Aquinnah steps back from Moshup Trail beautification

Financial burdens push select board members to go against the project. 

Moshup Trail in Aquinnah. — Brendan O'Neill, courtesy Vineyard Conservation Society

Strapped resources are causing the Aquinnah Select Board to step back from the Moshup Trail beautification project. The project, which includes mowing and cutting back vegetation, was unanimously approved by the town’s select board in 2021, with the goal of improving the vista, but it has hit some snags. Aquinnah residents Carlos Montoya and Peter Temple brought the proposal forward, which came before the board because it relied on town funding. 

Montoya updated the board about the project on Tuesday, saying the project met “great success” with local governmental bodies, and the next step was to receive approval from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program. 

The program gave its approval, but Aquinnah resident James (“Jim”) Decoulos filed an appeal against the department’s approval with a superseding notice. “The next step was for DEP to let us know and to schedule a site visit for them, together with Jim Decoulos and Sarah [Thulin] and anybody involved, to take a look at what we were presenting and what his issues were,” Montoya said. 

After the visit, the department requested information, based on Decoulos’ request, on the locations and documentation of the wetlands impacted by the planned work. “We had originally made the case there was no work in the resource areas, and [it was] all on the bank, on dry land. But I take their point, which is that them being challenged by someone like Jim, to cross the t’s they needed … to see just what those wetland edges are, and see if there was or if there was not a problem,” Montoya said. 

Decoulos is no stranger to Moshup Trail, having fought the town in a 19-year legal battle shot down by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2016. Decoulos wanted to develop landlocked parcels he owned near Moshup Trail. 

When Aquinnah town administrator Jeffrey Madison said he was under the impression the department had rejected Decoulos’ appeal, Aquinnah conservation commission chair Sarah Thulin clarified by saying, “DEP had its own issues with the project … but when he appealed, they’re obligated to do more in-depth work. We had conditions on Carlos and Peter on the plan, but this added another layer of intense survey work that would need to be done.”

Thulin said the work was all in the buffer zone of wetland resource areas. “It’s a composite of very important stuff,” she said. “DEP asked Carlos and Peter for five or six key items that have to kind of be surveyed and new maps drawn up, but DEP isn’t in a position to even act on it until they have all of that information.” 

The work that needs to be submitted to the state included flagging of the wetlands alongside survey work and mapmaking, according to Montoya. There is already a $6,800 bill for permitting work at the town level, and the survey work that still needs to be done is expected to cost up to $4,500. According to Montoya, the department was told that this work would be done, but not immediately, because of a lack of funds. He continued that this issue would need to go to the annual town meeting to see if there was support from voters to fund the work, causing further delays.

Montoya said there is already an estimate for how much the project will cost. Clearing the area is estimated to cost $9,000, with an additional $9,000 for the initial mowing, alongside two additional mowings the same year, to “stump things.” Montoya said additional permitting might also be needed, which is “not inexpensive.” Montoya later said it would not make sense to start the project if the area would not be maintained, and mowing is expected to cost $2,000 annually.

After further discussion, the board shared their thoughts on the matter. Board chair Juli Vanderhoop said while she loves every vista the town has, she could not support the project. One reason was climate change, particularly because of the fossil fuels that would be used to undertake the work and the vegetation that would be cut down. Additionally, she said, Aquinnah needs to focus its resources on more pressing projects, such as the town building renovations. “We’ve got children in the town, they don’t have a playground,” Vanderhoop said. “I’m going to put [money] into places where we need it desperately and right now … every penny we can scrape up, we’ve got to put it into our municipality in big ways, for not only mental health but the health of the people that live here.” 

Board member Gary Haley was also against the project due to the costs. 

Board member Tom Murphy was split on the issue. Murphy said while he was a supporter of the vista, he recognized the “substantial” financial priorities Aquinnah faced, and the project did not seem like it could fit into the town’s “financial picture.” 

“Having said that, if there was a benefactor who might be willing to absorb the cost of this, then I could be supportive,” he said. 

Madison said the lawn care and plantings at Aquinnah Cliffs, the town’s tourism hub, cost the town $7,000 a year. “I don’t know the length of road you’re talking about … but I’ve got to think it’ll cost the town more and more and more to do it,” he said about the proposed project. “I don’t have a say, but I’ll just say this is one thing we got ourselves into, and to enter more, [we should] tread carefully.” 

Thulin said the commission was dragged into the project “kicking and screaming,” despite approving it, and while Montoya has done a lot of work, she expressed concern over the financial burdens. “Everything we get ourselves into, the costs go way over,” she said. “The beautiful arbor, everybody loves what has been done at the Cliffs. But you know what? I’m part of a group who’s now needing to bail out the overruns up there.” She suggested focusing on a smaller area for the project, to make it more palatable. 

The board took no vote on the issue. 

In other news, the board unanimously approved extending the Aquinnah Cultural Center lease, with modifications. Originally, the term was for five years. The new lease starts with a five-year term with four five-year options, which allows both parties to negotiate between terms if needed. The town will also charge only $1 for annual rent, to allow the center, a nonprofit organization focused on the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), an opportunity for additional growth.

The West Tisbury Select Board also met with the Aquinnah Select Board to discuss how to move forward with Howes House renovations. A consensus was reached that the Howes House was a valuable resource to the up-Island community and a collaborative effort should be pursued among town leaders, but the question for Aquinnah was how much it could afford to spend. This is especially the case since Aquinnah is currently working to repair its own town facilities. The most recent estimate for the Howes House renovations was $10 million. 


  1. I agree. It’s beautiful as it is and does not require this “grooming” of the verges.

    Moshup Trail is not, IMO, an appropriate candidate for the type of “beautification” proposed.

    In fact, “manicuring” is antithetical to everything that is beautiful about Moshup’s Trail and the area within which it lies.

    Moshup Trail is all part of a unique ecosystem, and what grows on the edges of the road is part of that ecosystem.

    What does the Aquinnah Conservation Committee say about this?

    Mowing the verges of the road to achieve a manicured look is just not right.

    Where are the aesthetic instincts of those who propose such manicuring?

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