyard averages $213,500. But that county-wide number conceals a wealth of interesting detail.

When you look at individual Island towns (see the graphic, please), a richer picture emerges. In Oak Bluffs, the difference between what a family at median income can afford and the median cost of a home is $80,000. In Chilmark, it’s $426,000. On this tiny Island, that’s a remarkable range. A median-income Chilmark family shopping for a home today actually faces no affordability gap — if they’re willing to buy a few miles away in Oak Bluffs.

The housing study reports that the market for single-family homes peaked on Martha’s Vineyard at a median price of about $700,000, in 2007. With the recession and the bursting of the national housing bubble, that median price fell to a low of $512,000 in 2011, and had climbed back to $535,000 by September of this past year.

So the affordability gap shrank for a few years, then went right back to growing. If you’re a working family on Martha’s Vineyard waiting for this home market to come back to you, you’re waiting for a recession a lot worse than the one we’ve just experienced.

But to return to this early draft of the study due out in April: Because the dynamics of housing are inextricable from the people living in it, we should expect a healthy dose of demographics that hold a mirror up to this community. The report finds, for example, that Martha’s Vineyard is hemorrhaging people in the prime of their working, family-raising years. In 1990, people from ages 25 to 44 made up 36.6 percent of the Island population. By 2010, that fraction had fallen to 24.4 percent.

Equally alarming is the evidence that the Island’s success as a seasonal resort has produced an economy in which low-paying, service-industry jobs predominate. In 1990, 22 percent of all working people on the Vineyard were employed in this bottom tier of the labor market; in 2010 that fraction had nearly doubled, to 43 percent.

Comparing this draft report to Preserving Community, the landmark 2001 study of the Island housing crisis that spawned a decade of creative efforts, one dramatic contrast is its emphasis on the need for rental housing. The 2001 report called for a 50-50 mix of ownership and rental opportunities in the Island’s housing initiatives; the early draft of the 2013 report suggests that 80 percent rental and 20 percent ownership is a healthier balance.

But what strikes me as most notable is the new study’s frankness in addressing issues that are something of a hot potato for our public leaders: poverty and homelessness on Martha’s Vineyard.

The cliché of pointing out that affordable housing is for our Island school teachers, nurses, and police has been useful, but it glosses over segments of our population that this new study seems poised to address head-on. Declares the early draft: “The number of individuals and families in poverty almost doubled between 1990 and 2010 and about tripled in the case of those 65 years of age or older.”

I know it’s an uncomfortable subject, but this is news we need to hear and to be talking about as a community, not just in the context of a conversation about housing but in broader ways as well. I hope that when the (acronym alert) MVHNASC presents its final report, this language or something like it doesn’t wind up on the cutting-room floor.

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West Tisbury has had a spirited conversation this fall about the trees around the parking lot between the Howes House, the Field Gallery and the new public library. The library building committee met with resistance and expressions of alarm when it went before the selectmen in September proposing to remove 11 Norway maples around the new building and parking lot.

Trees are good, so cutting them down must be bad, right? In a case like this, the best approach is usually to start with the simplest answer, throw it out, and proceed from there.

Tim Boland, executive director of the Polly Hill Arboretum, has volunteered his services on the library landscaping committee, and he’s delighted that such passion should be attached to a conversation about the future of a few trees in town. “I think at the very core,” he says, “you want people to value trees.”

But he urges a deeper consideration of the particular trees involved and of how they conflict with a town project whose goal is admirable: the protection of a precious water resource, Tisbury Great Pond.

The plan for this municipal parking lot at the center of West Tisbury is to use pervious pavers and a rain garden filled with plants whose root systems, Mr. Boland says, will capture 93 percent of the hydrocarbons that would otherwise flow into the great pond.

The Norway maples on the site, Mr. Boland says, simply don’t fit into this plan. They do, however, provide an opportunity to tell a little story about the history of our relationship with trees.

A century and a half ago, the tree of choice for towns across New England was the elm. Towns planted them by the thousands, long before the word monoculture had entered the language, and watched helplessly as disease struck them down. Afterwards, rather than learning our lesson and introducing a healthy diversity to our urban forests, many communities planted fresh monocultures of a hardy tree imported from northern Europe, the Norway maple.

Mr. Boland, who doesn’t like to speak ill of anything deciduous, admits that the Norway maple is “kind of a bad tree.” So bad, in fact, that it is banned by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. That’s right — buying, selling or planting a Norway maple in this state is a crime.

The problem is that Norway maples are aggressive, colonizing woodlands and displacing New England’s sugar maples. Their root systems release chemicals that act like herbicides, discouraging other plants that try to grow in the maples’ understory. Those toxic roots also promise to upend the new parking lot’s pavers, occasioning frequent and costly maintenance work.

West Tisbury’s Norway maples — Mr. Boland estimates their age at 40 to 50 years — are a monoculture in more ways than one. Not only are they all the same species, but they’re also the same age. “When we have an even-age stand,” he asks, “where are your new trees coming from? They certainly won’t grow under those Norway maples.”

The good news is that trees are a renewable resource. The bad news, if you’re into instant fixes, is that they grow at their own majestic pace.

Looking to minimize the visual impact by replacing the Norway maples with the biggest trees available, Mr. Boland says, is the wrong approach. This simply isn’t the way an arborist thinks about things. In a lifetime of arboretum work, Mr. Boland has developed a more patient attitude toward trees and time. He counsels choosing better trees, cultivating diversity, planting small specimens and letting them grow into their full grandeur.

Looking ahead, he says, “You have to have faith that you can replace these maples with better trees. And in 15 years, this whole property will be grown in. We want to plant some linden trees, which are beautiful and have no pest problems. We’d like to plant some native magnolias, which grow beautifully in these rain gardens. We also want to use some screen plantings of our native arrowwood viburnum — a mix of plants that are local to the site, species like the native spirea which grow in the corridor of the Tisbury Great Pond watershed.

“I look at the rain garden and I think, wow, what an opportunity this is to demonstrate these landscape principles. Kids will be able to go outside and read a sign that says, do you know that these shrubs provide fruits for these native birds?”

The grounds of the new West Tisbury Public Library, the town’s center for lifelong learning, are the perfect spot for this project. Building a new library, like planting a tree, is a forward-looking gesture, an act of faith.

“People look at me funny sometimes when I say this,” says Tim Boland, “but planting a tree is being brave. You’re saying, I’m not certain what’s going to happen with this, but I want to do something good, not just for myself but down the line.”

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Island Community Chorus director, Peter Boak. — Photo by Nis Kildegaard

The Island Community Chorus, 114 voices strong, jump-starts the holiday season with concerts at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown this Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 1 and 2.

Peter Boak, director, and accompanist Garrett Brown have been working with the chorus since the week after Labor Day in preparation for this weekend’s performances. Every Monday night, Mr. Boak has cajoled and criticized, challenged and cheered the chorus while Mr. Brown faithfully picked up each thread of what sometimes will flower into 12-part harmonies at the Whaling Church.

In these holiday concerts, says Mr. Boak, “We try to present music from a variety of different traditions.” The choir will sing compositions in Latin, German, Hebrew, and English — with all the lyrics helpfully printed in the concert program book.

In what has become a holiday tradition, the chorus will be joined onstage by a number of talented guest musicians. Baritone Michael Prichard of the Boston area is the featured soloist in one of the concert program’s centerpieces, the “Fantasia on Christmas Carols” (1912) by the great British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Jan Hyer accompanies the Fantasia as cellist. Also performing are clarinetist Julie Schilling, violinist Susan McGhee, and percussionist Brian Weiland.

Mr. Boak is looking forward to leading the chorus in one of the Island’s great musical venues: “It’s wonderful that we get to do a concert like this twice,” he says. “Because it’s not like you’re just putting on a record. Sunday afternoon’s concert won’t be a replay of Saturday. That’s the magic of live performance.”

One of the great mysteries of choral music is the way text is transformed and elevated by song. Mr. Boak, a winner of the Island Award for Creative Living, begins planning these concerts by seeking out texts that speak to the spirit of this season. “When I’m looking for a piece of music, I do want to find a good lyricist – a person who has a good handle on words,” he says. “Because if you have a good, solid text to begin with and you add good music to that, you really can’t go wrong.

“When you’re dealing only with the text, you’re dealing with people’s individual beliefs, and they run the gamut. But when you wed it with music, you’re not just using written language to convey a meaning — you’re also using rhythm and harmony and dynamics. It adds a different dimension.”

The chorus has struggled all semester with a challenging piece by the contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen, his 1997 “Ave Maria,” finally attaining a grasp of its lyrical complexities in just the last few weeks. Mr. Boak came about as close as he ever comes to upbraiding the chorus in a mid-November rehearsal when he implored the singers to get their eyes up out of the sheet music, quoting a sarcastic definition of a good director as “Someone who follows the choir.”

Says Mr. Boak, “Susan Southworth, one of my choir members at the Federated Church, found that definition for me.” Asked what his real definition of a good director might be, Mr. Boak reflects a moment before answering: “I would just say, one who doesn’t let up on a group’s abilities. Who knows what a group can do, and doesn’t let them not do it.”

Double-negatives aside, every singer who has worked with Peter Boak knows how perfectly this expresses his approach to every rehearsal with the Island Community Chorus. His manner is unfailingly patient, but he never lets the chorus get away with anything less than its best.

Mr. Boak acknowledges that some of the singers may have found the “Ave Maria” a frustrating piece of music to learn, but he pointedly recalls a composition by Rodion Shchedrin, “The Sealed Angel,” that was a highlight of another concert several years ago. “The chorus was pulling their hair out over that piece, and the audience just ate it up.”

After eating up this weekend’s concert program, audiences are invited to retire downstairs to the Baylies Room, where a tasty buffet of seasonal snacks prepared by Chorus members will be served.

Island Community Chorus Holiday Concert: 7:30 pm, Saturday, Dec. 1, and 3 pm on Sunday, Dec. 2, at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. Suggested donation is $15 at the door.

Mr. Kildegaard is a regular contributor to the Times and a singer in the Chorus.

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Being called to a marathon government meeting of representatives from the six Island towns might sound like a fitting punishment for something you did that wasn’t terribly nice. But in fact, the 18 members of the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council can reliably expect to leave this Sunday’s annual grant meeting fatigued, but also nourished and even exhilarated from their six hours of work together.

A decade ago, before there was a Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council, six separate town arts councils each year doled out their shares of state money to support cultural enterprises on the Island. Dan Waters was a newly-minted member of the West Tisbury council when state budget cuts hit arts funding hard in 2002. He looked at the inefficiency of six councils and suspected that Vineyarders could do better working together.

Each town was receiving about $2,000 in arts funding and reviewing dozens of applications, and the paperwork involved was daunting. “It began to feel like a fool’s errand to distribute that kind of money and keep the books and maintain the transparency and accountability that you have to do with public money,” Dan told me in a conversation last week.

Almost on a lark, Dan picked up the phone and called the Massachusetts Cultural Council to leave a message, asking how difficult it might be to regionalize the six Island councils. “I thought, I’ll never hear back from these people,” he said. “But I got a call back in 20 minutes from somebody saying the state was very interested in talking with us about this.”

Dan Waters reached out to the cultural councils of his five neighbor towns. Some of them were a bit suspicious at first about collaborating — that’s natural. “But it turns out we all had the same problems,” he said. “The six councils were seeing the same applications, because people were applying to all six towns for local money for projects that would be enjoyed by the whole Island. So you had six times the bookkeeping being done for each project.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council, comprising three members from each Island town, convened for its first Islandwide grant round in November of 2003. From that first meeting, it was clear that what had been achieved by regionalizing involved much more than a savings in paperwork.

Suddenly there was a critical mass of wisdom in the room, a knowledge of the Island’s cultural scene that enriched the conversation and empowered the group to advance the arts here in new and better ways. “We discovered that we could pool not only our money but also our understanding of this community,” Dan said. “When we put all that together in one room, not only were we richer — we were smarter.”

Dan’s ally in organizing the regional cultural council, and its central supporting figure in all the years since, has been Pia Webster of Edgartown, who was executive secretary for the town of West Tisbury back when the regional body was first being organized. Her passion for an open, transparent and fair public process has shaped the workings of the group; her patient guidance of artists through the application forms has helped open funding opportunities for many Island people whose creative talents are far greater than their spreadsheet skills.

I served on the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council for six years, leaving after two terms in 2011. In my last year with the council, we nominated Pia Webster and she was honored by the state with its Leadership Circle Award for her work as our volunteer administrator.

Dan Waters knew from his first experiences working with Pia Webster that she could be a powerful helper for a new regional arts council: “The cultural council is all about involving people in government,” he said. “It’s about public funding, but it’s also about something that touches people in a personal, emotional way — because that’s what art does. I knew that if anybody could open these doors and make the process transparent and welcoming to people, it would be Pia. Boy, was I right.”

As a regional body, the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council found itself wielding a new measure of political leverage for advancing the arts here. Soon, council representatives were asking their towns to contribute $1,500 to the Island’s cultural funding kitty; now those contributions are embedded in every town budget. This Sunday at the Howes House, the Island council will be reviewing 31 grant applications and awarding a total of $36,500.

I remember the afternoon several years ago when my turn came to represent the council at a budget meeting of the Edgartown selectmen. When our request came up, one of the selectmen asked what percentage of the council’s funds had come back to Edgartown that year. I replied that I was proud to say I didn’t know the answer, and that most likely no member of the regional council has ever bothered to work it out: When we gather each fall, it’s in the spirit of supporting those projects that show the most promise of advancing the Island cultural scene — and with the understanding that Island consumers of culture will happily deliver themselves to wherever the best programs are being presented.

The selectmen seemed satisfied, approved the request, and moved on.

The lessons I take away from my experience with the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council are two: that a regional approach to the Island’s challenges can have powerful benefits beyond mere efficiency, and that even when you look at the Island whole, this place is still small enough that two individuals like Pia Webster and Dan Waters can make a huge difference.