Soundings : In praise of navel-gazing
The Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) has been taking a drubbing lately from Island finance committees who have so little real power over municipal costs that their frayed tempers are showing. They're not satisfied that the Martha's Vineyard Commission, which the towns are obligated to support, has delivered a level-funded budget. The FinComs want to reach in, far beyond their authority, and twiddle the dials of the agency's budget.
In Edgartown, thanks to our ever-vigilant financial advisory committee and selectmen, I'll get to vote this April on an utterly meaningless Proposition 2.5 override question to pay our town's $274,203 assessment to the Martha's Vineyard Commission. I've done the math, and my household's share is about $14. And of course Edgartown will be paying this bill either way.
Why does resentment toward the Martha's Vineyard Commission run so deep in some quarters on Martha's Vineyard? I think it's partly because the commissioners sometimes pick their battles poorly, as if their supply of political capital were unlimited. The recent kerfluffle over the color of bricks at the new Martha's Vineyard Hospital is a perfect example of this institutional tone-deafness.
The Martha's Vineyard Commission is also a vessel for Islanders' continuing resentment toward anything with the "regional" label attached to it. The suspicion of all things regional, happily, is on the decline - there are simply too many examples of cross-town cooperation that work. But still, the old home rule rhetoric does find traction in our civic discourse.
Finally, the Martha's Vineyard Commission is victim to one of the most persistent canards still on the loose in the public arena: the characterization of planning as the domain of a few meddling elitists who huddle in their bureaucratic ivory towers, handing down regulations like Zeus tossing thunderbolts and churning out documents that only fill shelves and gather dust.
It's easy to belittle planning by pointing out the hubris of presuming that the future is knowable and that we can reach out to shape it. Planning does involve the future because it asks the question, how would we like this community to look years from now? But here on the Vineyard, planning is usually less a matter of vision and foresight than a reaction to events that prompt us to ask, wait a minute - is this really what we want?
Planning, more often than not, is what we do after bad things happen. It's about closing the barn doors after the first horses have escaped - or to be more specific, cleaning up a pond after the shellfish have begun to die. Our natural tendency to be mistrustful of rules makes us loath to regulate ourselves until events drive home the consequences of living without them.
I've got three examples of this, and the story of zoning in Edgartown is the first. Edgartown had no zoning until about 40 years ago, when the rate of development in town multiplied until buildings were sprouting like mushrooms after rain in places where nobody had expected them. One such surprise was the appearance of a building complex at Mattakesett that had folks in town asking, how could something like this have happened? It happened, quite simply, because there were no rules in place to prevent it. The citizens of town, seeing that development and several others, accepted zoning in order to protect their own property values and to preserve the quality of life they valued.
The affordable housing front provides another example of this dynamic. Advocates for covenants preserving the affordability of homes have argued for years that like zoning, these restrictions provide an overwhelming benefit for the common good. This point of view got a huge push in 2002 from the million-dollar sale of a Pilot Hill property that had been awarded as a "youth lot" back in 1977. This sale was the "ka-ching!" heard around Martha's Vineyard. It was a sharp reminder that until we are in a position to put every deserving family into an affordable home, we shouldn't be in the business of spending public money to make a lucky few families rich. Nowadays, the understanding is nearly universal that permanent affordability is essential if we're to amass a stock of homes for future generations.
Finally, an example from one of those planning exercises that the critics so enjoy dismissing as mere gatherers of dust. The Upper Main Street Master Plan was produced by the Edgartown planning board in 1989, a time when bad things were happening on Upper Main - bad, that is, unless your idea of beautiful involves a street lined by acres of blacktop with commercial buildings behind them.
That 1989 planning document includes a striking juxtaposition: two aerial views of the district, one showing its expected buildout under existing rules, another showing what could be built under a new set of proposed guidelines. Imagine the asphalt vista presented by the Stop & Shop on one side and the Al's Package Store complex on the other, repeated down the length of Upper Main - that was the first sketch. The second sketch depicted something more like what we have today. Because on Sept. 12, 1989, Edgartown voters unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing the master plan and encouraging public agencies and private owners to use the plan as a guide in further improvements to the area. In the years that followed, voters gave the ideas set forth in that plan the force of law, and they have shaped Upper Main since then.
In Edgartown two decades ago, we saw the outlines of a future we didn't want, and we changed course. It's an Island story that has been replayed over and over again. In fact, that's the way the process we call planning usually works on Martha's Vineyard. It may be tedious - this is a democracy, after all - but in the end it's as healthy as the impulse to pull one's hand away after touching a hot stove.