What does it all mean to you? That’s your assignment this week


Martha’s Vineyard possesses unique natural, historical, ecological, scientific, cultural and other values . . . These values are being threatened and may be irreversibly damaged by uncoordinated or inappropriate uses of the land.

The Massachusetts legislature, in the 1970s, founded the creation of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s enabling legislation on these terms. The legislature and the Republican governor at the time might have added that, in the late 1960s, Martha’s Vineyard’s star was on the rise because of a confluence of national and hyper-local events, namely a bubbling economy, Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s lethal Dike Bridge escapade, the purchase of the Vineyard Gazette by New York Times columnist James Reston, and the discovery by the Washington-New York-Boston crowd that the Vineyard was attractive, relatively easy to get to, and less expensive than other high-profile summer resorts. Inexpensive, abundant undeveloped land became a target for development, aided by the almost complete absence of subdivision, zoning, and health regulations. There was indeed an environmental threat.

But the legislature and the governor might have added that, oh, we also want to stiff arm Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s Islands Trust legislation, whose goal was to make Dukes County a ward of the federal government. The state legislation accomplished that unwritten objective, fiercely asserted by Vineyarders.

The question, rarely posed and never answered is what are the “unique natural, historical, ecological, scientific, cultural and other values” that the Vineyard possesses? Are they actually unique. Don’t communities across the nation possess intrinsic qualities and values that are unique? Maybe their hills are mountains, their beaches whiter, their farmlands richer, their inhabitants fewer, but maybe they are, in their own way, uniquely community-minded, comforting to their neighbors, proud of their towns. Maybe they, not we, coined the daily use of the worn-out word “special” to express their satisfaction with their lot?

If the legislation’s preamble had dropped the word unique, it might have helped, but I’m sure the word was added to give the justification umph. If they had enshrined all that list of values but added, “as so many places elsewhere do,” maybe it wouldn’t have sounded so compelling in court.

Anyhow, let’s don’t quibble. The Vineyard, my home for 45 years or so, is unique, with all those qualities and values that have been enumerated in wholesale ambiguity at the opening of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission legislation — but, I mean, it’s unique and high value, to me. For what that’s worth.

During the 21 or 22 years we lived in Chilmark, I liked it very much. I liked the people, the informality, the town meetings, the visits to the post office, the dark and the quiet. I liked Menemsha for its scale — small, a miniature, even a caricature of a fishing village — and Lucy Vincent, well really, what could be nicer? I liked it when Herb Hancock, the longtime selectman, house carpenter, and lobsterman, said about the effort to build a new Chilmark School: “I don’t think it has to be that big. They’re only little kids.” I liked the Christmas parties at the Community Center, when the town had gifts for those little kids, including every one of that year’s new arrivals. The new, big houses didn’t spoil the whole thing for me anymore than the old, big houses had for earlier Chilmarkers.

You may remember that the Martha’s Vineyard Commission assembled an Island master blueprint over several years beginning in the late 1980s. Everyone marveled at the hard work and long meetings that were invested then in the comprehensive planning process, which coincided with the blood-and-guts battle over the bank/supermarket proposal for James Taylor’s old Nobnocket Garage property. That property has not, as it happens, sprouted a bank or a supermarket, or anything else in the intervening 20 years. It has remained on the shelf, as has that long-ago master plan and others before it had.

If you are one of those master plan mavens, you may remember that particular regional Island plan. No? You may imagine that it was consulted extensively by Islanders in the working out of their everyday lives, in that first decade of the 21st Century. No? Well, perhaps not. You cannot remember the detailed definitions of the “unique natural, historical, ecological, scientific, cultural and other values” because there were none, just as there are no definitions today of what matters to Islanders of today, or what may matter to Islanders to follow.

The pox of public planning and regulation is that it is built upon flimsy understandings that so many of us haven’t the wit to name and define. We imagine that we ought to set the agenda for the next 50 years of Island life. But if so, after all these years, we ought to be able to say what the values are that we hold dear. It’s an exercise every one of us might profitably have a go at.

It would help if you could define for me those values upon which so much that we live with has been built. Let’s crowdsource this thing. Explain it to me and to your neighbors. What’s unique about life here? What are the “natural, historical, ecological, scientific, cultural, and other values” that make it so. Let’s hear from you.