Millionaires at the gate
To say the Vineyard fosters deep attachments is to understate the case. Of all the clichés surrounding Island life, none is more worn, or more true, than the story with myriad variations and this single, recurring plotline: (He, she, they) came here (on a sailing trip, for a wedding, a weekend, a summer job), fell in love with the Island - and stayed.
Or at least that was the story 20 or 30 years ago. A whole generation of Islanders has been able to build lives here because they sprinted for the caboose and managed to clamber aboard the real estate value train before it accelerated, forever, away from the land of the middle class.
But that was then. Now the Island's middle class is in retreat as real estate prices are being driven up by wealthy new owners buying seasonal homes. Now, from across the Vineyard, we are hearing a new story with its many variations, its single plot: Our Island place is suddenly so valuable, we can't afford the property taxes.
The Vineyard is undergoing a wrenching change as property values soar in the Island's most beautiful districts. If you were able to buy a modest home amid the inland scrub oaks a generation ago, chances are that your place has appreciated nicely in value, and that your taxes have either remained flat or fallen. But all along the Vineyard's spectacular margins are properties whose value has risen so sharply that one year's tax bill now exceeds the original purchase price.
The temptation is to see this as unfair, and to cast about for public policy solutions. But in fact, what we're seeing are the natural consequences of the model of land ownership we've embraced. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but the market has its own logic and imperatives, and once you've accepted the idea that it's possible to own a piece of the Vineyard in the same sense that you own your automobile or your hat, the dynamics of the market are going to have their way.
It's easy to sympathize with Islanders whose soaring property values bring tax bills that force them to consider selling their land or home before they'd like to. But let's not forget that whether they wanted it or not, this real estate market has also made them rich - and it hasn't left them without options.
With a wink, town assessors across the Island were able, for decades, to practice a sort of seat-of-the-pants social engineering, undervaluing certain properties to prevent longtime families from having to break up their land to pay taxes. Now, with full and fair valuation mandated - and checked - by the state, this approach is no longer possible. As a result, scores of families with long ties to the Island are looking at hard choices. Some find ways to derive income from their properties, such as renting in season so they can still enjoy them for at least part of the year. Some negotiate conservation easements that give up development rights in return for lower taxes. Some turn to reverse mortgages, which cut into their estate but provide money for taxes, allowing them to remain in the place they love.
Step back for a moment, and consider that all of human history can be read as the story of violent property disputes, from the empire-building of Alexander to Hitler's lebensraum. A millennium ago in Europe, this story featured barbarians at the gate swinging cudgels; a few centuries ago on these shores, the interlopers were Puritan settlers toting muskets and Bibles. Today, we have captains of commerce opening their checkbooks, armed with so much money, it's mainly just a way of keeping score. Each new purchase changes the landscape of property values - and the cycle continues.
The real inequity here lies beyond the reach of any policies that might tweak tax rates to benefit some Island property at the inevitable expense of others. This situation will persist as long the Vineyard remains beautiful (may it ever be so!), and as long as we have disparities in wealth so vast that some buyers spend sums unimaginable to others for a few acres along the Island's edges, simply because they can.
We're talking about a marketplace whose logic doesn't take fairness into consideration. The driving force in Vineyard real estate is the Golden Rule: the folks with the gold are making the rules.
It's possible to look at the idea of property ownership along a spectrum. At one extreme is private property - its emblems the locked gate, the No Trespassing sign, the guard on the beach turning you back. Somewhere in the middle is the emerging model of joint public-private ownership, best exemplified by the land lease that makes new Island affordable housing projects possible. At the other extreme is the land in public ownership, open for everyone's enjoyment.
Walking a favorite Land Bank property, it's hard not to feel a deep sense of rightness about the fact that this place belongs to all of us, forever. So when market dynamics drive beautiful Island properties from the private into the public sphere, perhaps it's not entirely tragic. Yet when an Island family is driven from its home by rising property taxes, I'll grant you: it doesn't feel right at all.