The Martha's Vineyard Commission backed away Thursday night from a push to redraw the Vineyard Golf Club's Island membership plan.
Commission members dropped the issue of the subjective selection process citing not principles, but politics. Commissioners openly acknowledged that pushing for a lottery system could do more harm than good, threatening an already strained relationship with a town board.
"Just know the consequences of our refusal. We'd come in direct conflict with the [Edgartown zoning board of appeals] over something as much, if not more their jurisdiction than ours. And we'd be disrupting a large number of peoples' lives," commission member Linda Sibley pointed out before agency members voted nine to four to let the current Island membership plan stand.
The Vineyard Golf Club first requested approval for the Island membership plan - provided for in the commission's 1999 approval, which mandated 125 memberships be available for Islanders unable to afford the $300,000 membership to the 245-acre luxury golf club - just a week before their Memorial Day opening.
A membership committee of eight Islanders weeded through the hundreds of applications and selected Island members based on years of residency, participation in other golf clubs, service to Island charities and involvement in town, county and regional boards. One hundred twenty-five Islanders received pre-selection notifications in May, before the commission signed off on the plan.
Several commission members expressed concern at the subjectiveness of the selection process and pushed for a lottery system instead.
Such a selection process, however, was not acceptable to the Edgartown zoning board of appeals. The town board, however, did take issue with the privileges awarded to Island members and was responsible for a last-minute redraft of the Island membership plan which expanded time of play to unrestricted evening hours, lifted limits on guests in the dining room, loosened rules on family play in the shoulder season and froze membership rates at $300.
The golf club's attorney said a lottery system would undermine the private status of the club. Public courses are not allowed under zoning in Edgartown.
Thursday night's vote to accept the Island membership plan without a lottery did not come easily for the regional planning body. The vote followed a 45-minute discussion that touched on issues much larger than the simple selection of 125 people to play golf at the new private club.
"It's not an Edgartown issue. It comes to us because it's a recreational facility. One that's closer to the Oak Bluffs line and the West Tisbury line than it is to downtown Edgartown by a long shot," commission member John Best said.
"A private recreational facility is not a public benefit. At least Island membership is a public benefit. I look at the plan before us, and there's nothing public about it," he added.
Because the membership pool drew on people from all over the Island - with a 70 per cent tilt toward Edgartown residents - some commission members argued that the membership plan is, in fact, a key regional issue.
"This body and the way it's constituted is much more able to deal with it," said commissioner Bob Zeltzer.
Some commission members advocated chalking this issue up as a lesson learned.
"The membership plan was put into practice before we saw it. Do we want to be spiteful? We must take responsibility and just not do it again," Linda Sibley said.
For some, the issue came right back to favoring certain residents for their ability and willingness to participate in Island clubs and public boards.
"I think the plan was well-intentioned. Having said that, I think it's elitist," commission member Tristan Israel said. "I'm only as good as my word to you and yours to me. Their word was that they would come back with a plan. Now we're the bad guys if we don't give them the plan the way they want it."
Vineyard Golf Club president Owen Larkin said that 262 Islanders applied for Island membership. That pool, he said, was culled by more than 100 after applicants were eliminated for having lived on the Island less than three years, for an ability to afford full membership and an unwillingness to relinquish membership to other Island golf facilities. All but 25 of those finally deemed eligible received Island memberships, Mr. Larkin said.
Ms. Sibley suggested increasing the number of Island memberships. The commission established the number 125 as an estimate for how much traffic the organic turf could support. Ms. Sibley suggested that after a year of monitoring the effect of traffic, more Island members could join.
Commission planner Jennifer Rand said that such a provision would warrant another public hearing to approve the conditions.
The issue returned to the commission's unwillingness to strain relations with Edgartown over the selection of Island members for the Vineyard Golf Club.