A series of wetlands violations in the town of Chilmark underpin drama which is the stuff of a daytime soap opera, complete with tangled relationships, trespassing orders and bitter class divisions.
A fiery public hearing at a recent meeting of the Chilmark conservation commission revealed more than one layer of problems at the Aerie, a mixed neighborhood of seasonal and year-round residents off North Road which has seen turmoil over prolonged construction projects and multiple environmental abuses.
In late May the commission cited Laurie David, a resident of California and Chilmark who is a noted environmentalist, for a wetlands violation on her property. Workers installed a makeshift road with boards and stones and drove heavy machinery across the resources area making a path to a building site for a tennis court.
The board instituted the fine in consideration of the repeat nature of the violation.
In 2007 Ms. David was cited for topping trees in the same area of wetland.
In 2005 the board had ruled on a series of violations on a parcel of land separated from the main David property by a stretch of property owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank.
Building was begun on a stone fire pit, barbecue grill area and wooden stage for a children’s theatre in a wetlands buffer zone, before any permit applications were filed. The commission ordered that the constructions be removed.
The Davids were also cited for building a path across the land bank property to connect their land.
Bart Thorpe, who owns a neighboring property at 37 the Aerie, told the Gazette that he performed the tennis court building work and that it was done without Ms. David’s knowledge.
Mr. Thorpe also accepted responsibility for the tree-topping incident.
The fine for the most recent violation totaled $900.
Meanwhile, conservation officer Russell Walton confirmed yesterday that he is investigating alleged additional environmental violations on the Thorpe property, working on tips from whistle-blowers.
“The suggestion, from people who’ve clearly been trespassing, is that manure has been dumped in one direction where there was wetland, that there has been a lot of clearing and that existing intermittent streams are no longer obvious,” Mr. Walton said.
He said the job of investigating complaints is complicated by the issue of access.
“The problem here is evidence. If I go out and find a violation and I’m trespassing to find that out, the case can be thrown out if it ever gets to court. And a lot of people don’t want the conservation commission on their property,” he said.
There are other methods of surveillance available to Mr. Walton, though.
“You can fly over the area to see if a wetland had been deleted. If there’s a willing neighbor you can remotely inspect.”
He continued: “There’s a large difference in one area — we have GIS [Geographic Information Systems] photography and Pictometry,” referring to two aerial mapping composite photography technologies. Using the two systems Mr. Walton can compare the same area in 2003 and then 2008. He said he has made a preliminary inspection of the Thorpe property using this technology and noted apparent depletion of the wetlands area.
“Mr. Thorpe was building a barn and a children’s playhouse,” he said, “but I didn’t think there was as much clearing going as is apparently the case.”
Ms. David, who is a neighbor to Mr. Thorpe at the Aerie, is referred to as Mr. Thorpe’s girlfriend in divorce proceedings between Mr. Thorpe and his wife. Ms. David is also going through a divorce. Attempts to reach her for comment have been unsuccessful.
Most of the tiny neighborhood was represented at the meeting earlier this month, though not Ms. David herself. Mr. Thorpe attended the meeting but spoke little.
Members of the conservation board downplayed any criticism of Ms. David and her role as a well-known environmental activist.
Board member Richard Steves said Ms. David’s occupation and views were irrelevant to proceedings.
“If the press want to vilify Laurie David, that’s the freedom of our country,” he said.
“I don’t know anything about her environmental activism but I applaud her for it,” added commissioner Pamela Goff. “The law always holds the homeowner accountable . . . I don’t know if she did or didn’t know about the violations, or what was happening with or without her knowledge.”
Ms. David produced the Oscar-winning documentary on global climate change An Inconvenient Truth and has written passionately environmental issues, emphasizing the importance of acting locally to protect the environment.
Alan Porter, a seasonal resident who runs a painting business, announced at the meeting that he had been the source of an anonymous tip to the town hall on the violations.
He said he decided to come forward about the claim to quash the impression that complaints about the Aerie properties were limited to one neighbor, referring to Jacqueline Mendez-Diez, who was also at the meeting.
“I’m the whistle-blower. I felt I had a duty to come here and clear my name,” Mr. Porter said.
Mr. Porter said he has performed work for Ms. David in the past but that he held no grudge, and that his truck was with Mr. Thorpe.
“I am just a concerned citizen fed up with someone getting away with these violations,” he said.
“I don’t think $300 a day is getting away with it,” replied Mr. Steves.
In response, Karen Chesire and her daughter Bonny Eisenstadt, residents of the Aerie, laughed.
“It cost me more than that in time lost just being here,” said Mr. Porter.
But Mr. Steves said the fine was the harshest measure the commission had taken during his 15 years on the board.
“This is not the Grand Canyon,” he said. “We are trying to balance homeowner rights in this town with the great amount of wetlands. The wetland deserves to be protected, but this is not a punitive board.”
Ms. Mendez-Diez said she felt the repeated violations showed a pattern of deliberately trying to circumvent the rules.
“Every time they think they can get a permit, they apply for one,” she said. “Every time they don’t get a permit for work, I’m deprived of abutters’ rights.”
After the meeting Ms. Chesire compared the David property to the Taj Mahal and said she and her family would regularly walk across the David property before it was built on, describing it as an area of natural beauty.
“It’s been desecrated though,” she said.
There are five residential properties in the Aerie, including those owned by Ms. David and Mr. Thorpe, along with two stretches of land bank property. The town assessed value of these properties and buildings is just over $15 million.
Meanwhile, the week after he announced himself as the whistle-blower, Mr. Porter was cited for trespassing by the Chilmark police. Mr. Porter, who was in a relationship with an employee of Ms. David, claims that he was on the property legally when he spotted the violations. Nonetheless he is now banned from all Chilmark properties that are owned or partly-owned by Mr. Thorpe. Ms. David also banned Mr. Porter from her property through her trustee, Matthew Lichtenberg.
Ms. Mendez-Diez has also been banned from the David property based on reports of possible trespassing.