MVC approves private club
Edgartown members-only club raised philisophical issues
Plans to build the Field Club, a private family recreational facility in Edgartown, evoked some impassioned discussions about the Island's perceived social and economic disparities by members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) last week.
Despite the expressed angst, the commissioners voted seven to three to approve the GOOD Company's proposed members-only club on South Village Road, after reviewing it as a development of regional impact (DRI).
In addition to cultural issues, wastewater was the other major concern. One condition added by the MVC requires zero net nitrogen output in the event the facility is not hooked up to the town's sewer system.
The facility, which will include tennis courts, a pool, and a fitness center, is to be built on seven acres of residential-zoned land in a subdivision surrounding a former gravel pit.
A DRI vote to approve, disapprove, or approve with conditions is generally preceded by a discussion in which the commissioners weigh a project's benefits and detriments. The discussion was indeed weighty at times.
Although private clubs such as the West Chop Club and Edgartown Yacht Club are long-standing fixtures on the Island, for several commissioners the fact that the club would be private represented a philosophical fault-line.
Tisbury commissioner Nathaniel (Ned) Orleans pointed to "gated communities, trophy house communities, and private clubs with no public participation and exorbitant membership fees" as a form of economic prejudice.
"I believe that the damage, however intangible it may seem to be, that can be done to this Island because of increasing economic disparity among our residents, both full-time and part-time, is considerable," Mr. Orleans said. "So I shall vote against approving this application, because I am firm in my conviction that it is not in the best interest of our Island to encourage or endorse any further economic diversity than already exists."
Oak Bluffs Commissioner Paul Strauss told Mr. Orleans he agreed with him somewhat. He pondered, "Should we deny this project because it doesn't fit our view and the view of most of us in the past half century, of what we think the Vineyard is or what we want it to be?
"Or should we conclude that the Island in every sense is big enough to accommodate a group of people who wish to have their own little enclave in paradise, as well as those who do not want to live in that manner?"
Doug Sederholm, MVC Chilmark member, said that although the Field Club reinforces the idea that the Island's existence is tied to the resort economy there was also the question of the rights of citizens. "You know, it's really a cultural value thing. Do we need a tennis club? No. Martha's Vineyard is not about tennis clubs. It's not about $80,000 per membership tennis clubs. Do these people have a right to build it? Well, yeah, I mean, it's America."
The MVC has a unique charter to "protect the values that are inchoate, that are in many ways special to this place, and I think it makes it all the harder to make that choice," Mr. Sederholm said.
Oak Bluffs Commissioner John Breckenridge agreed. "I think my fear is to develop this Island into what is unfortunately characterized as an upscale playground could in fact challenge and change the historical and cultural conditions that Doug refers to."
Private versus public
But Mr. Breckenridge also pointed out that private clubs are not something new on the Vineyard. "Right next door [in Edgartown] is Mattakesett, and that's a private tennis club, and there are a lot of other private clubs on the Island, so I'm not certain I can hang my hat any longer on just preserving a rural, small town, natural environment," he said.
Chris Murphy of Chilmark asked Mr. Orleans to comment on the difference between the proposed Field Club and the private Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown approved by the MVC several years ago.
"I have no objection to private clubs which allow public participation on a continuing basis - Farm Neck, Mink Meadows - I can call up any time and get a tee time," Mr. Orleans said. "I just see this as one in a string of things, some of which have happened, but many more of which are going to happen, which are going to change the character of this Island considerably."
Andrew Woodruff of West Tisbury, who joined Mr. Orleans in voting no on the project, said the application brought back childhood memories of feeling like a second-class citizen around his friends who lived in Edgartown. Amplifying Mr. Orleans's sentiments about stemming the tide against such developments, he said, "What I've struggled with about this project is, is this Island capable of absorbing this one project or do you look at it truly as I feel it is, as a threat or string of potential future changes?"
Tisbury Commissioner John Best also voted no on the project, citing concerns about the club's exclusive nature and wastewater issues.
No to social engineering
Despite the expressed fears of a widening cultural divide, several commissioners said that personal feelings would not influence their decision. Others said the Island was big enough to accommodate many needs.
Mimi Davisson of Oak Bluffs said that although the proposal does not represent the character of the Island she chose to move to, she could not deny it for that reason alone. "I'd like to think there aren't enough people here that will join this," she said. "But I think we just have to let it play out."
"I believe this Island embraces a wide spectrum of people, both the working middle-class and the wealthiest, and there has really historically and currently been room for all of us," said Edgartown Commissioner Carlene Gatting-Condon. "While I understand Ned's views and Andrew's, and I understand that the Island suffers from a decreasing middle class and a growing income disparity, I don't believe that we as a commission can socially engineer the people of this Island so that by denying this application, we will force the wealthy and the working class to mingle."
Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, MVC chairman, said that Mr. Orleans voiced many of her own concerns, but she viewed the club as a symptom, not a cause, of the Island's changing social and economic makeup. "...There have always been wealthy people here, and I guess if I felt that this was actually going to make something worse, I would vote against it," she said. "But for people who want to be part of this kind of club, and that's the experience they want for their families and their children, I guess I don't feel comfortable telling them we don't like that and we disapprove of that."
Mr. Sederholm concluded the discussion by reminding the commission, "We are a land use agency, and we're to ensure land usage will promote certain values. And we're not a social engineering agency, we're not a welfare agency, we're not a human services agency - we are a land use agency."
Welcome to Granola-Ville
Commenting this week on Mr. Orleans's remarks, Michael Donaroma, an Edgartown selectman and one of the project's backers, said, "I'm outraged how someone could live here and have so many years of experience on Martha's Vineyard and not get it."
Mr. Donaroma said that as a youngster growing up on the Island he would wait all winter long for the summer people to arrive and provide jobs. "Now, we have a middle class living on the Island," Mr. Donaroma said. "In Edgartown, more than 80 percent of our tax base comes from summer residents. They pay for our schools, our hospitals - their residential numbers clearly outnumber the year-rounders."
A former long-time MVC member, he said, "You have to remember the Kennedys put the commission together in the first place. They're summer residents, and they're not poor. Is Martha's Vineyard now 'Welcome to Granola-Ville'?"
Despite their philosophical wanderings, however, Mr. Donaroma conceded the commissioners did their job. "Between their hard work and our hard work, we ended up with an even better project," he said.