Island Plan Series Heads to Final Round With Wednesday Forum on Development

By MIKE SECCOMBE

After 18 months of research and meetings, benign intentions and utopian visions for future of the Vineyard, tomorrow will mark the point, predicted Jim Athearn, where the rubber really hits the road.

Wednesday evening is the final in the series of the Island Plan public forums - the big one, where motherhood intentions meet vested interests: development and growth. The forum begins at 7:30 p.m. in the new agricultural hall in West Tisbury.

"We took the first five areas that we thought we knew quite a bit about already, like water quality, or that we knew we needed to know more about, like the economy," Mr. Athearn said.

"We've been studying those and coming up with preliminary plans, but the big question that affects all of those areas is development that we haven't got our hooks into yet. This is the unifying theme of the whole thing." He continued:

"The thing of it is, so far nobody's ox has been gored in these talks. That's why [the public forums] so far sound a bit like preaching to the converted.

"Nobody has yet said, ‘All right, you favor a habitat for these beetles, does that mean no building within 500 feet?'

"And people who own land in that 500 feet are going to go: ‘Whoah! I don't like the beetle that much.'

"That's where the rubber really hits the road. That's where we haven't gone yet."

The observation is acute. And participants in the process beyond Mr. Athearn also privately acknowledge much of the discussion to date has taken the form of unobjectionable generalities.

Take the last forum, on the Island's natural environment, as an example.

Those present were asked to hold up color-coded pieces of cardboard to indicate their agreement or otherwise with stated intentions of the plan, such as: "Foster a culture of stewardship for the Vineyard's ecosystems."

There was some level of detail, but not much. Those who attended shared idealized visions of an Island where they could see the stars at night, unimpeded by the glare of lights. Where they could drive the roads through a tunnel of greenery instead of between galvanized crash fences. Where broad swaths of nitrogen-hungry lawn were replaced by native vegetation. Where they could feast on locally-grown delicacies and experience the rarities of nature, walk for miles through the woods or beaches without being chased off by landowners.

All of it was attractive - judging by the show of cards - but lacking much in the way of the exact means by which these things might be achieved.

The natural environment forum presented a useful level of baseline information - on how much of the Island shoreline is open to the public (32 per cent, including 39 per cent of the barrier beaches), how much land remains available (21 per cent), and so on.

Previous forums have imparted knowledge on things like water quality, energy use, the amount of waste generation, how wastewater may be managed and which sectors of the economy contribute how much to the total. The land use forum hopes to integrate much of the information.

"There hasn't been a lot of sifting of knowledge yet," Mr. Athearn said, adding:

"In our ambition to look at the future of the Vineyard completely and long term, we know we have to do things differently than in the past. We want to ask the right questions and get some good answers and make some real plans.

"And we have only scratched the surface."

Moderated by Pat Gregory of West Tisbury, tomorrow's forum will include presentations and a discussion involving Mr. Athearn, Kurt Gaertner, director of land use policy for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Tom Chase from The Nature Conservancy and Henry Stephenson, architect and member of the Tisbury planning board.

At issue will be big questions, including the human carrying capacity of the Island, how those people should be distributed and employed, and the future of growth itself.

A paper prepared by Mr. Athearn and commission executive director Mark London for the forum sets out the stark facts.

"The population of the Vineyard has almost tripled since 1970," it says. "It and Nantucket are the fastest-growing counties in the commonwealth. Under current zoning, about 6,000 more homes could be added to the present 16,000.

"With the current ratio of 56 per cent seasonal homes to 44 per cent year-round, this would translate into a year-round population growth from the current 15,000 to about 21,000. If all seasonal homes became year-round, the population could grow to about 50,000."

The paper notes that growth as a goal "is the philosophy of the cancer cell."

But how to redefine that goal involves a lot of delicate balancing. Which is what the meeting will be about.

Mr. Athearn, for his part, is looking back 30-odd years for some answers.

"Thirty years ago, Martha's Vineyard was town and country. Six towns, each with a center and the rest of it was largely unbuilt," he said.

"People used to ask ‘Why would anybody want to live out there?' And now it's the standard thing to live down a long dirt road in the scrub oak.

"It was inconceivable, just in my lifetime, that somebody would want to live out there.

"Our zoning regime, which was I think intended to limit development, actually caused development to spread all over instead of being concentrated. Zoning definitely has to be looked at.

"We're more or less talking about moving back to a historical model [but] we need to know if the community's going to buy into that idea of moving away from suburban building development styles and more into a town and country format."

Ironing out the details will be a huge, brave endeavor, but Mr. Athearn demurs at any suggestion that he is a brave man for having taken on the task.

"Sometimes the brave man is the guy who got shoved to the front," he said.