Soundings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 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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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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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.

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Consultant Karen Sunnarborg is at work now preparing an Island housing needs assessment, a much-needed update to the reports prepared in 2001 and 2005 for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. There’s a lot to analyze, because so much has happened in this field over the past seven years.

Ms. Sunnarborg’s report will tally the affordable properties on the Island and measure them against the community’s need. But what I’m waiting most eagerly to read is her analysis of what has worked, what could be done better, and what we perhaps shouldn’t try to do again.

One aspect of the affordable housing story that won’t be tabulated, but deserves to be celebrated, is the shift in public attitudes on the issue that the past decade has seen on the Vineyard. You seldom hear, any more, the geezer’s argument that affordable housing shouldn’t be the public’s business: “I worked hard when I was young, and I bought an Island home; I don’t see why we need to subsidize them now.” And we less often hear that worn-out complaint about creating “second-class citizens” when the topic is the subsidy of an affordable home with resale limits ensuring that it will be affordable for generations.

Such is the emerging consensus that three years ago, when the Island Housing Fund imploded, Island towns stepped up to support the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority’s rental assistance program and now reliably fund that program to the tune of half a million dollars a year.

In her report to the Island, Ms. Sunnarborg will have many successes to highlight. As we look at what we’ve accomplished, among the most interesting questions will be: Which of these programs can we duplicate? What is scalable, and what isn’t? Since we’re spending public money here, what gives the best bang for the buck?

Certainly one of the notable successes in affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard over the past ten years has been the rental assistance program. For about $6,200 per rental, per year, it matches income-qualified tenants with Island landlords and pays part of the rent to make the properties affordable. Currently the program serves about 70 households, whose tenure in rental assistance averages two and a half years.

Rental assistance is a useful tool for preserving the diversity of the Island’s year-round community. But it’s not a program we can double in scale by throwing more money at it. In fact, the regional housing authority has asked at least one town in each of the last three years to reduce its funding for rental assistance, citing a shortage of landlord-tenant matches.

The only other Island initiative that rivals rental assistance in scale and impact is Morgan Woods in Edgartown. Morgan Woods, a mixed-income development of 60 rental units on 12 acres of town land, doubled the stock of affordable housing in Edgartown when it opened in June of 2007. Five years later, it’s a stable neighborhood with three-quarters of its original renters still in residence. Visit Morgan Woods in the evening and you’ll find families barbecuing on porches and kids playing on the greens; visit during the day and you’ll find most of the parking spaces empty, because folks are at work.

Morgan Woods is a thumping success by almost every measure, and it’s a story crying out to be duplicated on the Island.

Edgartown is already working on plans for a mixed-use housing development on nine acres off Clevelandtown Road. This project will be smaller — perhaps 20 units or so. But it builds on the success of Morgan Woods and moves Edgartown closer to the day when it meets the state standard of 10 percent affordable housing stock. Towns meeting that standard need no longer fear the threat of a hostile developer using Chapter 40B to ram through an unwelcome project.

Why aren’t more towns actively exploring the Morgan Woods approach? The guess here is that even though this project has worked out wonderfully, the idea of it offends our Vineyard sensibilities. Where affordable housing is concerned, we’re still fixated on an old esthetic that doesn’t serve us well when the mission is meeting this community’s needs. We’re still wrapped up in the romance of the detached single family home, and we’re inclined to see multi-home projects as somehow “un-Vineyardy.”

It took real leadership to overcome our attachment to scattered site housing and get Morgan Woods built. It’s doubtful that this neighborhood could have been created without the conviction of its namesake, Ted Morgan, and the respect he had earned in a lifetime of service to his town.

There are places where developments on the scale of Morgan Woods could be situated on the Island — most notably on land set aside for just this purpose in the Southern Woodlands of Oak Bluffs. The question is whether the Island now has a leader with the stature of a Ted Morgan to bring the next big affordable housing initiative into being.