Film festival scripted its own defeat


To the Editor:

Your July 7 editorial, “Planning in the Coliseum,” demonstrates a sketchy understanding of planning and zoning regulations leading to an unfounded reinterpretation of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival’s dead-on-arrival plan to turn the former Cynthia Walsh property into a new campus. In your rendering, the West Tisbury community is at fault. In objective reality, the Film Festival defeated itself.

The editorial implies that permitted, of right, uses in zoning districts are infinitely elastic, and if only West Tisbury hadn’t been so vociferously negative the MVFF might have received a considered hearing from the boards that have decision-making power over an application not of right.

Generally speaking, one should deplore sentence first, verdict after proceedings. But, in this case, what happened in West Tisbury was a reasonable response to a highly inconsiderate MVFF that attempted to stampede the town into a fait accompli. Suddenly West Tisbury was informed that the Film Festival was buying the Walsh property come what may, without taking any community soundings other than, it seems, an exploratory visit to an unprepared planning board. No formal application was filed.

Prudent purchasers of property don’t enter into agreements in which the closing isn’t contingent upon approval when a not of right use is proposed. The Film Festival apparently believed West Tisbury would swoon at the opportunity of having such a cultural ornament smack dab in its midst.

Evidently (and apologies if this is not accurate) the Film Festival was going to attempt an end run around the zoning bylaw by claiming to be educational institution (who knew?) and that it could therefore avail itself of zoning exemptions granted under the Dover Amendment (much too complicated for discussion here).

You don’t have to just have flown in from Mars to be aware that every new use issue on Martha’s Vineyard is contentious. The Film Festival’s tactics seemed tantamount to thumbing its nose at the community.

Consequently, West Tisbury was, reasonably, shocked. Its zoning bylaw states that in order to achieve the town’s planning goals, the bylaw has been created for the purpose of “protecting the town’s rural and natural character.…” The division of the town into zoning districts, each with specific of right uses, is essential to this purpose. There is no zoning rationale or purpose that I can divine for permitting a large, Island-wide (and beyond) nonresidential use in a residential zoning district.

Zoning regulations are the armature for orderly change according to established standards. They are subject, always, to community revision. It was inevitable that the Film Festival’s disregard for the community, as evidenced by its tactics, would incite massive opposition. Those tactics ensured its fate in West Tisbury.

Nicholas W. Puner

West Tisbury