State Forecasts on Final Buildout Help Edgartown to Plan Future of the Town

By MANDY LOCKE

Listening to the banter of benchwarmers in front of the Edgartown town hall, it's hard to tell if it's 1972, 1982, 1992 or 2002.

The characters have changed, but the themes stayed the same. The building trade is booming. There's a new home on every corner. The town can't house its young people.

"We've always been talking about growth. We've always thought we're growing too fast," said Larry Mercier, lifelong Edgartown resident and respected town official.

Town planners pushed for zoning on Chappaquiddick - whose Wasque Point was divided into 500 lots at the turn of the century - as early as 1965. Residents of Katama - plagued by thousands of tiny cookie-cutter parcels climbing into the thousands - begged the town for a two-year moratorium on the Katama Plain in 1982. After a parade of subdivisions covering a hundred buildable lots, citizens cried no and pushed for a freeze on any new subdivisions in the early 1980s.

The worst was yet to come. Fast and furious growth preoccupied the Island's largest town through the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1978, 10 years after the town adopted zoning, which established minimum lot size across the town's 18,136 acres, no less than 86 subdivisions were on Edgartown's books. Some subdivisions held pieces of 2,500-square-foot lots from divisions in the 1880s, while others held scores of standard two-acre lots.

And the town continued to ride the development waves through the 1980s.

"I've seen the booms and the recessions. In the early 1980s, we had less controls in place. There was large development and large availability. Prices were still reasonable, and it fed the frenzy of the early 1980s," planning board chairman Norman Rankow said.

From 1980 through 1988, developers carved out over 1,100 buildable lots in the town, doubling the number of both year-round and seasonal dwellings in Edgartown.

In 1985, the number of single-family residential building permits issued by the town topped 280. For five years, beginning in 1983, house permits hovered above 160. Some residents begged for a moratorium, and the town stepped to the plate with a two-year building cap of 165 in 1988. But the boom had already busted.

The town breathed more easily for a decade, only to be confronted by another surge in the late 1990s, a building spike that brought a high of 139 permits in 1999.

"We became much more savvy in the 1990s. The Island became smart to fend off attacks. But the attacks will never stop coming," Mr. Rankow said.

Now the town faces a slowing economy and works with an annual building cap of 85, extended from a two-year cap of 94 in 2000.

Land is still plentiful in Edgartown, according to a recent buildout analysis computed by the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. With 4,666 developable acres remaining, Edgartown falls just behind Chilmark by 150 acres for available developable land remaining. If building rates remain around 85, the town will not reach capacity for another 27 years.

In a town where zoning ranges from 10,000-square-foot lots in the village center to three-acre lots on rural Chappaquiddick, 5,533 new residents could make homes in 2,316 additional dwellings, the state estimates predict. Two-thirds would live in Edgartown seasonally.

If building rates remain around 85, the town will not reach capacity for another 27 years.

In Edgartown, the word buildout doesn't bring nearly as much anxiety as it does for the other two down-Island towns.

Hundreds of acres of perpetually protected state forest preserve the drive from West Tisbury into town. The open meadows of Katama Farm and the airfield hug the somewhat densely populated pocket of Katama. The land bank and other conservation groups are buying and protecting other strategic Edgartown areas.

"Edgartown is in great shape moving into the future," said longtime planning board and Martha's Vineyard Commission member Michael Donaroma.

And Edgartown carries the confidence of having fought and avoided large-scale housing developments that at times threatened the town.

The Vineyard Golf Club could have been over 200 homes when proposed as Vineyard Acres II in the 1980s. Herring Creek Farm, originally slated for 54 luxury homes and a private beach club, now contains less than 10 houses, the FARM Institute, a herring run and huge tracts of open space. A 180-acre piece of land near Pennywise Path now belongs to the town and the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, and will become affordable homes and open space for approximately 40 local families.

"We couldn't have asked for anything better," selectman Fred B. Morgan Jr. said.

"It's a wonderful combination of governmental and private collaboration," planning board member Alison Cannon said.

The planning board office is all but free of definitive subdivision proposals these days. The scale of those requests slowed so much in the last 12 years that the number of lots from all 27 definitive subdivision requests didn't even equal the number of parcels that the Dodger's Hole subdivision alone created.

Residents and town officials feel the weight of a different kind of pressure these days. The current pressures come in the form of dollars and cents, in the form of a shrinking school population, the strain between areas defined business and residential, skyrocketing land values and trophy homes.

"Our school population dropped dramatically because families moved elsewhere because they can't afford to live in Edgartown. Oak Bluffs schoolchildren boomed," Mr. Morgan said, noting that the town has completed a $16 million school with a 550-student capacity. Only 350 children will actually fill it.

"Our biggest pressure is the economic engine. We can't control how much the guy charges for his house," Mr. Rankow noted.

The median house price in Edgartown in 2001 was $450,000, a drop of $20,000 from the previous year.

In fact, the town can't control much of what a private property owner wants to build on his multi-million dollar property.

That's a hard lesson the town has learned through Ernie Boch's home on the harbor, Robert Levine's future 10,000-square-foot home on Oyster Pond and a new proposal for a 10,000-square-foot home on Wasque Point.

"It's all incremental. It's the small things that are adding up to change what the place is like. We're having to deal with each individually - the nuts and bolts of each," said conservation commission member Steve Ewing.

Town voters rejected articles and districts at the spring town meeting that would have limited square footage in some of Edgartown's most sensitive areas.

"The town of late has decided to not adopt house size limits, and we take our direction from the town residents," Mr. Rankow said.

High-value homes funnel tax revenues into town coffers, but up-scale building also squeezes the little guy, officials say.

"High land values are good for taxes, but the bad news is that it increases the amount of people needed to accommodate the services we need. And we have nowhere for them to go," Mr. Mercier said.

The small business owner is hard pressed to find a spot, let alone an affordable property in the town's Main street business district or the airport business park.

"It's making it tough for the little guy. Services are becoming more and more necessary, but summer residents don't want businesses in their neighborhood," Mr. Donaroma said. "He's being squeezed out."

Certainly the push and pull between business viability and residential tranquility is reaching a confrontation point in Edgartown more often these days - evident by the clash in Katama this spring over expanded uses of the Winnetu Inn and Resort.

"It's a new fight I find myself being dragged into. In the past few years, we've made zoning to protect neighborhoods, but now we are in jeopardy of affecting the whole community," Mr. Donaroma said.

The only guarantee for Edgartown's future is that the battles, in varying shapes and sizes, will continue.

"As the number of people coming grows, along with land values, clashing is inevitable. The reason people come is because of the way we are; so they shouldn't feel they need to bring their own sense of values with them," Mrs. Cannon said.