Golf Plan Stirs Heated MVC Debate Over Club Membership Restrictions

By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer

The developer of the Down Island Golf Club told the Martha's Vineyard Commission last week that the members of the private luxury golf complex he hopes to build will be "rich people" who will bring no real benefit to the town of Oak Bluffs or the Island.

"The golf membership - is it proposed as a benefit? It's only a benefit for a few rich people on the Island. It's all the other things we are proposing that are a benefit," declared Brian Lafferty, a Bolton developer who is a partner with Connecticut developer Corey T. Kupersmith in the southern woodlands golf course project.

The remark came during a heated exchange between Mr. Lafferty and commission members last Thursday night. Intended as a working session of the land use planning subcommittee to frame questions about the golf course project on the eve of a third and final public hearing, the meeting was abruptly ended when Mr. Lafferty began to pepper the discussion with disagreeable remarks.

Mr. Lafferty and Mr. Kupersmith want to build a private, 18-hole golf club and 30 houses in the southern woodlands, the last large area of undeveloped land in the town of Oak Bluffs. Mr. Kupersmith owns about 277 acres in the woodlands; twice in the last two years he has tried without success to win approval from the commission for a golf course project on the property.

The third plan for the property is now under review by the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI) and a third and possibly final public hearing is set for Thursday night this week.

The details of the golf course plan have been changing at a rapid rate, and the growing confusion about the facts surrounding the project has been compounded by uncertainty about the process.

Under pressure from the developer to expedite the public hearing process, the commission decided recently to bend its own rules and begin a land use planning committee review of the project before the public hearing had closed.

Last Thursday, for the third time in as many weeks, there was sharp disagreement among commission members about the wisdom of engaging in dialogue with the developer outside the public hearing.

"If we have questions for the applicant, they should not be asked except at the public hearing," said commission member Jennie Greene.

"I agree with Jennie and I don't intend to participate in this discussion," said commission member Roger Wey.

"Have you run this by Eric?" asked commission member John Best, referring to Eric Wodlinger, the Boston attorney who represents the commission.

"No," said commission chairman James Vercruysse. Some discussion followed about whether Mr. Wodlinger had given his blessing to the unorthodox procedure - Mr. Lafferty assured the commission that he had.

"I think somebody here talked to Eric and I know we've had conversations with him about this," Mr. Lafferty said.

Reached at his office in Boston yesterday, Mr. Wodlinger said he was never consulted about staging a mid-public hearing review at land use meetings.

"I've never spoken with Brian Lafferty. I have from time to time spoken with Jim Ward at Nutter [the Boston attorney who represents the developers] about a variety of procedural issues . . . but I don't recall being asked about this," Mr. Wodlinger said.

Ms. Greene and Mr. Wey both left the meeting and the remaining members agreed to hold a land use planning committee meeting for the sake of posing questions to the developer about the project, with the idea that the questions would be answered at the public hearing this Thursday evening.

But posing questions quickly turned into a full-blown dialogue with the developer.

The most heated exchange took place between Mr. Lafferty and commission member Linda Sibley after Mrs. Sibley asked about proposed membership rules amid continuing questions about the economic viability of the golf club project.

A few minutes before the exchange took place Mr. Lafferty asserted that any concerns about the underlying economic viability of the golf project are misplaced.

"Martha's Vineyard is way, way, way underserved for golf," he said.

Mrs. Sibley later used the remark to frame her previously stated concerns about whether the golf course project will be forced to recruit members who are not Vineyard residents in order to fill the membership rolls. This in fact has been the case at a private golf course on Nantucket, where nearly half the members fly in to play golf and have no other connection to the island.

"The benefits of this project depend on there being a market for the membership, and I know you have said that doesn't matter, but I think it matters - whether there is a demand for memberships," Mrs. Sibley began.

Commission member Richard Toole jumped into the discussion, noting the long list of community benefits that has been proposed by the golf course developers, including large contributions to the ice arena, Island elderly housing and other charities, and payments in lieu of taxes to the town of Oak Bluffs.

"This is something that has been on my mind. You have a huge list of benefits to Martha's Vineyard and if the golf course fails then that list of benefits goes away. So if you can't be financially successful, then that is an issue," Mr. Toole said.

"If doomsday comes and you can't sell memberships, the golf course would still be built," Mr. Lafferty replied.

Mrs. Sibley resumed her question. "You have a business proposition; equity memberships are an investment, and if you have difficulty selling memberships inside the community, then you have to sell them outside the community." Mrs. Sibley asked Mr. Lafferty whether he would be willing to state for the record at the final public hearing a commitment to draw club memberships from Island residents.

"I disagree with your contention - I don't think the commission has any right to get into the financial aspects of our business - or any business," Mr. Lafferty said.

"Pardon me, but Augusta National has a rule that they don't admit women, and I believe as a private club you can make rules that require that your members have to be Martha's Vineyard residents," Mrs. Sibley replied.

"We're not going to do that," Mr. Lafferty shot back.

"This golf club is being proposed as a recreational benefit to the community, and you said yourself a few minutes ago that the Vineyard is underserved for golf. We are obligated under Chapter 831 to evaluate the benefits and detriments of a project. If it ends up that 40 per cent of the members of this golf club aren't residents - as is the case on Nantucket - then that is a concern to us," Mrs. Sibley said.

"You are misunderstanding our proposal, Mrs. Sibley. What this golf course does is take 280 acres out of development and create an economic engine for the town of Oak Bluffs. The 300 rich people who get to be members - that's ancillary. The benefits of this project? I would propose that there is more benefit to the Vineyard if all 300 members flew in here to play golf," Mr. Lafferty exclaimed.

"Thank you, I have my answer," Mrs. Sibley said.

At this point commission member Andrew Woodruff left the meeting, and commission member Kate Warner moved to end the session.

"We really should be discussing this in a larger forum. This is inappropriate," she said.

The final public hearing on the golf course project begins Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. in the cafeteria of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. Deliberations and a possible vote on the project are also scheduled, but it is unclear whether there will be enough time for the commission to complete all of this business in one night.