The Martha’s Vineyard Commission on Thursday heard emotional testimony, both from a group of Edgartown neighbors who support a plan to protect several old pathways from development, and from a well-known Island family who argued the plan violates their property rights.
About a dozen residents living near the old pathways — called ancient ways — argued in favor of a plan to place five ways in a special protection zone that would limit their use and prevent them from being clear-cut or widened.
The designation calls for amending the boundaries of an existing special ways district to include portions of Ben Tom’s Road, Pennywise Path, Middle Line Path, Tar Kiln Road and Watcha Path. The special ways district falls under the regulatory umbrella of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Island Road District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC).
The ancient ways zone protects to within 20 feet of the center line. The Island Road district regulations were amended in 1999 to add a new special ways zone for Edgartown which included a segment of Dr. Fisher Road.
Each of the five ancient ways dates back to the 1600s and 1700s, and are believed to have been used as cart paths of that era.
But several members of the Hall family — who own land off Middle Line Path and Ben Tom’s Road — said the plan would create a wide range of legal problems and argued that the roads could only be designated if they were deemed public ways, allowing access by residents of more than one town.
Benjamin Hall Jr., an Edgartown attorney, argued that if the roads were made public, the town would be required to maintain them as public ways that allow, as of right, unencumbered vehicle access along the entire length.
“The town would have to maintain the ways so they are safe for the public, meaning they would be wide enough for two cars and emergency vehicles, which seems to contradict they very intent of this plan. We talk about preserving the rural characters of these paths and yet here we are considering a plan to open them up to all vehicles . . . it would defeat the avowed purpose of the [district of critical planning concern],” he said.
Town officials and neighbors urged the commission to act immediately to preserve the paths from clear-cutting and future development. Several residents said the Hall family recently hired a contractor to cut down several trees along Middle Line Path.
Susan Sellers, who lives near Pennywise Path, said she remembered a time when grass and moss grew on the edges of the paths. Over the years, she said, several of the paths have been widened and altered by various people, while others have become dumping grounds for garbage, old appliances and automobiles. She said she was shocked when she recently learned that a large portion of Ben Tom’s Road had been widened and cleared.
“It’s [these paths] that make this Island so special . . . the time has come to protect these ways and stop zoning from going amok. We still have time,” she said.
Some residents voiced opposition through letters. Thomas M. Sawyer, a resident of Edgartown Meadows Road, said the Hall family has cut down hundreds of tress in recent weeks to provide access to their properties.
“I have lived in this neighborhood a long time and would hate to see the entire character change due to the actions of one person. Please do whatever possible to stop the tree cutting and protect these paths,” he wrote.
“Any change to these ancient ways, no matter how small, seemingly innocent or well-intended, must be rebuffed, if the intent is preservation of these truly wonderful resources for the use by all,” wrote Gail Lock, another resident of Edgartown Meadows Road.
But Hall family members argued that preserving the paths violates their property rights.
Mr. Hall said the plan would cause them to lose nine acres of property, and he said his family would also lose the right to keep people off their property.
“People for years have used our land like it was their personal park land, and now that they have access to their land they seek to take away the rights of the people down the road. The [Martha’s Vineyard Commission] should not be used as a tool to impose new rules to serve one group’s interest while denying the legal rights of another,” he said.
Benjamin (Buzzy) Hall Sr. agreed with his son.
“If you’re taking away the right to stop people from going on their land you are essentially taking away their land. We want to keep these roads rural, we’re not looking to create a major roadway here,” he said.
Chairman Douglas Sederholm said the commission is not charged with determining whether the roads were private or public ways. He said commission counsel Eric Wodlinger agrees with a Sept. 6 letter written by Edgartown attorney Ronald H. Rappaport which concluded that the roads could be considered for inclusion in the protection zone.
“It is my opinion that it would be appropriate for the selectmen to take steps to ensure that these roads are not altered, expanded, or destroyed until a court determines the scope of the public’s rights, or the Martha’s Vineyard Commission takes steps, acceptable to the selectmen, to protect the public’s interest in these roads,” Mr. Rappaport wrote.
The commission first voted last month to consider including the roadways in the protection zone, triggering an immediate temporary moratorium on development.
When one woman Thursday suggested the Hall family might disregard the moratorium if the commission did not take action, she received a sharp rebuke from Therese Hall.
“I think it’s disgusting to think the Hall family would do anything to hurt this town and this Island we love more than anything . . . . you all think we are going to do something awful on this property and it’s wrong,” she said.
When the hearing neared the two-hour mark, commissioners agreed they needed more time to deliberate on the designation, and voted to continue the matter until Oct. 4, the last meeting before the temporary moratorium expires.