Oak Bluffs Turns to Healing Rifts from Election

Fault Lines Can Still Be Seen

By CHRIS BURRELL

The phones have stopped ringing, and the yard signs are down. In Oak Bluffs this week, there is a weary sense of relief that the town finally has its answer: They will remain in the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

"People are so tired of fighting," said Renee Balter, a resident and executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association. "Now it's finally been settled."

The answer came from the voters themselves, ending weeks, if not months, of speculation about what townspeople really wanted.

But while the guesswork is gone, there's no disputing the rift that remains and the wounds that need to be healed.

How will the town rebuild its relationship with the commission, and how will voters regain their trust in town leaders? And then there's the obvious question of what's next for the land that sits at the center of this storm.

For the last three years, a proposal to turn nearly 300 acres of the southern woodlands into a private golf course has fanned the flames of controversy, testing the stamina of a town that is no stranger to hardball politics.

The issue drove a wedge through the board of selectmen, and it split the commissioners at the MVC who narrowly defeated the proposal each of the three times it came before the regional agency for approval.

But more than anything else, the question of golf in the southern woodlands divided an entire town. That was clear last year at a special town meeting in March, when 427 voters favored taking the woodlands by eminent domain and 433 opposed it. The measure fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage, but the tally told the stark truth - a town torn down the middle.

Now, more than 13 months later, after all the public forums, the legislative hearings, the telephone polling, the yard signs, the leaflets handed out at the post office and the lobbyists calling voters the night before the election, you can still see the fault line separating the two camps.

Tuesday's vote was close, a 98-vote margin giving victory to those siding with the commission.

"It's divided the town so intensely," said Judy O'Donoghue, a school committee member who voted no to leaving the commission. "We would like to heal and move on."

Ironically, while much of the battle was fought over a breakup with the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the healing process is likely to happen in-house, where some observers say the relationship between town leaders and their constituents is badly strained.

Kerry Alley, a retired school guidance counselor, said Tuesday's vote is a clear sign of public dissatisfaction with town leadership.

"People just don't have confidence in the leadership," he said. "The argument that we don't need the commission because we can do it locally is begging the question. Look at the fiasco over the [selectmen] chairmanship, the article asking for three-quarters of a million dollars to build a new town hall based on not much more than a sketch on the back of an envelope, the sewer boxes. Those things have piled up."

And when it came to the golf plan, town leaders drew deep lines in the sand. Three of the five current selectmen openly allied themselves with the owner of the vast woodlands parcel - Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith - signing onto an agreement a year ago that advocated removing the commission as an "impediment" to plans for the luxury Down Island Golf Club.

For much of the last two years, those selectmen - a majority of the board - argued they had the backing of the town as they met behind closed doors to craft a deal with the developer. They pointed to other town boards that voted to sign the same document with Mr. Kupersmith.

"Selectmen truly believed they had most of the town behind them . . . and they moved forward thinking they were doing the right thing for the town," said Mrs. Balter, who supported staying with the MVC. "That's when the confidence in them eroded. The measures they were taking gave a lot of people a feeling of not being a part of their government, of being shut out. That's not a good way to feel in a town as small as ours."

The healing process will be an enormous challenge, said selectman Gregory Coogan, who openly backed the commission.

"I am legitimately humbled by the thought of what's ahead of us," said Mr. Coogan. "So many people put so much time and energy on both sides. It was a massive undertaking. To almost walk out of the commission, it's pretty impressive to almost beat an institution. There's a lot of fervor on both sides, and I don't expect it to die overnight."

Richard Combra, chairman of the selectmen and an advocate for the golf club plans, promised to put an end to the internal divisions on his board. "As a member of the board of selectmen, I have a clear direction," he told the Gazette this week. "The selectmen in Oak Bluffs are going to lead by example. People are going to see all five members become unified on this issue."

Mr. Alley said he will be watching the selectmen closely. "It depends entirely on what the three selectmen do, if they genuinely say they've heard the people," he said.

But if the public's lack of trust in the Oak Bluffs selectmen helped fuel at least part of the no vote, what gave supporters of the yes vote so much traction?

Pam Swan, a mother of three schoolchildren who has lived in town for nine years, firmly believed her selectmen were on the right track. "Selectmen had forged a really good package with the golf guy," she said. "It's too bad the commission disregarded that."

Mrs. Swan pointed to her own lack of faith that the commission could repel the 366-unit housing plan filed by Mr. Kupersmith.

Fire chief Dennis Alley, Kerry Alley's brother, called Tuesday's vote a no-brainer from a financial perspective. A golf club would have brought "an awful lot of money into the town," he said, adding, "There's nothing prettier than having a golf course on a piece of land like that."

Signs for the yes campaign cast the vote against the commission as a vote for the schools and for lower taxes, a simple choice between golf or houses. "Faced with some type of housing out there, it puts a strain on the infrastructure, more children in the school system," Dennis Alley said.

There was also anger at the Martha's Vineyard Commission, a perception that the rejection of the golf club left Oak Bluffs vulnerable to a massive housing development and the feeling that some commissioners viewed Oak Bluffs as a dumping ground for affordable housing.

Mrs. Balter said the anti-commission campaign gained support by playing on public fears. "Their signs were definitely fear-based, that taxes would be raised, the school would be ruined," she said. "They brought people out to the polls who normally wouldn't come and who didn't really understand in a great deal of depth what the issues were really about."

What happens next with Mr. Kupersmith's land is clearly a topic of great curiosity. Whatever happens, Mr. Combra said, it will have to go to the Martha's Vineyard Commission. And if the proposal is for a housing development, Mr. Combra said he would be staunchly opposed to granting approval.

Mark London, the executive director of the commission, is ready to see the end of an adversarial and the beginning of a cooperative relationship with Oak Bluffs. "We're going to have to work very closely and together on issues related to the southern woodlands now that we're on the same team," he said.

Mr. London pointed to other efforts that the commission is making to heal the wounds. MVC planners are working on securing grant money to pay for a roundabout at the blinker light intersection, he said.

But as Mr. Coogan said, the intensity of this political battle will take time to cool down. "I think people were incorrectly thinking the commission could protect them," said Mrs. Swan. "The opposite is going to be true."

John Newsom, a real estate salesman, put it this way: "In this town, when they say it's over because of the vote, it's not over."