Martha's Vineyard Commission Rejects Golf Development Plan by Thin Margin

By JULIA WELLS

Torn down the middle for the third time in three years, the expressions eloquent and heartfelt on both sides of the street, a strained and weary Martha's Vineyard Commission voted 9-8 to reject the Down Island Golf Club plan for the southern woodlands late on Wednesday night.

"The applicant has come back with changes to the plan and the word is that he has addressed all of our concerns. But he hasn't ever addressed my main concern and that's my concern about the character and identity of Martha's Vineyard," declared commission member James Athearn.

"I agree with Jim Athearn to the extent that I appreciate that this application is a clash of cultures, but I reach a different conclusion. I see many benefits to this project and I think we should put the applicant to the test and see if he is as good as his word," said commission member Marcia Cini.

"We're entering into more or less the end game on Martha's Vineyard, and if Martha's Vineyard is going to survive, we can't rely on development to continue to fund our budgets. What we have to rely on is what we have, which attracts people from all over the world. We are going to have to be very, very selective in what we allow with the limited resources we have. It's not going to be easy but I feel very strongly about this," said commission member John Best.

"I think it's a good plan. I said this the last time and now we have a better plan in front of us. Unfortunately the real world has to come to the Vineyard sometimes. I don't think this is an attack on the character of the Island," said commission member Michael Donaroma.

"I've been waiting for someone to whisper in my ear, 'We've got this conserved. It's okay. You can vote against this and the land will be saved.' But nobody's done that. So I think this is the best use of the land, and I think it will be good for the town," said commission member and board chairman James Vercruysse.

"You aren't going to save the whole Island. I think this is a reasonable plan, and this is the best deal we're going to get," said commission member Christina Brown.

"There aren't many unbroken blocks of woods anywhere on the Island anymore and this is the last one in Oak Bluffs," said commission member Linda Sibley.

"We are looking at the same plan but it's worse. How can we approve this? If we are true to our beliefs that the last two plans were inappropriate, then we can't in good conscience approve this," said commission member Andrew Woodruff.

The comments came just before midnight on Wednesday after four and a half hours of deliberations on the controversial golf club project at a special meeting of the commission in the Olde Stone Building in Oak Bluffs. An overflow crowd jammed the first floor meeting room, waiting for the final vote as the commission whittled away the evening debating a long list of possible conditions for the project. In the end, a vote to approve the project with conditions failed 9-8. A second vote to deny the project (necessary under commission rules) was approved 9-6 with two abstentions.

The meeting ended on an ugly note when Oak Bluffs selectman Richard Combra began shouting at commission member Kate Warner, who had cast the deciding vote. Ms. Warner burst into tears. Todd Rebello, the chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, later apologized to her.

But Mr. Rebello had few kind words about the vote on the golf course project, and he vowed that the town will now defy the commission and pursue the development of the golf club project anyway.

"I think the board of selectmen have marked their destination. I forsee us asking our planning board to move forward and approve the plan and let the Martha's Vineyard Commission sue the town," Mr. Rebello said.

He said if the developer appeals the decision in court, the selectmen will consider joining the lawsuit against the commission.

"Am I disappointed? Yes," Mr. Rebello said.

Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith and his partner, Bolton housing developer Brian Lafferty, left immediately after the vote with no comment.

The Wednesday meeting capped nearly three years of contentious debate around the quest by Mr. Kupersmith to convert 277 acres of land he owns in the southern woodlands to a private, luxury 18-hole golf course.

The project was under review by the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI). The Down Island Golf Club plan has been turned down twice by the commission in the last three years.

The latest iteration of the plan envisioned a private 18-hole golf club and 30 houses - including 14 market-priced homes and 16 affordable units. The housing was a new addition to the plan.

The plan had the support of a number of town officials, including four of the five selectmen. The plan included a proposed conservation package with the state and the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, although the state and the land bank never agreed to the deal. It also included a long list of community benefits, including contributions to an array of Island charities and payments in lieu of taxes to the town.

The details of the plan changed frequently throughout the public hearing process.

Just before the hearing closed on the project last week, the developers threw a handful of new benefits on the table, including a plan to allow some public play on the golf course.

On Wednesday night the discussion that preceded the vote touched many of the major themes that have swirled around the golf course project for the last two and a half years. Some members of the commission said they liked the addition of housing to the project, while others had an opposite view. Some paid special recognition to the support for the golf course project among Oak Bluffs town officials, while others pointed to the broader, regional role of the MVC. More than one member picked up on the "economic engine" theme touted by town officials and the golf club developers. And more than one member turned to both the enabling legislation that created the unique land use commission 28 years ago and to the regional Island plan, a blueprint planning document created by the commission 10 years ago.

"It seems to me a golf course is the epitome of a symbol of suburban leisure and affluence. The question has come up about what is good for Oak Bluffs, and that is a very important question. But we are here today to decide what is good for Martha's Vineyard. There is a wonderful economic engine here, and it's the good life we enjoy with all the natural qualities of the Island. We enjoy the land without amusement parks," said Mr. Athearn.

"I see this as an opportunity to preserve this property," countered commission member Alan Schweikert. Mr. Schweikert cited the luxury housing component of the plan as a benefit to the town.

Mrs. Sibley disagreed.

"Our previous written denial was extremely eloquent and everything it said still holds, with the exception of the affordable housing," said Mrs. Sibley. She continued: "I am extremely distressed by the applicant's disregard for the importance of the woods as a woodland and a habitat - it's been dissed by the applicant. . . . The applicant has provided no evidence that this is going to be the economic engine everyone talks about. He has asserted it, but he has provided no proof."

Commission member Robert Zeltzer also said he doubted the economic engine theory, although he said the plan had other benefits. "I'm not voting to destroy the southern woodlands - it's going to get developed one way or the other. Overall I think this is a responsible use of the land," Mr. Zeltzer said.

In recent weeks the meetings on the golf course plan were marked by tension and disagreement, as members of the commission struggled to evaluate the plan under enormous pressure.

On Wednesday night the tone of the meeting was respectful, and at one point Mr. Zeltzer aimed pointed remarks at the notion that Oak Bluffs would withdraw from the commission if the golf course project was not approved.

"That is not how we make decisions here. We all work hard and we all try our best to represent the Island. Whether or not I agree with the guy who is sitting next to me, we work for the Vineyard," he said.

The final vote was dramatic. As the names were called out for the roll call, Ms. Warner passed, leaving her vote for last. Moments later the tally was 8-8, with only Ms. Warner left to be counted. She turned in her chair, faced the room and said softly: "I vote no."

The roll call vote was as follows: Voting yes on the motion to approve the project with conditions were Christina Brown, Marcia Cini, Michael Donaroma, Jennie Greene, Mikel Oglesby, Alan Schweikert, Robert Zeltzer and James Vercruysse. Voting no were James Athearn, John Best, Tristan Israel, Megan Ottens-Sargent, Linda Sibley, Richard Toole, Kate Warner, Roger Wey and Andrew Woodruff.

Voting yes on the motion to deny the project were James Athearn, John Best, Tristan Israel, Megan Ottens-Sargent, Linda Sibley, Richard Toole, Kate Warner, Roger Wey and Andrew Woodruff. Voting no were Christina Brown, Marcia Cini, Michael Donaroma, Jennie Greene, Mikel Oglesby and James Vercruysse. Alan Schweikert and Robert Zeltzer abstained.