What can you say?
Janet Hathaway had it exactly right.
"It's appalling," she said.
Ms. Hathaway is chairman of Edgartown's resident homesite committee. She was commenting on news that Chappaquiddick property owner William S. O'Connell recently clear-cut a portion of a one-acre lot he owns on Sandy Road, adjacent to the one-acre lot on which he owns a house. Mr. O'Connell intended to use the lot, which is next to the one on which he lives, to land his helicopter. Edgartown zoning officer Lenny Jason Jr. told the Quincy-based developer he could not legally use the property as a landing site.
Ms. Hathaway's comment was not actually directed at the damage to Chappy flora on the O'Connell holding. What was appalling to Ms. Hathaway and must be to most sensible Islanders is the duplicity that underpins Mr. O'Connell's actions, because Mr. O'Connell is one of 10 plaintiffs who went to court to block the construction of affordable housing on three nearby, one-acre lots in the same subdivision in which he owns a house. Among other arguments, Mr. O'Connell and his fellow plaintiffs told the court that development of the affordable housing lots would disturb the natural habitat and wildlife.
There are four important lessons here, lessons that have grave implications for the provision of affordable housing on this unaffordable Island, including the sometimes separate island of Chappaquiddick.
First, the not-next-to-me instinct is powerful, unrelenting, and, for those whose settled understanding of their neighborhoods is under the threat of change, can lead to bouts of unreason.
Second, coupled with the changes that increased density and the arrival of neighbors who may not be our kind imply, there is the feared damage to property values. Island-wide, even in expensive, protected enclaves, real estate values reign supreme. They must be protected at all costs. Higher density anywhere on Martha's Vineyard may chip away at the rock of value from which even the already rich Vineyard property owners take satisfaction.
Third, in defense of the neighborhood and its property values, any argument will do. Maybe the Chappy neighborhood of Mr. O'Connell is a treasure of rare moth, worm, mosquito, or slug habitat. Who knows? Maybe Martha's Vineyard is an unmatched treasure of habitat for something or other that the catalogue of global species - flora and fauna included - cannot do without. But, most likely, it's not, and when folks living in their already built houses on their buildable lots, whose flora has already been altered, complain that the guy next door shouldn't be allowed to build because his land is some rare habitat, it's a baseless smokescreen, a red herring. It's the legal tactic known as throw everything you've got against the wall and we'll see what sticks. Some judge might buy it.
Finally, affordable housing is a political problem. Development rules must be altered to be foursquare in support of affordable housing and economic growth. Absent those building blocks, both requiring a political consensus powerful enough to win changes in current zoning rules, affordable housing will be disadvantaged by this Island community, as many of the recipients of well intentioned, subsidized housing are. And, it will remain in short supply.