Island Ends Year of War and Peace on Vital Fronts from Boat Line to Hospital and Golf Course Plans

By CHRIS BURRELL

Who needs Broadway when you live year-round on Martha's Vineyard? Turn the camera lens back on the last year, and you can spot enough drama for a dozen plays, both comedies and tragedies.

Ideal grist for the mill, money and power spurred much of the political intrigue and battles of 2002, whether the stage was the Steamship Authority, the Martha's Vineyard Hospital or the southern woodlands, which lived another year in its wild state - free of golf balls and putting greens.

Heroes showed their flaws in 2002. The Black Dog Tavern and its retail empire, built atop a stack of T-shirts, began to teeter last winter amidst money troubles and a bitter feud amongst the top brass. A former Tisbury selectman, convicted on a drunk-driving fatality, was sentenced to jail. And a powerful Quincy developer may face the same fate after a gruesome Fourth of July boating tragedy that left one man dead, sucked into the high-powered propeller of a cigarette boat just a few feet from a Chappaquiddick beach.

Elsewhere last year, the classic literary theme of man versus nature could be found all over the Island as farmers and gardeners battled a summer drought, as surfers flocked to the south shore in the wake of Hurricane Gustav and as Olympic hopefuls raced high-tech catamarans in Vineyard Sound.

Newspaper headlines of 2002 also chronicled a series of rebellions, groups fighting for an independence and a greater voice. The Wampanoags in Aquinnah defied the town's zoning laws and vowed to fight in court for their tribe's sovereignty while employees at the county jail and the Island's main social service agency pressed for unions as a way to win more rights and better pay.

When the enemy was a machine, Islanders also raised the alarm. Selectmen in Oak Bluffs whittled down the moped rental fleet in their town and watched accident numbers drop last year. A proposal for 170 giant wind turbines in Nantucket Sound stirred controversy for most of 2002.

But for pure politics, once again, golf and ferries dominated the landscape in a year that left people on both sides of the story bruised and a little unsure of what it all meant over the long haul. For backers of the proposed luxury golf course in the southern woodlands of Oak Bluffs, it was an action-packed, suspenseful and ultimately frustrating year.

Golf Course Plan Rejected

The page of the calendar turned to January 2002, and the Down Island Golf Club landed back on the front pages as Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith pushed for a second time to win approval from the Martha's Vineyard Commission for an 18-hole golf course on some 270 acres in the last unbroken woodland in Oak Bluffs.

Hanging over the whole proposal was Mr. Kupersmith's threat: Approve my golf club or face an affordable housing subdivision in the woodlands of massive proportions. Remarkably, in February, the commission faced down the threat and denied the application in a 9-7 vote, the second rejection in less than 18 months.

But like a movie destined for sequels and Roman numerals, this was not the end of the Down Island Golf saga. This time, the battle moved to Oak Bluffs where two separate petitions triggered a special town meeting in late March.

One article called for taking the woodlands by eminent domain; another demanded that voters take the first step toward pulling their town out of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

A record-setting 861 voters piled into the high school Performing Arts Center for the meeting. The vote on emiment domain - 433 opposed and 427 in favor - was a far cry from the necessary two-thirds majority but revealed a town torn down the middle over the issue of turning the woodlands into a private golf course.

Backers of the move to withdraw from the commission urged voters to send a "shot across the bow" of the Island planning and regulatory agency. They said the commission left the town prone to Mr. Kupersmith's 366-unit housing subdivision, which was filed under Chapter 40B of state law. The measure passed with a voice vote and a raising of yellow cards - a clear majority, but no official tally to quantify the mood.

Summer was a busy season on the golf front. In June, the chief justice of the Massachusetts Land Court strongly upheld the right of the commission to review 40B projects. By July, the developers had decided to try a third time for approval of the golf course project, meeting behind closed doors with some Oak Bluffs selectmen and other town officials to craft the new plan under the auspices of a "settlement agreement."

The third plan came before the commission but was rejected in a 9-8 vote on Oct. 16. Not surpisingly, the developers of the Down Island Golf Club fired back last month with a lawsuit against the Martha's Vineyard Commission, attacking not just the recent vote but the enabling legislation that created the commission.

Martha's Vineyard Commission

To be sure, it was a long year for the commission, which weathered numerous attacks while at the same time searching for a new leader. By fall, the commission had recruited a new executive director, Mark London, a 54-year-old architect and city planner from Montreal, Canada.

A bill now pending in the state legislature for Oak Bluffs to withdraw from the commission is not expected to move until after the legislature reconvenes this month. A second vote is still required by the town to complete the process.

But while the agency came under fire this year, it also enjoyed support both at the polls in November and earlier in September when a joint committee from the state legislature convened a hearing in Oak Bluffs to consider the home rule petition filed by the town to withdraw from the MVC.

More than 150 people crowded into an empty bay at the Oak Bluffs firehouse for that hearing and offered a passionate defense of the commission's role on the Island for the last 28 years.

By election day in November, Island voters reaffirmed that sentiment, proving it was not just an Oak Bluffs phenomenon. They backed a slate of conservation-minded candidates for the commision, rejecting pro-growth candidates who criticized the commission and its unique powers to regulate development.

Boat Line in Troubled Waters

The people had spoken. They spoke out last year as well on vital Steamship Authority (SSA) issues, but by mid-year it was clear that the state wasn't listening closely to voices from the Vineyard and Nantucket. In June, state legislators approved a bill that restructured the boat line legislation and met nearly all the demands of New Bedford, including an immediate voting seat on the SSA board of governors.

Barely one month into 2002, more than 300 Islanders turned out for a public forum and voted against any change in the Steamship legislation. In a series of other straw votes, the crowd came out against high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard and against a voting seat for New Bedford on the SSA board.

The backdrop for the forum couldn't have been more politically charged. In the first days of January, Kathryn A. Roessel stepped in as the new Vineyard Steamship Authority governor, appointed in a controversial 4-3 vote by the Dukes County Commission that ousted incumbent boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker.

A group of locally elected officials had reacted swiftly to the Parker ouster, campaigning to overturn the vote by changing the SSA enabling legislation. They envisioned a new appointing authority made up of one selectman from each town and one county commissioner.

The intensity of Steamship politics was so great last year that it played a major role in ending the political tenure of Cynthia Mitchell, who lost her bid for a fifth term on the board of selectmen in West Tisbury by a mere 20 votes out of more than 900 cast.

The main issue? SSA politics. From the very start, challenger Glenn Hearn pointed to Mrs. Mitchell's views on Steamship issues and charged her with turning a deaf ear to public opinion.

Ultimately, at the polls in November Island voters shot down a referendum that would have done what Mrs. Mitchell and others wanted. Instead, they affirmed the appointing mechanism for SSA governors already in place.

But the state legislature already had gone the other way, handing New Bedford a voting seat on the Steamship board in spite of the outcry from Islanders. None of those developments, though, seemed to rid the boat line of tension.

New Bedford is still pushing for a fast ferry connection from its mainland port while Falmouth selectmen attempted to oust its Steamship governor Galen Robbins, largely because he came out against New Bedford.

War and Peace at Hospital

Stormy resignations were the name of the game last year at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. Like the SSA, foul weather at the hopsital struck in January when Dr. Richard Koehler, a highly skilled laparoscopic surgeon who had worked at the Vineyard hospital for seven years, announced he would sever his contract with the hospital.

That decision set off an avalanche of angry letters to the editor. Dr. Koehler cited irreconcilable differences with hospital CEO Kevin Burchill as the reason for his resignation, and the stream of criticism was aimed at hospital management.

By March, Mr. Burchill had announced that he was also quitting. In the wake of such turmoil, a report from a health care consultant in Maine outlined a troubling picture of mistrust and poor relationships, both inside and outside the hospital.

The consultant described the Island medical community as fragmented: "The doctors themselves need to figure out how to work together. We refer to a medical staff, but they are not a single cohesive unit at this point. They can be - and they should be - but they are not right now."

Hospital leaders promised to address a shortage of primary care physicians. Before year's end major changes at the hospital board level and in senior management restored a level of calm and confidence to the Island's only medical center. The respected John Ferguson took control of a still changing board of trustees and Timothy Walsh assumed the chief executive officer role, a position that helped improve hosptial morale.

Meanwhile, two separate health care initiatives were announced in 2002. The first is a wide-ranging scientific health survey of Islanders that will take six months to complete. The second plan is aimed at offering health insurance to the estimated 3,000 Vineyarders who lack access to comprehensive health care.

An Uncertain Economy

The main question being asked of the Island Insurance Plan is: How much will it cost? It was a question heard during much of 2002 as hard economic times and grim forecasts set in over the nation, the state and finally the Island, proving that even an Island of multi-million dollar second homes is not immune to recession.

Early last year, one of the Vineyard's biggest employers - the Black Dog - announced that sales had fallen by $2 million compared to the season before, forcing cutbacks and a restructuring at the management levels. The ripples were felt elsewhere in the Vineyard economy as Marianne's Screenprinting and Kolodny & Rentschler were squeezed out in the Black Dog belt-tightening.

But the Black Dog stayed afloat, kept all its outlets open through the season and even sponsored sailing excursions aboard the tall ships Alabama and Shenandoah for more than 75 kids being treated for chronic illnesses at Boston Children's Hospital.

Elsewhere, there were other troubling signs in the economy. Charitable giving was down. The Island's only new car dealership closed down. The regional refuse district found itself staring down a budget deficit. Cuts in state funding spelled hard times for Island art councils, school budgets and at Edgartown district court.

That same state budget crisis, though, could bring good times to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), which has renewed its pitch for a mainland casino as a way to ease the cash worries for both the state and the tribe.

The tribe rode out a rough year financially. They lost hundreds of thousands of dollars at Alley's General Store and then bailed out of the operation just before summer. In a drastic move, the tribal council voted to liquidate $1.2 million of its stock account and sell tribe-owned land on Chappaquiddick.

But amidst the foreboding signs, there were also positive messages when it came to money matters last year. The harbors - thick with pleasure boats and cruise ship tenders - continued to generate cash for towns, tour buses and retailers.

Police Log for 2002

Crime and punishment kept both police and the county jail busy in 2002. A jail break last spring triggered an investigation at the county facility when the sheriff learned the inmate had escaped and returned at least four times.

But that was hardly the end of troubles at the jail. Deputies rallied around efforts to unionize, complaining of inconsistent leadership and policy enforcement. The house of corrections also failed a series of public health inspections conducted by the state.

Sheriff Michael McCormack pointed to the poor marks as evidence that the county needs a new jail, but a master plan for the airport left the sheriff and his vision for a new facility at the airport out in the cold.

Two Island police chiefs turned in their badges in 2002. John McCarthy resigned the chief's post in Tisbury, after years of clashing with selectmen. Oak Bluffs police chief Joseph Carter announced he was leaving to take a job as chief the transit authority police in Boston.

Meanwhile, crime was still in ample supply, assuring the sheriff and police a steady stream of customers. Two Island teens, both charged as adults, were convicted of rape charges and sentenced to jail. After a year-long investigation, state police finally charged former Tisbury cop Robert Cimeno Sr. with placing a fake inspection on a Jeep that later crashed in Oak Bluffs, killing high school senior Eric MacLean.

Police in Rhode Island nabbed two Islanders and charged them with dealing in the addictive prescription drug, OxyContin, marking the first bust for that drug connected to the Vineyard. The case against Quincy real estate developer William O'Connell is still pending as prosecutors will try to prove that Mr. O'Connell was intoxicated when he backed his 47-foot cigarette boat up to a Chappaquiddick beach on the Fourth of July. The propellers struck and killed his friend, 62-year-old William Sanderson.

Former Tisbury selectman A. Kirk Briggs was sentenced to 21 months in the Edgartown jail, convicted of drunk driving and vehicular homicide nine months after slamming his pick-up truck into a 25-year-old woman who was walking her bicycle along the roadside. The woman, an Estonian named Jelena Shvaikovskaja, died the next day at a Boston hospital.

Last year brought its own set of tragedies. A popular chef, Keith Korn, was killed in a high-speed crash in West Tisbury that left the passenger, Erich Luening, so badly injured that he is still in rehabilitation.

A fisherman drowned in Edgartown's Eel Pond in June. A month later, a 38-year-old man from Watertown fell into the Oak Bluffs harbor and drowned. Toxicology tests later proved he was intoxicated, sparking a crackdown on Oak Bluffs bars for liquor law violations.

A plane crash in November off the south shore claimed the lives of two Island men, pilot Richard A. Colson, 43, of Edgartown, and his friend, Robert B. Buchanan, 45, of Tisbury.

The Vineyard lost several notable residents last year as well including teacher Woodrow Wilson Sayre, sculptor Travis Tuck, realtor Barbara Nevin, arts patron Eleanor Piacenza, choirmaster David Hewlett and former Aquinnah selectman Marc Widdiss.

It was a tough year for the Island's growing Brazilian population. Two Brazilian men - Romulo de Almeida, 24, and Wesley Barbosa, 27 - drowned in Sengekontacket Pond in October. That same week, a house fire in Edgartown left 14 Brazilians homeless. Amidst allegations of overcrowding, rent-gouging and safety violations, Edgartown selectmen called for tighter scrutiny of rental units.

Despite the struggles, Brazilians further solidified their presence on the Vineyard, unveiling plans for a new church and flocking to the Rod and Gun Club in Edgartown to celebrate their country's victory in the World Cup for soccer.

Islanders also filled the rosters of Portuguese classes, wanting to learn the language of the newcomers, and the regional high school added Portuguese to its course offerings.

Other cultural shifts were also noted this year. Building on a trend that started several years back, some Islanders turned in their beach passes and opted to invest cash in backyard swimming pools.

But the creeping suburbanization of the Vineyard wouldn't fly on Chappaquiddick where a Washington, D.C. businessman wanted to build a 10,000-square-foot house but failed to win a permit for his dream home from the Edgartown planning board.

In a difficult year, one thing that shined through was the Island arts community - writers, dancers and painters - showing that the Island is indeed a place that breeds creativity. Its leading historian, David McCullough, was honored with a second Pulitzer Prize for his biography of John Adams. Kelly Peters took his young hip-hop dance troupe off to New York to show off their in front of network TV cameras.

Stan Murphy opened his gallery not to sell paintings but to exhibit a life's worth of work. And Linda Marinelli published her memoirs, full of the political drama that so often buffets Island life.