Soundings : Your mileage may vary
Back in the summer of 1997, the newly-formed Conservation Partnership of Martha's Vineyard issued a ringing alarm and call to the battlements. In a public white paper, the alliance predicted that the Vineyard would be fully built out by 2005, with only a quarter of its acreage protected from development.
Last year, on the tenth anniversary of that white paper, the members of the Conservation Partnership admitted that their forecast had missed the mark rather spectacularly. In fact, some 40 percent of the Island's total land mass is now under protection. In fact, about 30 percent is still "in play" - that is, neither developed yet nor conserved.
Maybe, the conservationists suggested, their dire predictions of a decade earlier had galvanized the Island community.
Or maybe they had simply been wrong.
This summer, the Martha's Vineyard Commission also resorted to dire predictions in its efforts to drum up interest in its August 27 forum on growth and development. Announcing the forum in its newsletter, the Martha's Vineyard Commission declared: "In earlier surveys, most people said they want growth to be limited, especially in critical natural areas. But present zoning would allow construction of at least 50 percent more buildings, half in the countryside. How should we resolve this mismatch between what the community appears to desire and what we will be getting?"
The most predictable line in every predictive essay is the qualifier, "if recent trends continue." You'll find it in the Island Plan survey on development and growth, which declares: "Based on recent trends, about 20 percent of [the Island's] available land will likely end up being preserved as open space and the rest will be developed."
Even if that prediction proves true, we'll end up with nearly half the Vineyard's land under some sort of protection from development. To me, that doesn't sound so horribly imbalanced. But I think a good argument can be made that, like the Conservation Partnership's predictions of 1997, this Martha's Vineyard Commission scenario for the Island's next 50 years is pessimistic to the point of alarmism.
We know how much Vineyard land is still in play - it's about 17,000 acres. The question is the rate at which these hundreds of properties will come to the point of being either protected or developed as residences or businesses.
If all this land were to come on the market at once, the Land Bank and all the Island's conservation agencies would be overwhelmed and unable to protect more than a tiny fraction. But over the past decade, it's become evident that the boom years of runaway development, the sort we saw in the Ben Boldt era, are over.
Last year, on the anniversary of that wildly inaccurate white paper, Richard Johnson, then director of the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, noted that back in 1997, the Conservation Partnership was tracking some 260 remaining parcels of 20 acres or more on Martha's Vineyard. A decade later, three quarters of those parcels were still in play. Between 45 and 50 large parcels had been conserved. Only a couple of them had been chopped up into house lots and developed.
That's hardly an alarming record. If this trend continues, there's every reason to hope that the Vineyard's conservation agencies are well positioned to save the remaining land that is most appropriate for protection.
Yet last week, the 70 people who gathered to discuss growth and development at the Island Plan forum overwhelmingly supported such draconian measures as building caps to contain the rate of construction. Most said the Island's potential growth should be cut back from the Martha's Vineyard Commission's predicted 50 percent to 25 percent. Several even raised their hands to endorse the statement: "There should be no more growth."
(Nobody took the next noble step, volunteering to have their Island homes torn down for the greater good.)
At one telling moment in the forum, the screen juxtaposed two photos - one of an ugly stockade fence at the road's edge, another of a home behind a handsome barrier of trees. Asked the survey: "Should there be a requirement to maintain a vegetated buffer along rural roads, and set back stockade fencing?" Sure, responded the audience, that's a terrific idea.
Mark London, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, sounded almost wistful as he reacted to this show of hands: "You know," he said, "that was not the way the vote went at town meeting in Edgartown a few years ago, when the Edgartown planning board proposed the very same thing."
There's the rub. The Island's regulatory agencies are inclined to address the questions of future growth with ever more stringent, top-down regulations. It's the mindset of the man who's been given a hammer and soon starts seeing everything as a nail. But Vineyard voters have suspected for years that while zoning is good, more and more of it might not be the way to ensure a better Island future. And the new approach that has emerged over the past generation - purchasing land (or its development rights) to protect our most precious places - has proven stunningly successful.
We've been so successful at identifying and protecting key Island properties, in fact, that a question arises: How much of Martha's Vineyard must we conserve before we can begin to relax a bit about the private development of the land that remains?
On August 14 in this column, I mischaracterized David Nash and Robin Bray, who have written letters opposing changes in plans for the Field Club in Edgartown, as abutters to the project. In fact they live a good mile away.