Editorial

The late-January blizzard brought Islanders misery in enlarged if not wholly unexpected ways. Another major storm, extending this past weekend through Monday, including further wind-whipped drifts and frigid temperatures, has further tested our resilience. Since there has been plenty of warning for these storms, most of us in towns across the Island have come through unscathed, and certainly more favored than many other New Englanders.

Owing to the sheer volume of snow, though, resources were clearly strained, and success in clearing roads and sidewalks, freeing up emergency-vehicle access, and reconnecting neighborhoods with main streets, and then in getting mountainous piles of the heavy white stuff reduced if not removed, played out differently in each town.

Despite our impulse to patience with the immensity of the task, though, it’s hard to ignore the roundly held view in Vineyard Haven that the system here started out particularly poorly. The most dramatic and threatening breakdown in preparedness emerged from Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling’s account of an ambulance responding to an emergency call getting stuck on Franklin Street in mid-storm on Jan. 27. A second ambulance was dispatched, but also became stuck, and was ultimately towed to its destination by a front-end loader.

More broadly, Main Street was a mess, Franklin Street was narrowed and slippery, parking was very slow to be restored, trucks with plows were getting stuck. Residents faced no way out of their homes for excessive periods, and after resorting to calling the Tisbury Department of Public Works (DPW) for information or assistance, were sent to voicemail limbo.

Town officials have so far had two opportunities — a selectmen’s meeting on Feb. 2 and a Department of Public Works meeting on Feb. 9 — to talk to us about what they’ve learned and convince us that they’ll get it right the next time. It looks like there’s a long way to go.

As Rich Saltzburg reported in The Times of Feb. 4 (“Tisbury selectmen review response to January blizzard”), the public discussion at the Feb. 2 selectmen’s meeting gave little indication that anything much went awry. Town administrator John “Jay” Grande did concede that “there were areas where some additional planning and effort would have mitigated some of those [blizzard-related] impacts.”

Selectmen chairman Jonathan Snyder was equally undemanding in his assessment, calling storm preparedness and performance “a work in progress.” These seem overly patient, given the extent of community frustration.

If the few days between the storm and the selectmen’s meeting didn’t allow enough time for a serious assessment, it certainly was a reasonable expectation for the Department of Public Works (DPW) board meeting on Feb. 9. But as Steve Myrick reported in the Feb. 12 Times (“Tisbury DPW response to the snowstorm faulted by residents, town officials”), that meeting was particularly frustrating.

DPW Commissioner Jeff Kristal was willing to step up: “We failed,” he acknowledged. But DPW board member John Thayer, citing the extent of the storm and DPW’s limited resources, disagreed. “I’m not going to apologize for us needing an extra day,” he said. And DPW’s salaried director Glenn Mauk agreed with resident Charles Cournoyer that “there is not a plan in place … My limited time here has identified many different areas where we have a lack of planning. What we found by the second day was the staff was down to four people.”

Mr. Thayer’s deflection doesn’t wash: We need resources and plans to anticipate the big storms, not the ordinary ones. And Mr. Mauk’s bid for rookie status isn’t convincing: With one year (including a full winter season) under his belt, he should have known what was needed.

Admittedly, other factors are at work here, including a tense labor environment and a baffling, persistent confusion regarding responsibility for clearing Tisbury’s many private roads. The most obvious problem standing in the way of clear assignments of responsibility, though, is a structural gap in Tisbury governance big enough to drive a truck (and attached plow) through.

As Selectman Tristan Israel explained at the Feb. 2 meeting, “Under Tisbury’s government structure, selectmen have no authority over the five independently elected public works commissioners.” Selectman Melinda Loberg explained the same thing in an interview with The Times.

Independent boards with extensive responsibility for important public services, such as the Tisbury DPW, aren’t particularly rare. The general argument for divorcing them from broader governance is that it protects professionalism from political meddling. The risk with independent boards is that the performance and the shared accountability we require can be variable and undependable, and we have no easy remedy.

An important opportunity to make progress in Tisbury is coming up soon. The town’s visioning process, which for several months has been engaging many community members in setting an agenda for the town’s future in ways big and small, has identified improving town governance as a major area of interest. And town meeting has approved and allocated funds for a consultant to examine town government and reorganize town departments, hopefully taking a very careful look at the independent-board structure DPW enjoys.

Consulting studies can be important tools in the right hands, or they can gather dust and disappear in the mists of time. But Selectman Loberg reports “more of a sentiment for it now than there has been in a while.” It seems a great moment to capitalize on hard-learned lessons.

Early signs of improved preparedness began to emerge at the end of the Feb. 9 meeting, and are welcomed. And efforts during and following the second round of blizzard conditions this week seem much improved. But this is a moment of greater opportunity, where well-intended folks can give up the turf they hold that almost none of really care about, and remember that what we require is a set of elected officials who understand that their job is to make things better and make things work.

This article is updated to correct the spelling of DPW commissioner Jeff Kristal’s name.

We Vineyarders pride ourselves on our strong sense of community. It’s both a bulwark against our Island’s relative isolation and an antidote to the more urbanized lives many of us have left behind. We are mostly self-selecting immigrants choosing a high-octane but still small-town life, and our frequent remove from family, from off-Island friends, and from the broader resources off-Island can give us particular pleasure in acts of caring for and thinking about one another.

We extend our definition of caring to include a healthy respect for differing worldviews among neighbors. We may think others are careless thinkers, out of step, flat-earthers, or just plain wrong on the issues, but we comfortably coexist. Our genteelly bohemian tent is big, it’s welcoming, it’s respectful, and it’s ultimately enriching. So it’s an unwritten rule of Island life that we give a wide berth to ideas and opinions we may find disagreeable or uninformed.

We make a serious mistake, though, when our predisposition to tolerance causes us to turn our backs on settled science and state law regarding infectious disease immunization, and grant intellectual and moral equivalence to junk science.

The current national resurgence of measles demonstrates the consequence of this disregard. Measles all but disappeared in the U.S. 15 years ago because universal inoculation with the highly effective MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine meant that only rarely would someone become infected, and thus able to carry and transmit the disease. Absent near-universal participation, though, the entire prevention model will fail, and the risk of infection will pass from the few opting out to all of us, especially infants, the elderly, and those unable to receive inoculations such as pregnant women, and the immune system–depressed such as cancer patients.

The current reemergence of measles isn’t the result of diminished vaccine effectiveness, or a breakdown of compliance within less-advantaged communities. It is largely self-inflicted, a result of faddish, flawed thinking, often clustered in high social-status zip codes and neighborhoods. Jump-started by a single fraudulent research publication conjuring up a false link to autism, and fueled by Internet and talk-show hysterics, and the wish that somehow, healthy food choices and natural approaches to general health can ward off infectious disease epidemics, inoculation rates have fallen precipitously in many places, and the public health structure we depend on is at great risk.

If all this seems remote, it shouldn’t. Martha’s Vineyard parents seek and receive exemptions from Massachusetts law requiring vaccinations (including the MMR vaccine) against 14 communicable diseases as a condition of enrollment for children in public schools at an astonishingly high rate — at 9%, it’s six times the state average for students entering kindergarten, as reported in a Times story written by Nathaniel Horwitz (“Martha’s Vineyard students lag in required vaccinations,” April 16, 2014).

And while it’s true, as Horwitz wrote, that “an exemption does not necessarily mean a student has no immunization,” our very high rate of exemption allows the pool of those free to have their children forego regular immunization to be that much larger. Statistics — gathered in October of 2013, which remain about the same — bear out the consequence: Martha’s Vineyard schools reported children without immunization at a rate of 2%, two-and-one-half times greater than the national average. Up-Island, the extent of nonimmunization is much greater — 4% in West Tisbury, and 16% in Chilmark.

Nationally, all states allow medical exemption with clear and strict standards. All but two also allow exemption on religious grounds, with varying degrees of associated documentation. And some, but not Massachusetts, also allow exemptions on philosophical grounds.

At the heart of our noncompliance is the use of religious grounds as an umbrella for anti-vaccine sentiment, and our tolerance for granting unchecked and unquestioned exemptions, however unwittingly such tolerance harms the rest of us. On the Vineyard, parents can submit affidavits asserting their religious privilege, and as Dr. James Weiss, superintendent of schools, recently told The Times’ Janet Hefler, “We don’t question exemptions requested on religious grounds. I don’t feel it’s my place to.” Acknowledging the low rates of immunization we experience, Dr. Weiss said, “We really can’t force [parents] to inoculate their children if they’ve claimed a religious exemption.”

We understand Dr. Weiss’s reluctance to press this challenge to parental choice, but we disagree; many avenues to increased compliance could be and need to be employed. As Dr. Weiss points out, school nurses have been diligently trying to spread the message, but more public discussion is needed. And tougher enforcement of the religious-exemption procedure is also needed.

An interesting illustration of what can be done is found in two unlikely states: Mississippi, with no provision for religious exemption and a strict policy for medical exemption (only 17 students exempted statewide, compared with 12 on Martha’s Vineyard) has achieved inoculation compliance exceeding 99%. And the 191 religious exemptions granted by Vineyard schools should be compared with 468 religious and philosophical exemptions reported by the CDC for all of Alabama.

Public health is a fundamental component of a safe community, and participating in inoculation against dangerous communicable disease is one of the fundamental agreements we accept as part of living respectfully among our neighbors. However earnest and understandable the impulse to protect our children against any theoretical risk, in the end the facts are otherwise. School administrators have to do their job, and the community needs to make sure they get all the support they need.

The list of Martha’s Vineyard agencies prepared to react immediately in a major Island-wide emergency includes six town police departments, six town fire departments, airport fire crews, four ambulance services, the State Police, and Coast Guard Station Menemsha. These hundreds of men and women are bound by a singular dedication to protecting our Island community — and connected by the radio each responder holds in his or her hand in the midst of an emergency situation.

On Jan. 11, first responders from Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury participated in a training exercise intended to mimic a fire at the Lampost on Circuit Avenue. Over the course of three hours on a Sunday morning, volunteer firemen battled the “blaze,” searched the four-story structure for victims, and rescued a fellow firefighter.

In a follow-up assessment, Oak Bluffs Fire Chief John Rose told The Times the drill highlighted the glaring inadequacy of the radio-communication system. “This has been an Island-wide problem for a while now,” Mr. Rose said. “We knew it was an issue, but we didn’t realize the extent of it until today. There were times I couldn’t get commands to my men because their radios weren’t working properly. When the rapid-intervention team went in on a mayday call to save a fellow firefighter, they weren’t able to communicate with him, and we couldn’t hear where they were. That’s completely unacceptable.”

Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling also expressed concern about a radio-communication system he said was designed in the 1960s.

The down-Island fire chiefs and fire department volunteers are to be commended for organizing a drill for an Island-wide emergency that imagines an all-too-real situation. Learning what did not work is just as important as learning what did. One day, the mayday call may be for real.

The Island has been fortunate, and very lucky when we consider the outcome in recent fire emergencies.

On July 4, 2008, a fire broke out in Cafe Moxie on the corner of Spring Street and Main Street in Vineyard Haven. Firefighters rallied quickly, despite the holiday, and contained the blaze. Although the fire caused considerable damage to the adjacent Bunch of Grapes bookstore, there were no injuries. Light winds that day and a quick, professional response were important factors that helped minimize damage to the downtown business district.

Two years later, on July 12, 2010, a fire destroyed the Coast Guard boathouse and numerous boats in Menemsha Harbor. Again, thankfully, there were no injuries. But for a fortuitous wind direction that blew the scorching flames across the water rather than into the harbor shacks, and a quick response by firefighters from across the Island, all of Menemsha might have gone up in flames.

Chief Rose is correct. The situation is completely unacceptable. First responders must be able to communicate effectively.

The current radio network is a hodgepodge of VHF equipment. There is no standard radio. One department uses one radio brand, another department a different brand. Many of the radios do not meet modern state standards. Cross-department communication is cumbersome.

On Friday, Dukes County Sheriff Mike McCormack hosted a meeting of Island public-safety officials and representatives of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) to discuss the radio problem and possible solutions. It was a good start.

Island public-safety officials must work together to create a communications system that is dependable in all circumstances and under all conditions for the volunteers and professionals that man the front lines. Achieving that goal will take regional leadership on a technical and political level. Where will it come from?

The hub of the current system is the Island Communications Center, located at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport and under the control of Sheriff McCormack. Nine full-time telecommunicators staff the center seven days a week, 24 hours a day, skillfully and professionally dispatching help as needed around the Island.

Radio scanners make it possible for any citizen to listen in on most radio traffic. It can be an eye-opening experience for those unfamiliar with the level of activity that often occurs behind the scenes. Listen for any length of time, and you will hear the dispatcher say, “Call unreadable,” meaning the dispatcher was unable to clearly hear the first responder in the field. Unreadable is unacceptable.

Good job

The blizzard struck late Monday and lasted through Tuesday night. Throughout the storm, Island first responders — police, firefighters, EMS, and highway department crews — responded to numerous calls for medical assistance.

Unfortunately, their job was made more difficult by the poor judgement of those who decided to venture out during the height of the storm. First responders spent time Tuesday looking for a woman on skis in Long Point thought to be in distress, pulling drivers in stuck cars out of snow banks, and removing cars stuck in the middle of the road and blocking traffic.

In some cases, driving was difficult, and drifting snow made some roads and driveways virtually impassable. That did not stop the first responders. In each case, they found a way to reach those in need of help. Hats off to the first responders.

On Tuesday, the members of the Steamship Authority (SSA) met in Woods Hole for their monthly business meeting, and politely listened to the backers of an online petition who have called on the SSA to repeal or suspend rate hikes that went into effect on New Year’s Day. The members, on the recommendation of boatline management, took no action on the request.

The petitioners made the case that the cost of fuel was one of the factors in the SSA’s need to raise an additional $1.9 million in revenue in the new year to cover increased operating costs projected for 2015, which also included vessel maintenance, employee salaries, health care benefits, and pension benefits. The drop in fuel costs, they argued, undercut the need for rate hikes.

Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, said that if the authority does end up with a larger surplus than anticipated next year, the extra money will automatically flow into the SSA’s special-purpose funds to be used to pay for the cost of its capital projects, which will help keep rates lower in the future. Big projects in the pipeline that need to be paid for include a $40 million boat and a $60 million reconstruction of the Woods Hole terminal.

Petition backers pointed to their success in gathering almost 3,000 signatures. It is an impressive number and indicative of the power of social media to rally people to a cause, but their success should come as no surprise. Who would not want to see SSA fares drop? Or for that matter, plane fares, cable bills, grocery prices, and the cost of an ice cream cone in the summer?

These petitioners are going after the wrong fix. It would be as if a heart surgeon asked a patient who gets no exercise and eats sausage morning, noon, and night to cut back on the doughnuts at breakfast — it is not a matter of if, but when and where the future clog will occur.

SSA fare hikes are part of a never-ending cycle with no end in sight. And there is nothing in the past history of the SSA to suggest that had this hike not gone into effect, there would not be one in the future.

What is the solution? One petition signer called on the SSA to give year-round Island residents a break at the expense of tourists and seasonal residents. These would be the same seasonal residents — let’s call them the Island’s golden geese — that support our schools, paid for our $50 million hospital built without one Island tax dollar, and who subsidize our discounted excursion fares to the tune of more than 60 percent of the allocated costs, according to an SSA analysis.

Another petitioner suggested limiting the number of vehicles, to slow the growth of Island traffic. Of course, that would mean fewer geese on the ferries and a bigger budget hole that could only be fixed with a rate hike.

An online petition may provide a barometer of sorts, but it provides no basis on which to run a boatline, or any business. That takes planning and careful analysis, not just of immediate circumstances but of future trends. The last serious planning effort was a short-lived exercise that began in January 2001, when then SSA general manager Armand Tiberio presented an 11-page outline titled “SSA Future Ferry Transportation Service Model, a framework for discussion,” to the members.

In Mr. Tiberio’s model, ferry operations to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket would have become part of a larger transportation network in which short-term Island visitors would be pressed to leave their cars on the mainland in favor of fast ferry transportation to the islands. Mr. Tiberio described the service model as an integrated approach that balanced concerns over growth and cars on both islands with a need for the SSA to address rising operating and maintenance costs, aging vessels, and a growing year-round population’s transportation needs. Sound familiar?

Mr. Tiberio’s proposals were designed to shift the transportation focus of the boatline from vehicles to passengers, to make wider use of barging of petroleum products, and to use off-Cape ports, in particular New Bedford, in the reorganized service plan.

Nantucket member Grace Grossman was unwilling to consider change, and skillfully generated vehement opposition to any model that included the port of New Bedford, in the process scuttling any significant discussion of that plan or any other. The political blowback was an irritated legislature’s decision to give New Bedford a seat on the SSA board. File that one under unintended consequences.

Mr. Lamson saw the scalding Mr. Tiberio took. A careful and considerate man, he is focused on running the boatline, not making waves. The only remnant of Mr. Tiberio’s plan is private seasonal New Bedford fast-ferry service: a stepchild if there ever was one, generally ignored by the SSA, not embraced as it should be as part of a wider model.

Instead of trying to claw back a few dollars, or shift costs, the petitioners, and Island officials, ought to be pressing the SSA to hire a competent consultant to take a serious look at its operating model, which now is based on big boats and fare hikes whenever it predicts a budget shortfall. It is time to look decades down the watery road.

Five Corners remains a clogged transportation artery. Is it possible to move the terminal up Beach Road? The Martha’s Vineyard Commission first raised that option, and ought to apply some of its transportation-planning horsepower to another look. The South Coast Rail project would extend service to New Bedford. How would that fit into a transportation model? What will be the cost of the next big boat, and what might be an alternative? It is time for the SSA to undertake a serious and far-reaching look at its service model and how to best accommodate growth, which all trends point to as unavoidable in the future.

Annually, Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard (Hospice MV) presents the Spirit of the Vineyard Award to a person, in its words, “whose work has made a difference to individuals and the community as a whole.”

The most recent award, presented at a well-attended ceremony in the West Tisbury library, honored John Early of West Tisbury for his many years of community service.

Were one to apply the same criterion — work that has made a difference — collectively to an Island organization, the fitting recipient would be Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard. Quietly and with no fanfare, often in the most emotionally challenging times of life that an individual and his or her loved ones will face, Hospice MV is there to provide comfort and support. It may be a reassuring hand to hold through a difficult moment, medication meant to ease pain, or advice for those navigating life’s currents.

The four nurses, two bereavement counselors, and approximately 35 volunteers of Hospice MV provide this support seven days a week, at all hours of the day and night.

Since its inception in 1981, its stated mission has been: “To meet the unique physical, emotional and spiritual needs of all who are facing advanced illness and loss, and to give them hope, comfort and compassion. From the beginning, through the journey.”

That Hospice MV does this for free is a testament to its dedicated staff, led by executive director Terre Young, and the generosity of the Vineyard community, upon which it relies for support. No one is denied succor because he or she does not have insurance or the ability to pay.

In turn, by not relying on insurance, Hospice MV is able to provide care unfettered by insurance requirements, and fills a large gap in the health care delivery system.

End-of-life decisions are difficult. Postponing those decisions, or even not talking about them, can have significant consequences for individuals and family members.

At the invitation of the Island’s various councils on aging, Hospice MV leads a conversation on advanced directives and end-of-life care. “That is part of our outreach to the community, and we are very excited to be part of the conversation,” Ms. Young told The Times.

A 500-page report released in September titled “Dying in America” by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended that end-of-life discussions become part of the normal course of health care conversation.

That is not now the case. A national survey in 2013 found that 90 percent of Americans believed it was important to have end-of-life care discussions with their families, yet less than 30 percent had done so.

Key findings in the report include the fact that people nearing the end of life often experience multiple and apparently preventable hospitalizations:

“Of people who indicate end-of-life care preferences, most choose care focused on alleviating pain and suffering. However, because the default mode of hospital treatment is acute care, advance planning and medical orders are needed to ensure that these preferences are honored.”

Incentives under fee-for-service Medicare result in more use of services (hospital days, intensive care, emergency care), more transitions among care settings, and late enrollment in hospice, all of which jeopardize the quality of end-of-life care and add to its costs. In addition, payment silos contribute to fragmentation of care, hinder coordination across providers, and encourage inappropriate utilization.”

The IOM report said, “Efforts are needed to normalize conversations about death and dying. Several social trends suggest that the time is right for a national dialogue on this issue, including health care consumers’
motivation to pursue high-quality care for themselves and their loved ones; a growing willingness to share stories about end-of-life care experiences that resonate across diverse groups; and emerging leadership in local communities as well as national coalitions and collaborations.”

The IOM committee said it “believes a person-centered, family-oriented approach that honors individual preferences and promotes quality of life through the end of life should be a national priority.”

Hospice MV has its priorities in order.

John Early: Vineyard spirit

Intertwined with what you do is who you are. In recognizing John Early’s remarkable array of contributions to our community’s life, extending for more than 40 years — selectman, volunteer fireman and EMT, board member — with the 17th presentation of the Spirit of the Vineyard Award on Dec. 26, Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard celebrated John’s character as well as his service.

As Rich Saltzberg reported last week (Dec. 31, “John Early honored with Spirit of the Vineyard Award”), John’s public contributions have always shown a bias toward getting things done — housing units developed, trails built, land conserved — but never at the expense of careful and thoughtful listening. He has also has been a first responder for 40 years. Watching John discreetly take a call while out to dinner with friends and then slip quietly away to rush to an automobile accident or a fire, knowing the suffering he would have to mediate on behalf of families and friends, was a lesson in community service at its most human and fundamental.

In accepting the 2014 Spirit award, John attributed the long list of challenges he has undertaken to his failure to realize that “no” could be a complete sentence. While that was appropriately self-deprecating, it’s not that John is a pushover; it just isn’t in his nature to turn aside a chance to be useful.

As we bid goodbye to 2014 and anticipate the promise and challenge 2015 holds for Martha’s Vineyard, New Year’s Day provides an opportunity for Island leaders to take stock — if only at halftime — and consider the course they will chart moving forward. For some it will be full speed ahead; for others, a change may be advisable.

Almost one year ago the board of the Vineyard Nursing Association, faced with mounting debts, made the sensible decision in January 2013 to sell the agency to the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod (VNACC), part of Cape Cod Healthcare, a $700 million operation that is the leading health care provider on the Cape.

Ultimately, the deal collapsed. The VNA ended operations on March 11, and the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod picked up the pieces, insuring stability for a critical component of the Vineyard health care delivery system, one that serves the Island’s overwhelmingly aging population.

The challenge now is how to knit together the network of services that the Island’s aging population will require. The Dukes County Health Council’s Healthy Aging Task Force is grappling with the problem. It will not be easy on an Island with six towns and six of most everything else.

In a year-end essay, part of a collection of essays that appear in this week’s MV Times, Paddy Moore of West Tisbury, co-chairman of the Healthy Aging Task Force, described the dimensions of the challenge. “It is expected that 70 percent of people who reach age 65 will need long-term care at some time in their longer lives, usually for an average of three years,” Ms. Moore said. “This means the Vineyard must strengthen home care services to enable elders to age in their homes, and establish more assisted living facilities, and more nursing home beds.”

Windemere, the Island’s only nursing home, will not be able to meet the need. Ms. Moore said it is time “to explore and develop new models of nursing homes, such as the much-praised Green House model of small cottages with private rooms, private baths, mixed funding, and unusual staffing.”

She is correct. But the task force will be hard-pressed to move forward without significant cooperation from Island agencies and boards. There is an opportunity in 2015 for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which too often is focused on the natural landscape, to direct some of its planning horsepower and $1.4 million budget to the Island’s equally important social landscape.

As we move into 2015 and glance in the rearview mirror, we see the decrepit fixture of the Stop and Shop market in Vineyard Haven. This project was one of Tisbury’s missed opportunities in 2014.

The company wanted to construct a new two-story market in place of the cramped, stale building it now occupies in Vineyard Haven. The company agreed to provide much-needed parking, pay to move a house that no one had paid any attention to but suddenly took on historic importance, and at the request of town officials contribute $1.1 million in various municipal enticements. The project in its entirety would have transformed a block badly in need of a magic wand.

But in May, after one year of planning, meetings, squabbling, and an excruciating public hearing process that oftentimes resembled a game of “I’m thinking of a number; what is it?” Stop and Shop withdrew its application before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The town and the larger Island community were left with nothing to show for this exercise. In a vague corporate statement, Stop and Shop said it would “remain committed to evaluating alternatives to bring back life, vitality and character to the gateway of Martha’s Vineyard and to be the true anchor for the downtown area of the Town of Tisbury.”

Tisbury selectmen and planning board members have an opportunity to exercise leadership and extend an invitation to Stop and Shop executives to return to the Island and move forward in partnership in 2015. The status quo is unacceptable.

A far less visible battle took place in 2014, one that will continue to play out in 2015 in federal court in Boston with potentially significant ramifications for the entire Island.

On August 6, U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV ruled from the bench that the town of Aquinnah and the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association Inc. (AGHCA) may intervene in a lawsuit Governor Deval Patrick filed to block the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) from building what the tribe has described as a boutique casino in its unfinished community center on tribal lands.

The central issue and major hurdle in the tribe’s long-running battle to build a casino, either in southeastern Massachusetts or on tribal lands, is the Settlement Agreement, signed by tribal leadership in 1983 and ratified by the state legislature in 1985 and by Congress in 1987, which stipulated that the tribe was subject to local and state laws and zoning regulations in effect at the time.

The tribe did not oppose intervention by the town, but did object to intervention by the AGHCA. In his remarks from the bench, Judge Saylor said the only real question was whether the town or the Commonwealth could adequately represent the association’s interests.

Judge Saylor said, “They are both political entities with different interests that may change over time, depending on the interests in part of the elected officials who are the decision-makers.” He noted that the association, by contrast, is made up of private landowners with private economic interests.

And he continued, “To flesh it out a little bit and to look ahead, one of the questions here — it’s not directly raised yet, and it may not be raised — but if the Settlement Agreement is not valid or not enforceable, the question is, what then? As I understand it, private and public property was transferred to the Tribe as consideration for the Settlement Agreement. I don’t know what happens at that point. Maybe things are left where they are. Maybe there’s some issue of unjust enrichment or taking or something. I don’t know. But, in any event, depending on the twists and turns of this case as it develops, it’s possible that private landowners may have a very different interest than the governmental bodies in the future; but certainly at the present, their interests are sufficiently divergent that intervention is appropriate.”

Stay tuned in 2015.

Cold weather, gray skies, and rain cannot dim the holiday mood on Martha’s Vineyard this Christmas week. Decorations and lights of all shapes and all levels of grandeur add a festive glow to Island storefronts and houses along the quietest country roads — the Donaroma’s Christmas light display in Edgartown and the Gatchell family house in Oak Bluffs are a treat.

The pleasures of life in a small community during the holiday season were easily seen this week. “How are you? Merry Christmas!” was a common refrain. On the sidewalk, strollers, shopping bags in hand; at the post office, people waiting to mail off presents, or pick up packages; in shops and restaurants, friends embraced friends and exchanged news.

Early Christmas morning across the Island, children — and adults for whom Christmas still kindles childhood delight —  will scramble out of bed to discover what Santa left under the tree. And Santa has been quite busy.

The familiar Santa is a jolly big guy in a red suit who visits one night a year. And then there is the Island Santa. He or she — yes, she — is generally a less flashy dresser, though not necessarily thinner. The hair may be black, brown, red, or nonexistent. That Island Santa, in his or her many forms, has been very busy. Some Santas write checks, some collect them, but all provide a multitude of gifts to the many nonprofits that support our community every day of the year.

For example, one day in November a group of Island Santas rode motorcycles around the Vineyard collecting more than $15,000 in money and toys in support of the Red Stocking Fund. This month a group of Tisbury schoolchildren raised another $3,000 for the same organization.

And throughout the fall, a dedicated group of mostly women collected clothing, food, and toys for needy Vineyard children as they have since the 1930s. Over eight decades, the Red Stocking Fund has brightened Christmas for thousands of Island families. This December, over the course of three days, these Santas and their volunteer elves gathered in the basement of St. Augustine Church to wrap presents that will be found under trees in hundreds of homes on Thursday.

Letters to the Editor regularly speak to the generosity of Islanders. In a letter that appears this week, Margery Pires of West Tisbury, a foster mother, wrote that due to the generosity of the Red Stocking Fund, three young children, ages 5, 8, and 10, will “have a blessed Christmas.”

Also this week, in a Letter to the Editor, Greg Ehrman, a member of the Niantic Park Playground committee, a group of volunteers working to build a playground in the Oak Bluffs park, described a fundraising challenge — $5,000 for a matching donation — that Island Santas easily met.

And in a story published this week, reporter Barry Stringfellow described the energy that motivates the stunning display of Christmas lights Robert Gatchell has been putting up for 33 years at his house on County Road in Oak Bluffs. It is the centerpiece of a collection effort for the Island Food Pantry. In front of his house Mr. Gatchell has placed a large collection box where Island Santas can donate food and/or checks. Last year, Mr. Gatchell said, he collected $1,000 in cash donations and 28 cases of food.

In one week the year will end, and Martha’s Vineyard will enter several months of what can best be described as a period of Island hibernation. There will be no bright displays or cheerful holidays to break the winter gloom as we stay fixed on the prospect of spring.

This week, despite our individual and varied circumstances, we do our best to celebrate the holiday season with family and friends, surrounded by all the gaiety and warmth that our small community provides. Merry Christmas to all.

After years of neglect, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has begun to pay attention to the historic Mayhew Chapel and adjacent Indian burial ground on Christiantown Road in West Tisbury. This effort is welcome and long overdue.

For years, the burial ground was lost in a tangle of briars, brush and poison ivy. In recent months, tribal workers have begun clearing brush from around the simple stones that mark the burial sites of the first Native American converts to Christianity.

In a story published this week, Bettina Washington, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) historic preservation officer, told reporter Steve Myrick that once the landscape is clean the tribe will attend to the condition of the Mayhew Chapel, named for Thomas Mayhew Jr., the first minister to Christianize any of the indigenous peoples of New England, beginning in 1643.

Set on less than one acre, the grounds are all that remain of the “one mile square given by Sachem Josias for a praying town for Indian converts to Christianity.” Their descendants constitute the oldest continuously existing community of Christian Native Americans.

Prior to November 1993, when Dukes County and not the tribe owned the building, elder members of the tribe regularly welcomed visitors to the chapel, which also was used for weddings and other events in keeping with the character of the building and its pastoral surroundings.

More than 25 years ago, Wenonah Silva, former president of the Wampanoag tribal council, lectured each summer Sunday on tribal history at the Christiantown chapel. A plaque outside the chapel directed visitors to the burial ground and a nearby wildflower sanctuary.

The chapel now sits sad and forlorn in appearance, its roof and window sills rotting, paint flaking inside and out. Ms. Washington told The Times that the tribe would like to have the chapel open this summer. The long-term goal is to have the chapel open and staffed by tribal members on weekends.

Deeds, not words, are long overdue from a tribe that has often opined about the value of its cultural heritage, yet has allowed this important place to deteriorate.

One year ago November, Tobias Vanderhoop, former tribal administrator, was elected chairman of the approximately 1,200 member tribe. Asked about the condition of the Mayhew Chapel in an interview prior to the election, Mr. Vanderhoop told The Times, “I am embarrassed by it and saddened by it.”

Mr. Vanderhoop said the tribe needed to do better. We agree and we are happy work has begun.

In that same interview, Mr. Vanderhoop commented on the unfinished community center on tribal land in Aquinnah, which outside investors, with the tribe’s blessing but not the state’s, want to turn into a “boutique casino.”

Mr. Vanderhoop said he had heard from many members that the tribe needed a place where young and old can gather. If elected, he said, “One way or another, that building is going to be completed.”

The community center shell was erected in the summers of 2004 and 2005 by Air Force reservists from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. In all, over six weeks, three squadrons of approximately 20 reservists in civil engineering groups worked on the project.

The 6,200-square-foot structure, erected at taxpayer expense, was to include a gymnasium, kitchen facilities, and meeting space. The fact that nine years later the building sits empty and unused is an insult to the citizen soldiers who built it and undermines the respect that this sovereign nation demands and expects.

Tisbury takes a toll

Not surprisingly, as they have for years, Tisbury selectmen Tuesday voted to dun the town’s non-resident property owners and keep in place the residential exemption under which qualified year-round residents get a break on their property tax bills at the expense of their non-resident neighbors.

No other Island town imposes this inherently unfair policy that is in place in only 13 other municipalities in the state.

The underlying logic is that we year-rounders are under some sort of hardship because after all, we have to live on Martha’s Vineyard all year and tend the place until the seasonal swells return. And as we all know, it is expensive to live here.

Of course, it is less expensive than it might be if our seasonal neighbors had to pay for many of the municipal services they do not use, beginning with Tisbury school costs, $9.5 million in 2015. Or decided to be less generous to the many Island nonprofits that they support.

A total of 1,045, or approximately one-third of the town’s 2,906 property owners, benefit from the discount. There is no question that some residents have trouble making ends meet. And that taxes continue to increase for all of us. But pitting voters who benefit from the tax exemption against non-voters who must pay for it, is inherently unfair.

Some towns have senior work-off programs that allows elderly residents to shave their tax bill. There are towns on the Cape that impose a permit fee on weekly rental properties. Tisbury leaders ought to do better for all the town’s residents.

Thomas and Mary Folliard, the recent target of some very unwarranted public mudslinging over their plans to build a two-car garage close by Edgartown’s 177-year-old pagoda tree, told the Edgartown conservation commission and the historic district commission last week that they have shelved plans for a new two-story, two-car carriage house style garage as part of an extensive home restoration project taking place on their quarter-acre South Water Street harborside lot. Instead, according to their architect, Patrick Ahearn, they will build a one-car garage on an existing garage foundation that will not impinge on the tree.

Critics of the original garage plan worried that construction, no matter how carefully orchestrated, might damage the root system of the tree. That stress, they said, might prove fatal to the tree. These were reasonable concerns, but they only emerged following an extensive public process that ended with board approvals of the original plan.

The Edgartown conservation commission held four separate public meetings. No member of the public spoke in opposition to the garage or expressed concern for the tree.

Mr. Ahearn’s design left the root system open to the air. And Mark DiBiase, an arborist, devised a plan to water the tree, provide nutrients, and aerate the compacted soil.

The conservation commission unanimously approved the plan on October 29.

There is nothing in the public record to suggest the Folliards were unwilling to take every precaution to protect the tree. Or had any inkling that the garage plan would stir controversy. They had every reason to think their plan would be beneficial, even appreciated.

David Hawkins, a consulting arborist hired to advise town tree warden Stuart Fuller, reviewed the plan and determined that it would adequately protect the tree. “Both the cultivation/aeration process and the fertilizer application will help improve the soil and the tree’s ability to counteract any negative effects of the construction and encourage root growth in the area,” Mr. Hawkins wrote in his review for the town.

Vineyarders have a long history of coming on board to protest late in the approval process. The Folliards had followed all the rules, survived the approval process, and had every expectation and right to proceed with their plans with no further delays or expense.

News stories, first in the Vineyard Gazette and then The Times generated significant criticism, much of it rooted in emotion rather than botanical science. Edgartown selectmen expressed concern. Online commenters treated the Folliards to lectures on Vineyard taste, aesthetics, manners, class and architecture, and expressed a familiar Vineyard sense of petty resentment toward the wealthy that is absent when the wealthy are being asked to fund community endeavors. The condemnation was unfair and unwarranted.

The wish to construct a grand house on Edgartown harbor is not a new phenomenon. More than a century and a half ago, Thomas Milton of Edgartown took time on one of his worldly voyages to preserve a cutting from a pagoda tree, and carry it back from China in a flower pot to South Water Street where he was building a stately home befitting his status as a successful sea captain.

The Folliards have demonstrated a sense of neighborliness that many of their critics did not.

About that front page photo

Some readers of The Times were unhappy and even offended by the photo of a dead deer on the front page of the issue of December 4.
Each week, The Times staff chooses a front page photo that illustrates life on Martha’s Vineyard. There are many elements that affect that decision-making process, including the quality and strength of the image, photographic elements (framing, color, focus), the news value of the image, and its timeliness. There are basic newspaper rules. People clearly shown must be identified by name in the caption and the photo must not be altered without informing the reader.
The news last week was the shotgun deer hunting season. Hundreds of hunters took to the woods of Martha’s Vineyard. Shots echoed. In a larger context, efforts to control the burgeoning deer herd is part of a public health initiative to reduce tick-borne diseases. State Division of Fisheries and Wildlife biologists staffed a check station in the state forest where they inspected and weighed deer taken during the first week of shotgun season. The information gathered on the health of the Island deer herd factors into future management.
A community newspaper tells and illustrates the community’s stories as clearly and powerfully as possible. The excellent photograph on the front page last week accurately and dramatically captured the reality of the weigh station and the hunting experience.

The year-round community of Martha’s Vineyard is by and large a self-selective one. Most of us have chosen, at some cost and inconvenience, a life a bit removed, a bit more deliberate, a bit less competitive and we believe a bit more nourishing than off-Island living generally allows. We don’t mean to be smug, but we are in fact pretty happy that we can pull it off.

In exchange we give up easy access to the resources that the more densely populated mainland offers. Everything from schools and specialty health care to recreation and cultural institutions and big-scale shopping can be an ordeal to reach. We readily enough make the bargain, though; many of us even embrace the moat-effect the ferries embody, perhaps as a symbol of the modest control over our daily lives we hope for.

We understand that complete control in most things — especially something as complex and dynamic as the cohesiveness of a community — is an illusion. Instead, we’ve arrived at a formula, a series of conventions relying on fundamental mutual respect and generosity among neighbors, as well as on the broad set of similar interests and perspectives we bring with us, to keep community life on the Island within bounds that we can more or less happily live with.

That we prize what we have is made clear because the outside world can intrude with a vengeance. Michael Brown’s killing by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and its aftermath are a reminder of how complex and disappointing the larger world can be. Quite apart from the pointless death of a young man and the inconsistencies and serial failures on the part of the public officials and police officers responsible in the aftermath, the broader subtext of racism, fear, frustration and anger in Ferguson seems as alien to our lives on the Vineyard as an American community could be.

There are two Fergusons, just as there are dozens of parallel and unequal communities in towns and cities across the country. We can’t bridge the gap without talking about race and crime and fear, but our conversations are stillborn because of the dissimilarities of our realities, what Charles M. Blow, in an Op Ed piece in The New York Times, calls “a canyon of disparity.” As Blow says, we can’t have the conversation until we fill in the canyon.

Because most of us can’t easily relate to Ferguson and because we don’t know how to bring about the changes we wish for, we avert our eyes and move along, disengaged if not untouched. When we look away, though, we put national shame and personal tragedy to waste.

Systemic change is needed, focusing on structure and oversight for local police, on training and education, on transparency and public accountability and, ultimately, on confronting the root causes of racism in America. One can be pardoned for skepticism, though, as we wait for the honest conversation and brave leadership we need; we’ve learned that it’s almost impossible to underestimate the will or the courage of most American politicians and legislators to do the right thing.

Here on Martha’s Vineyard our amity owes much to the great good fortune of largely shared outlooks and a similarity of expectation. Our chasms are small, and more of our own making than not. Our self-interest lies in investing in the structures and enterprises and conversations that sustain a diverse but inclusive community.