When it comes to divining the will of the people, it is hard to think of anything simpler than the latest method employed by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for gathering opinions on future development on the Island.
Beans and coffee jars at the Agricultural Fair. If you wanted no more development, you put a bean in one jar, if you wanted a little, you put a bean in another jar, and so on.
And on Wednesday night, at a well-attended public forum on the development and growth question, held at the Agricultural Hall, the results were displayed. Not counted, just displayed.
Still, the apportionment of beans showed pretty much what all the other surveys have shown. People here place a much higher value on preserving the Island’s environment and character than on promoting growth. They overwhelmingly think the summer population can’t grow much without creating problems. They think controls over the both the quantity and quality of development should be stricter. They do not like the prospect of another 9,000-odd residential units (6,000 houses and 3,000 guest houses), the number which could theoretically be built under current zoning regulations.
But why weren’t the beans counted? Because, as commission executive director Mark London points out, that would resolve nothing. In a way, the bean jars served as a metaphor for the problem those working on the Martha’s Vineyard Island Plan now face. They know what people say they want. The question now is how to give it to them.
“We’ve done a number of surveys over the years,” Mr. London said. “Each has methodological questions about it. But when all the surveys point to the same as the rest, you start to think this is what people really want.
“We did one of 3,000 people a couple of years ago, through the newspapers. We did one of 1,500 people, randomly selected, on the ferry, at the airport, in other locations. We did a third, in association with the Chamber of Commerce, of business people.
“The business people were a bit more pro-development, but they still placed character and environment up very high, way above development.”
And so the beans were not really a serious attempt at polling; the planners already have comprehensive polling and baseline data on the issues.
Rather, the beans were a way of engaging people in the next part of the task. The difficult bit. The how of it, which was the reason for the forum.
“This was the kickoff for discussion. We anticipate in the next few months there will be many opportunities for people to express their views,” Mr. London said.
The night began with a briefing on the collected facts. To cite just a few:
On current trends and under current zoning, Mr. London said, the number of buildings on the Vineyard would increase 50 per cent, from the current 18,000 to 27,000 before the place was built out.
That would take around 30 years, but of course more places could always be built if zoning was relaxed.
As of now, some 30 per cent of the Island is fully developed, 40 per cent is protected open space and another 30 per cent available. That equals some 17,000 acres of undeveloped, but developable land on the Island.
At the current rate of acquisition of preserved open space, only some 20 per cent of that would be protected.
Right now, some 57 per cent of houses are occupied only seasonally.
Current zoning would allow 6,000 extra main houses. If the proportion of homes with guest houses doubled — to levels already reached on Nantucket and in Provincetown — it would add 3,000 guest houses.
Development is increasingly happening in the countryside. Before 1970, 70 per cent of development was in town centers; between 1970 to 2000, there was nearly as much in the country and in the future the bulk will be outside towns, if trends continue.
Fifty-three per cent of land is in habitat considered sensitive, and construction accounts for 14 per cent of the Vineyard economy.
And that’s just skimming the surface of the data, but enough to indicate the many variables which must be considered. To cite just a few of them:
How do you deal with pollution of ponds from the wastewater of more people? Do you sewer? If you do, does it just encourage denser settlement?
If you require larger lot sizes to limit growth, does it inevitably force up property values, driving away young people and those in less well-paid service jobs?
And how do you limit growth without costing jobs in construction?
How do you make new development compatible with historic areas and with the traditional Vineyard style of building? Is it enough just to produce an advisory guide on building the Island way?
Could development be steered in certain directions, by allowing for higher density in the towns, so as to ease the pressure on rural areas?
And if you do that, how do you protect the character of those towns’ historic districts?
What of the roads, already choked in summer? Do you expand them to clear the traffic, or does that just attract more cars? Do you limit the number people can have?
The questions are endless. And indeed the 70-odd people present on Wednesday night argued them back and forth with no real conclusions or consensus.
On the threshold questions opinion was close to unanimous. Almost everyone wanted some kind of extra regulation; the concept of the free market took a beating.
As one man said: “Markets are never unregulated. Either collectively or by the most powerful.”
But beyond that, all was fractured and disjointed.
About the most that could be said for this forum was that the Island has a long way to go. But at least now it has the facts to sustain it on the journey.
And the beans.