Letters from your neighbors

Michael Cummo

Goodbye to 2014, with a glance at the year about to end and a look ahead to the fresh one.

Again this year, The Martha’s Vineyard Times invited several Island leaders and community members — Mark London, Daniel J. Seidman, Patricia “Paddy” Moore, Janet Hefler, and Nathaniel Horwitz — to consider some of the accomplishments and challenges of 2014, and to look at what may lie ahead in 2015.

Mark London

Here’s a year-end review for my last full year at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, before I retire next summer.

Since the Commission’s regulatory role generates the most newspaper ink and coffee shop discussions, let’s start with Stop and Shop’s proposed new store on Water Street in Vineyard Haven. The review of this complex, controversial project extended over many months, with delays from the town’s efforts to design the adjacent municipal parking lot and traffic consultants attempting to resolve the traffic analysis.

Public opinion polarized, with some lauding it as a great project with no problems, and others suggesting it boded disaster for the Island. The reality was perhaps in between; the final proposal resolved many issues, though others remained outstanding. At the last public hearing in May, most Tisbury selectmen and planning board members came out against the project, and Stop and Shop withdrew. Had they not withdrawn, half the Island would probably have been upset with whatever decision the Commission made.

There is often some misunderstanding about the MVC’s project reviews. Before some public hearings have even closed, I read complaints about “the MVC” being “against” a project when actually it was citizens testifying or, occasionally, a single Commissioner asking for clarification or making an aside. The Commission only makes decisions after hearings close and members deliberate. I invite people to read final decisions; I think they’ll find them well reasoned.

The MVC’s regulatory authority serves the Island well, despite the odd misunderstanding or hiccup. The Commission rarely denies a project. But whether it’s a bowling alley in a downtown neighborhood or a subdivision in significant habitat, the Commission’s review and setting of conditions make projects much better, minimizing impacts on neighbors, the community, and the environment to an extent not otherwise possible.

The MVC’s extraordinary regulatory authority has been tremendously important in preserving the Island’s character and environment, something most of us just take for granted. Simply knowing they might be subject to MVC review leads most development professionals to carefully deal with issues like water quality, traffic, scenic values, neighborhood scale, affordable housing, habitat, and noise.

But most of the Commission’s eight professionals’ work is in their wide-ranging planning efforts, usually in collaboration with or in support of towns.

For example, the Commission recently completed a study of zoning tools towns can use to promote production of affordable housing and other housing types unmet by the market, including housing for young families and the elderly. This year, the MVC completed an update of the Island’s Hazard Mitigation Plan, which identifies public infrastructure, community facilities, and private property at risk from potential natural disasters from major storms to wildfire, including sea-level rise and other effects of climate change; it identifies ways to reduce these risks and makes towns eligible for FEMA funding for mitigation projects. Also this year, the Commission began an effort to protect scenic roads, and continues to do extensive water quality testing and planning.

What’s ahead? The two biggest challenges are likely to be water quality in coastal ponds and sea-level rise.

The MVC is already working with town committees to strategize the best way to deal with the huge challenge of how to deal with excessive nitrogen, mostly from wastewater, which is polluting our coastal ponds. This could end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming generation. We are coordinating with our sister agency the Cape Cod Commission to take best advantage of their recent well-financed research.

For climate change, thanks to the MVC’s 1976 designation of the Coastal District of Planning Concern, the Vineyard doesn’t have the rows of high-rises along the water’s edge, typical of other communities, to be threatened by sea-level rise. However, we’ll have to figure out how to deal with older low-lying streets and buildings, such as Water Street in Vineyard Haven and Dock Street in Edgartown.

The Commission should also continue to help the community address a host of other issues such as unmet housing needs, our aging population, scenic roads, traffic, on- and off-road bicycle accommodations, and the need to strengthen and balance the economy.

It is impossible for the Commission and executive director to meet everyone’s expectations about what to do, or about whether the MVC should take a strong leadership role or wait to be asked for help by towns. The Commissioners are your elected and appointed friends and neighbors, making the best decisions they can. Aristotle said, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

We should all be grateful for the enormous effort of the Commissioners who subject themselves to criticism and put in so many volunteer hours, all for the benefit of our community. After working nonstop for 50 years, I’m looking forward to having my evenings free.

Mark London has been at the helm of the Island’s powerful regional permitting and planning agency since 2002. A former city planner for Montreal, Canada, in October Mr. London announced he would retire at the end of the summer. The search for his replacement has begun.

Daniel J. Seidman

We live in a unique place. Being on an Island insulates and separates us from the mainland of America. Our days are filled with the usual assortment of activities, but in our own microcosm. Life takes on a rhythm. Hours pass, seasons change, and another year has ended. An adage comes to mind: Life is what happens while we plan. And on this Island, we love to debate, study, and plan. After this happens, a report is generated. Much commotion ensues, and a new piece of shelfware is created. If you are not familiar with the term, it is a study/report that sits on a shelf; more precisely, after all the analysis and work, generally at substantial cost, it takes up space and never gets implemented.

Sometimes, it seems, studies are simply an exercise in “cover your derriѐre.” Then, it can be said, we did something, when actually nothing has been done. It is frustrating. Time is a valuable commodity. Asking individuals to serve and volunteer their hours and days for repeat purposes is not productive. For instance, the towns are evaluating what needs to be done about nitrogen loading on our ponds and waters around Martha’s Vineyard. We already know. A report from the early 1980s outlined the problem and solutions. Each town taking a whack at it is nonsensical and an inefficient use of scarce resources. Solutions are expensive, but an all-Island response makes a daunting task manageable.

In Tisbury, a traffic committee was formed to study Five Corners, probably the most studied area on the Island, to come up with recommendations and solutions for the congestion. Again, a narrative had been generated in 1991, and prior to that as well. Of course, most of the committee members had no knowledge of the prior reports! Here’s a shocker: There is nothing new under the sun for suggestions and/or remedies. You have a confined area with a massive volume being deposited hourly due to the ferry. Further constraining issues are the post office and Cumby’s, both busy locations. We want to solve a seasonal and time-dependent problem with broad and universal strokes, a difficult task at best. Reasonable options with existing infrastructure are few. But they do exist. Solutions have been expressed in the past, only to die as shelfware, choking on the accumulated dust of decades!

On a positive note for all Islanders and tourists alike, the Steamship Authority is working with Tisbury to come up with options for circulation on their property. We are hopeful this will assist with the issues at Five Corners. But whatever the report states, it takes the will of the people to implement ideas beyond the Steamship location.

While enviable in its mission, the Island Plan, written in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, was much talked-about, but little was accomplished.  We did get the Vineyard Transit Authority, that was a benefit; but the vast majority of the plan remains incomplete. We all know the problems and issues. How to solve them is also known. It all revolves or devolves around dollars. From there, it takes time, work, and money. Someone once said, “It is not a problem if money can solve it!” And this rings true.

Another step toward working together is the establishment of an all-Island planning board. Tisbury initiated the process. Chilmark, West Tisbury, and Edgartown have expressed interest in meeting. Oak Bluffs and Aquinnah have upcoming presentations. The hope is to meet quarterly starting in January 2015. All towns have similar planning issues. Using all the expertise available benefits the island. Perhaps this is the first baby step and a model for all towns to work together.

You have all heard the joke, “The only thing Islanders hate more than the Martha’s Vineyard Commission is one another’s towns!” Some problems are individual town issues, but most are interrelated. Cooperation between town governments and boards is an idea some fear. Yet working together beats working alone. You cannot remove the character of a town. Oak Bluffs has the Tabernacle and the painted cottages, Aquinnah the cliffs, Edgartown the stately captains’ houses, Tisbury the working waterfront, West Tisbury the Agriculture Fair, and Chilmark Lucy Vincent Beach and the quaint fishing village of Menemsha. Each town is unique. Combining our efforts to work together does not negate a town’s specialness.

Choosing to live here does impose some harsher conditions than other places. An enormous expenditure of effort is required each day. We all do the best we can to be happy and healthy. Rents are high; gas is precious; home ownership is pricey. Who wants to advocate for change, or, even if they do, has the energy? Life is all-consuming at times. But if we marshal our forces and work together toward common goals, we can continue to live in our own piece of paradise, sharing available resources to the benefit of all.

Daniel J. Seidman is chairman of the Tisbury planning board and is deeply involved in affordable/workforce housing solutions. He is treasurer of the Dukes County Regional Housing Trust and the Island Housing Trust, and a board member of Vineyard Power. He has run his own business, Seidman Investment Portfolios, a money-management and financial-planning firm, since 1987. He first came to the Island as a child in the 1960s. He lives here with his wife Bethany, and they raised their two children, Jessica and David, on the Island.

Patricia “Paddy” Moore

In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions, of passages and ending; he is shown with two faces, looking to the past and to the future. Today, as co-chairman of the Healthy Aging Task Force, I do the same and describe some of the challenges that Island elders faced last year and those they will face in 2015. How we respond is important to the whole Island community.

The Healthy Aging Task Force was originally formed as a sub-committee of the Dukes County Health Council. In 2014, with the strong support of the MV Donors Collaborative, we became a vibrant coalition involving over 75 individuals and 36 organizations who came together to research and analyze what the elder population explosion means for the Vineyard, to identify potential solutions, and to develop plans and engage partners to meet the challenges.

The biggest — and least visible — challenge of 2014 was a demographic phenomenon that started on January 1, 2011, when 10,000 Americans began turning 65 every day. This will continue for 19 years. This extraordinary growth of elders 65 and over — the baby boomers — will impact our island community much more than the rest of Massachusetts or the country as a whole. The 65-plus population of the Vineyard is predicted to grow 134 percent by 2030, while the state grows only 61 percent and the county as a whole grows 81 percent. In 2010, one in six Vineyarders was 65 or older; in 2030 — just 15 years away — that ratio will be one in three.

What we saw in 2013

Analyzing figures and past events, we can easily see some disturbing trends that we must begin to address.

In Dukes County as in the rest of America many elders live close to the bone. In 2012, nearly 50 percent of householders 65 or older had incomes of less than $35,000 which in terms of the Dukes County Housing Authority would qualify them as very low income and eligible for rental support. This pattern will not change.

There is a shortage of affordable housing for elders and the waiting list for Island Elderly Housing is already long. This challenge is also an opportunity, but forward thinking and planning are urgent.

It is expected that 70 percent of people who reach age 65 will need long-term care at some time in their longer lives, usually for an average of three years. This means the Vineyard must strengthen home care services to enable elders to age in their homes, and establish more assisted living facilities, and more nursing home beds. It also gives us an opportunity to explore and develop new models of nursing homes, such as the much praised Green House model of small cottages with private rooms, private baths, mixed funding and unusual staffing.

Statistics show that 43 percent of people over 85 will develop Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, straining caregivers’ health, family ties, and finances.

Falls are the fourth highest cause of death among seniors, and the three down-Island towns have fall rates higher than the state average.

Depression and substance abuse, particularly due to alcohol and misused prescriptions, is a well-documented and a still unaddressed health challenge.

Islanders cherish our privacy, our small back roads, our hidden coves. But when elders can no longer safely drive, isolation can threaten health and diminish life expectancy, challenging us to seek new transportation options.

Loss of the island-based Visiting Nurse Service created a major disruption in the Vineyard network of health care and support services. While not directly attributable to population growth, it is still proving problematic.

Picking up the challenge

All of us, and particularly key Island institutions and Island leaders, have a role to play moving forward.

Vineyarders, those who live here now or are seasonal residents or visitors who hope to retire here some day, must face the full dimensions of these challenges and put their skills and ideas and experience to work with others in finding and building solutions.

The MV Times and Vineyard Gazette, as well as MVTV, should educate Islanders to these challenges, putting a personal face to the experiences of caregivers, or young workers unable to find affordable housing, or isolated elders needing some adaptation of zoning or transportation to remain at home.

The six towns and the county should create new ways to collaborate in funding services needed on an Island-wide basis, such as the proposed information and resource website and staff, currently called First Stop, or the expanded Supportive Day program currently run by the Center for Living. They should also seek state and federal funds together for the Island as a whole, not just for individual towns. And Councils on Aging should plan collaboratively, preserving their unique strengths, limiting duplication, and expanding their services to all Island elders.

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission should expand its focus on land use planning to include social planning, providing in-depth analysis of needs and models in housing, transportation, and safe streets.

The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and physicians, along with Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, should reach out to Island Health Inc., Elder Services, the VNA, Center for Living, and home care agencies, to create a patient-centered network system, using new technologies and responses to the desires of elders to age and even die at home.

The national context

Issues of importance to seniors, their families, and everyone in our community will be at the forefront of state and national conversations In 2015. The decennial White House Conference on Aging will be held, showcasing many of the best answers to these problems. We can also expect to see a major political discussion about the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act, which currently expresses the federal role in funding a host of services such as Meals-on-Wheels and Councils on Aging. There will be continuing battles over the role of the federal government in financing Medicare and Social Security — both of which have been the underpinning of health care for seniors for the last 40 years.

In it together

As Pogo famously remarked, “We’ve met the enemy and he is us.” We are all growing older, at least if we’re lucky, and we’re already in this together. Many middle-aged and younger residents are already taking care of an aging parent or even spouse, often while still raising their own children. Dozens of Islanders volunteer at Windemere or for Vineyard Village At Home, or deliver meals-on-wheels, or as volunteer firemen, EMTs or other emergency service workers, and they observe and experience the challenges I’ve noted. They want to help.

When the chips are down, we’re a caring Island-wide community. I believe that, together, we will rise to these challenges in 2015, making it a very Happy New Year!

Paddy Moore has lived on Island with her husband, Ben, an architect, since 1975. During most of this time she has worked off Island as a mediator, specializing in health care disputes within physician practices and hospitals. She is a founder and co-chairman of the Dukes County Healthy Aging Task Force, teaches mediation at the Center for Dispute Resolution at Quinnipiac University Law School and tries to learn enough social media techniques to keep up with 13 grandchildren.

Janet Hefler

The start of the New Year marked the close of an almost decade-long chapter in my journalism career. On December 3, I worked my last day at The Times where I began as a news reporter in April 2005.

Although I made the decision to retire from my role as a staff member, my byline may still appear on occasion, as I’ve been invited to continue to contribute articles to The Times. My husband, Pete, is retired but works summers at the Vineyard Transit Authority, so my new arrangement will allow us more time together and flexibility to travel. Depending on how that increased togetherness goes, we’ve agreed to give ourselves the option to head to separate destinations from time to time.

For almost 10 years I covered all news related to the town of Tisbury and education Island-wide, along with whatever else editor Nelson Sigelman assigned to me. That grew to include Island wild turkey stories and other oddball animal tales.

It wasn’t easy getting started as a reporter in this close-knit community. Everyone used first names only at meetings, so I resorted to identifying people in my notes with descriptions such as “man in plaid flannel shirt” and asking sympathetic town employees to help me with names later. I had to refine my system when I showed up to cover my first town meeting and looked out at a sea of plaid flannel.

Pete and I owned our home in Tisbury for about 26 years before we moved here year-round. Although I was already familiar with the Island, working a beat quickly immersed me in all its charms, quirks, annoyances, colorful characters, and intricate politics.

I soon discovered there is no anonymity for Island reporters. I’ve been alerted to typos in the paper by grocery store clerks, listened to rants about The Times’s political endorsements in line at the post office, and endured insults at a summer party from a man who referred to the paper in unkindly terms.

People have asked me what I like about being a reporter and I tell them, “No two days are ever the same.” The down side of that, however, was never knowing when my well-ordered week and nearly completed assignments would be thrown completely off-kilter by an unexpected phone call about a new story to chase, sometimes late in the afternoon on deadline day.

On the plus side, many of those calls resulted in some of the most fun and unusual articles I wrote, including ones about a man that rode a bike designed to travel on water from Falmouth to Vineyard Haven, a Siamese cat that got stuck under the dashboard of its owners’ car as they drove off the ferry, and a man dressed in a cowboy hat, briefs and boots, who strode into the Harbor View Hotel to ask if the restaurant’s chef would cook the live lobster he was carrying.

My favorite assignments were covering homecoming celebrations for Island soldiers returning to Martha’s Vineyard after deployment overseas. No matter what time of day or what kind of weather, groups of local veterans, first responders, and community members unfailingly turned out to show their appreciation and say thanks. I felt privileged to speak to the soldiers themselves and write their stories, a poignant reminder of the sacrifices they make for us all.

A few observations gained over the years: It is possible for a reporter who grew up using a rotary dial phone to make the technological leap from using a pen and steno pad to a laptop and a smart phone. Some public officials think it is none of a reporter’s business to question their actions or ask how they spend taxpayer money. Key sources in a news story will likely return your calls at the absolute last minute on deadline day. Many people want reporters to print the dirt on everybody except their family members or friends. Not everyone wants their name in the paper, especially men shopping on Christmas Eve for gifts for their wives and girlfriends.

I will miss reporting and being “in the know” immediately about what’s going on Island-wide. Now, I’ll have to read the news when it goes online or comes out in the print edition on Thursday, like the rest of you.

In making that transition, I hope to take my cue from people in the community that I think of as the “watchdogs of democracy.” They make an effort to keep informed and attend meetings associated with town business, and  occasionally ask questions about how their tax dollars are being spent.

My thanks to everyone who provided me with information and their expertise through the years, and to the Island community for inspiring me every week and letting me tell your stories.

Janet Hefler, a reporter for The Times, retired last month after ten years of working a beat that ran the gamut from a turkey shooting in Chilmark to school budgets to Tisbury selectmen. The wife of a career Air Force veteran, she never missed an opportunity to report on the return of an Island member of the military, or update readers on those serving overseas.

Nathaniel Horwitz

Being a second-semester senior on Martha’s Vineyard is a strange time. You know where you’re going after high school and you’re ready to move on. At the same time, every moment you have left as an Island kid becomes a treasure. Wandering South Beach while the wind whispers change; cutting class to “take laps” through the hallways with the best mates you’ve ever had; driving too fast on Barnes Road because you’ve never felt loss and the cop is probably your friend’s dad. Partying after graduation, laughing over shared memories until the sun rises over East Chop and your childhood is over. This year, I learned about true friendship.

Summer arrives, and friends leave. Cross-country treks, European trips, off-Island jobs, college athletics preseason, and those of us who are left see one another less between long hours at summer jobs. I became a full-time intern at The Times, thanks to an editor willing to take a chance on a high school reporter. Nelson Sigelman has what he calls a “fondness for shooting tasty mammals,” and an even greater taste for hunting down poor writing. My first articles were so heavily edited I wondered why he didn’t just write them himself. But by the end of the summer I’d learned enough to become an editor myself at my college newspaper. This year, I learned how to work.

Suddenly, at summer’s end, it was my turn to leave. A last game of chess with my father on the ferry, then the bus to my new home in Cambridge, and meals in the dining hall with students from an astounding range of backgrounds: a European prince, a Rwandan orphan. A hyper-polyglot who speaks 20 languages; an Olympic figure skater who played violin and piano at Carnegie Hall. This year, I learned about ambition.

In a genetics lecture, the professor wheeled out the original wire model of DNA made by James Watson and Francis Crick. My classics professor recited passages from Dante’s Inferno in flawless Italian. Classes were so exciting that I forgot I had 200 pages of reading and hours of the aptly named “problem sets” each night. This year, I learned to study.

Missing Vineyard football, I joined the rugby team. I also paid homage to my dad’s college poker career by starting a weekly game that quickly grew from four players to 40, and I’ll admit there’s been some partying. This year, I learned to play.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t wait to get back to Martha’s Vineyard and see everyone. I was worried a semester of college or full-time jobs might have changed people, or me; that we wouldn’t click the way we used to. But as soon as I saw my friends, it was as if graduation happened yesterday. My little brother had stolen my desk, but we still fell asleep talking through the wall, and the dogs missed me. Kind of.

The biggest difference coming home was truly realizing how lucky we are — most of the time — on Martha’s Vineyard. At college, crossing the street from my dorm to Starbucks means locking the door, giving a dollar to one of the homeless guys, dodging multiple lanes of traffic, and recently, joining a protest against police violence. We have a housing crisis on the Island, prescription drug abuse, and financial hardship. But our food pantry never goes bare, I don’t have to explain to my adopted Ethiopian brother how to act around police, and we don’t have bomb threats or muggings. This year, I learned to be grateful.

Being a second-semester freshman in college will be different. You know where you’ll be for the next three years — although Zuckerberg and Gates say dropping out pays — and you’re excited to be there. Each moment is once again a treasure, but you have a multitude of moments rolled before you like a carpet.

Next semester, I’ll learn organic chemistry, multivariable calculus, Chinese philosophy, and macroeconomics. I’m applying for summer internships in D.C. and Cambridge. I’m also tempted to come home, to spend one more summer here before adult life truly arrives and “summer vacation” becomes a week, or, as a working Islander, disappears entirely. Either way, by next fall I’ll be back to the books.

I hope I will learn as much as I did this year, that more great friendships and adventures await. I’m also nervous about choosing the right path, knowing that the next few years will shape the next few decades. But my Island home will always be a ferry ride away. Happy New Year.

Nathaniel Horwitz of West Tisbury graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in June 2014. He worked as an intern in the newsroom at The Times beginning in his senior term, and is midway through his freshman year at Harvard University.