Linda Sibley has served on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission since the 1980s. She joined after the Nobnocket DRI, which stemmed from what she recalled as a “very controversial” supermarket project in Tisbury.
“This would have had a huge traffic impact on State Road, and I felt I had a stake in that,” Sibley said. The project was approved by the MVC, but Sibley recalled that the town of Tisbury pared it down afterward, and it never took off.
“There’s no one who has a deeper sense of the commission’s history than Linda,” MVC chair Joan Malkin wrote. “It’s not just an academic sense of what happened when (by the way, she has this phenomenal ability to recall with precision critical details of the commission’s history), but a profound sense of where the commission has come from and what its mission is. She readily senses what’s really important and what’s mere fluff. She acts without bias (except when it comes to native plant landscaping). Most of all, she is committed and genuinely cares.”
Sibley, 79, is a West Tisbury representative on the commission. She grew up in Cambridge, and came to the Vineyard as a kid with a childhood friend and spent time with the Whitings at the Whiting Farm. Later her parents opted to summer on the Vineyard.
“It was interesting back in those days,” Sibley said. “I don’t think it happens as much now, but there were relatively few kids, so the summer kids and the year-round kids all got to know each other — hang out at Menemsha together, drive around the Island together as we got a little older. So there were a lot of kids like myself who were citizens of the off-Island world but very much enmeshed in the teenage world of the Vineyard.”
Sibley went on to college at Radcliffe, transferred to UC Berkeley, and then got a Ph.D. at Harvard in psychology and Slavic languages.
“Executive directors have come and gone,” Oak Bluffs commissioner Fred Hancock wrote. “Staff members have changed, but Linda is still at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. She is our institutional memory, and can be counted on to fill in the ‘why’ part of various procedures and actions taken over the years. While we try to not make mistakes, the most important thing is not to make the same mistakes. So when in doubt, we consult Linda. Over my 12 years on the MVC, I have been impressed with her ability to discern the major issues in evaluating DRIs, which can sometimes be obscured by the many details presented. Linda has the right blend of idealism and practicality that is essential in an MVC commissioner, and the Island has recognized that by re-electing her over these many years. In return, she has served the commission as chair, as well as being chair of LUPC [land use planning committee] and many, various committees over the years. During most of her time at the commission, she was also running her own business.”
“I did consider being a teacher, but somehow I almost tripped across an opportunity to buy the Radio Shack dealership,” she said, “which I did, and I ran that for I guess about 30 years.”
Sibley said she enjoyed practicing her Serbian on Serb Radio Shack customers in the summer. Before, during, and after running that business, Sibley served at the MVC.
“A standard MVC meeting is three hours long, and the LUPC meetings are, I guess, two and a half hours long,” Sibley said, “and for most of my time on the commission, before we all went virtual, I attended both meetings pretty loyally, so that would be on the clock a minimum of six hours a week.”
Sibley added that if you fold in reading and consulting with various people, it adds up to “maybe as much as 10 hours a week.”
Drolly from the background, Sibley’s husband, Donald, said she does it for the money.
Sibley said in truth, “the satisfaction of taking care of a community is really it.”
As much as the work has changed, the benefit the MVC provides the Vineyard, Sibley said, remains constant. “When the commission was first envisioned and the law was first written, I think people were largely concerned with large, residential subdivisions and large, commercial construction,” she said. “Since we’ve sort of run out of land — there’s very little of that anymore.” Nevertheless, Sibley said, “it’s a rare project that goes through the commission process without coming out a better project — better thought out and better realized.”
Despite all her time serving on the commission, Sibley has had only one time at the helm. “I’ve actually been chair of the commission only once,” she said. “But I’ve been chair of LUPC a couple of times.”
She described the LUPC as “interesting because essentially it’s a volunteer committee — so you’re not appointed to the land use planning committee by the chairman, or anything of that sort. You just show up. The votes of the land use planning committee are all technically advisory, one way or another. So if only three members showed up, and those three members recommended something to the full commission, it would still have to be voted on by the full commission.”
One aspect of the MVC Sibley takes particular pride in is the staff, the people who are compensated. “We have a really wonderful staff, with expertise in areas like water quality and traffic, and the Island wouldn’t have a repository for that staff if it weren’t for the commission,” she said. “I mean, I hate to say it, as much as I love my fellow Islanders, they hate regionalization, and you could hardly imagine them pooling their resources to hire a staff of this quality if it wasn’t forced on them by the law. What happens is that staff essentially serves all the towns of the Island. It’s a good thing.”
Donald reminded Sibley over her shoulder the staff serves Cuttyhunk too.
Sibley says the MVC cannot regulate Cuttyhunk, but can provide planning services to it.
“The commission is not quite as rewarding when you’re meeting virtually,” Sibley said. “In fact, we had a virtual conversation not long ago about that, that we miss seeing each other in person. You actually become friends with people if you serve on a board with them long enough. So it’s hard to be friendly, virtually.”
By friendly, she said, you don’t have much ability to ask how someone’s family is doing or what they’ve been up to.
Speaking for her fellow commissioners, Sibley said, “I think we do it because we really care, and I think that we believe that the work that we put into these projects, scrutinizing them, giving feedback, and sometimes even making rules for them, simply makes the whole development of the Island better, higher quality.”
“Linda is the MVC,” MVC executive director Adam Turner wrote. “She has been a part of the commission since the beginning. Her institutional knowledge is without peer. She has been incredibly generous with me in educating me on the history and precedent of the organization. We are fortunate that she has chosen to remain a commissioner.”
Sibley said she considers not just herself but Edgartown commissioner Christina Brown and retired commissioner Lenny Jason to be the institutional memory of the commission.
Despite being weary of Zoom, Sibley said she’s not ready to pack it in yet: “I certainly intend to run again next time, but there’s a real possibility that would be the last time.”