The Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) unanimously approved plans to finish a community center on the lands of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) on Thursday, Nov. 15. When completed, the 6,176-square-foot building is to include a gym, stage, locker rooms, and kitchen.
The review process was described as a "love fest" by MVC chairman Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark, in stark contrast to the long history of legal confrontation over land use issues pitting the Wampanoag's rights as a sovereign nation against the zoning authority of local and regional government.
The community center, already approximately 80 percent complete, would normally have triggered an automatic commission review before construction, but it was erected without going through the usual permitting process with any town, regional, or state authorities.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled on a legal clash between the tribe and the town of Aquinnah over the permitting process for a different tribe building. The state's highest court ruled against the tribe, saying it is subject to local zoning procedures.
Earlier this year, tribe and town approved a land use pact that outlines a dual permitting procedure, as well as a lengthy mediation process to resolve future disputes.
"Without going into or debating all of the legal issues, we're happy that the tribe is here. It's been a while, but here we are." said MVC land use planning committee chairman Christina Brown of Edgartown at Thursday's meeting.
After a summarization of staff reports, Durwood Vanderhoop, a planner for the tribe, greeted the commissioners and introduced himself in the Wampanoag language. He then outlined plans for the project.
"We see it as a place that all of our people can gather, a central place of Wampanoag culture, a system that is constantly under stress," said Mr. Vanderhoop.
Commissioners agreed the project met or exceeded requirements for land use, noise, traffic, lighting, landscaping, and pollution levels normally required by the MVC.
A storm water runoff treatment system that uses vegetation to filter pollutants earned high praise from the commissioners. "It's good, good, good, better, better, better," said commissioner Peter Cabana of Tisbury.
The structure was erected in 2004, by an Air Force Reserve construction battalion, as part of a training program. The construction took place without benefit of a town building permit, or Martha's Vineyard Commission review.
The tribe is currently raising donations and considering different federal funding sources to complete the project, but the time frame is indefinite.
"That's open to funding issues," said Mr. Vanderhoop. "We're trying our best, we hope to finish within a year's time. We do have some funding secured, and we're actively seeking it out through federal and private grants."
Mr. Vanderhoop said repairs are needed to the building's exterior, where some moisture barrier wrapping has ripped away in the years since the initial construction.
"It's not a great loss necessarily, but it has to be addressed before the onset of winter," said Mr. Vanderhoop.