Editorial : What eminent domain is for
Refreshing a diminishing public view to the north across the sloping field that falls away from State Road to the head of Lake Tashmoo is certainly in the public interest. Doing so in the clumsy, indirect, and bullying fashion employed by the Tisbury selectmen is deplorable. There are civil, legal, established ways to accomplish such public purposes.
The Payettes, whose willows impinged on the view before they were felled last week, according to an as yet unwritten, and unfunded, agreement with the town, must be congratulated for their forbearance, their desire for a peaceful resolution of what had become a testing, multi-year conflict, their willingness to accept a qualified informality in dealing with the town, and their appreciation of the public's interest in the view over their property. It's all commendably accommodating on their part.
But, in the background, there is a sense of the unhappiness associated with this conflict over the willows. The Payettes' modulated response masks but does not erase the tension, the unease, and the duress that have been a part of this capitulation.
"Because we only go there a little bit, we go there to relax; we don't go there to fight," Ms. Payette told Times writer Janet Hefler last week. "Tom and I are both 77. And the thing is, we aren't going to live forever, and we'd just like to be able to enjoy it while we live."
The Payettes planted the willows, now removed, 30 years ago when they bought the property at Tashmoo Farm. Their four children and 10 grandchildren played, celebrated, and married beneath those trees, Ms. Payette said.
And now, "We don't need to battle over trees. We battle over so much in this world, it's ridiculous," her husband said.
For their part, the Tisbury selectmen at the time the issue arose in 2007 countenanced bad behavior by one of their own, in pursuit of an accommodation from the Payettes. Tristan Israel, the selectman, set a high water mark for political unpleasantness, early in his campaign for opening the view, by publicly abusing the Payettes.
"The idea of doing something for the greater public good apparently is not important to the Payettes," the selectman said early on, while promoting his misbegotten approach. "We have tried everything. We were civil, we offered alternatives, and basically, we were stonewalled."
Ultimately, it was selectman Jeff Kristal who was able to recast the effort and negotiate the agreement that was implemented last week.
What ought to have happened? Eminent domain is the way that such public interests ought to be pursued.
The town ought to have formally declared itself devoted to the view from the Tashmoo Overlook, and to its maintenance. Such a decision would necessarily mean a permanent right on the town's part to maintain the view. Negotiations ought to have been undertaken, on a good faith basis, between town and private property owner, to arrive at an agreement.
There would necessarily be a price attached to such an accommodation by a property owner. The town's voters would be asked to agree to the price.
Perhaps no agreement was possible, either over outright acquisition of the land where the willows flourished or an easement that would allow the town to maintain the view as it saw fit. Then the town, declaring its need and determination to protect that view, might condemn the property, or a part of it, or an easement over it. The price would reflect the value of what was taken and the effect of the taking on the value of the property remaining in private hands. The town's voters, faced with a number, could decide if the price was a price they wanted to pay.
There is no suggestion here that the property owner would have been any less enthusiastic about such an outcome than they may have been about what happened last week. Eminent domain is rarely a cheery event for both sides. But, on the town's part the process would have been civil, lawful, comprehensive, conclusive, and it would have demanded of the town and of its voters an upfront acceptance of the cost they were willing to bear, as well as the cost they expected the private property owner to pay.