For most people on the Vineyard, the good news about the year 2009 is that it is over. No matter which way you look at it, last year was a tough one.
Even the weather was bad, beginning with a big dump of snow on New Year’s Eve. That was briefly very pretty, but over the succeeding weeks and months of repeated thaws and freezes, the ground cover mostly alternated between mush and dirty, treacherous ice.
It was a trying winter, unless you were among the small number of financial beneficiaries, a snowplow operator, a plumber or a purveyor of Yak Trax, those crampon-like things that fit onto shoes to prevent slips, or road sand.
Or an orthopedic specialist. At the end of January, Dr. Raymond (Rocco) Monto, reckoned business was up at least 25 per cent due to fall-related sprains, strains and breaks. He called the weather his “orthopedic stimulus package.”
It was as if the physical climate was a metaphor for the social and economic climate. Flurries of snow from the skies in January and flurries of applications for money from Island towns from the Federal Recovery and Reinvestment Program. Pond freezes and pay freezes. Chill winds and chill penury for those who lost jobs, business, homes.
It’s tempting to borrow Shakespeare’s famous line about our winter of discontent, except the original continues “made glorious summer by this sun of York.” And summer was less than glorious here. Hard winter turned to cold, soggy spring, then cool, inclement summer.
Once again, there were a few beneficiaries. The guy who mows my lawn, like other landscapers, did exceptional business in the rain. But the lilacs, the tomatoes, the basil all mildewed sadly.
It was July 7 before the Gazette was able to report any good weather news. After 40 rainy days, the article began, the sun finally came out for the Fourth of July weekend and the tourists who are the lifeblood of this place came in fair numbers. But, the story continued, their wallets remained tight.
The weather metaphor even held for the President’s visit in August. His arrival was delayed by a hurricane, and he departed a week later in another storm.
On the bright side, though, at least the Island wasn’t bothered this year by caterpillars dropping from the trees. And the weather improved noticeably later in the year; there was a long, colorful autumn, and then a white Christmas. Less noticeably, the economic climate improved a little too.
So let’s go back through the news of the year.
January, as noted, was icy. It was also the time Island institutions began looking at their budgets, and almost all resolved on some belt-tightening. Pay raises were widely curtailed, in part because there was no inflation for which workers needed to be compensated. Spending was curtailed too. But one town stood out for its woes, which would only worsen all year: Oak Bluffs. At first the town projected a $336,000 shortfall. It also had a problem with effluent seepage in its showplace Ocean Park; the cause was elusive.
Oak Bluffs was not alone in its financial distress. There was talk about cuts to elementary school budgets. Even the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital was projecting a red ink year — amazing given that medical services are generally considered one of the few recession-proof parts of the economy. The Steamship Authority continued a succession of service reductions spurred by falling patronage, as did other ferry operators.
In non-economic news, Tim Madden was sworn in as the new Cape and Islands state representative, and the Island Methodist church split, with Chilmark deciding to go it alone.
And there were some hardy perennials among the issues. Aquinnah had its usual problem of getting enough people to attend special town meeting. In Tisbury, the restaurant lobby was preparing to have another crack at getting approval of the townsfolk for beer and wine sales.
Hard Winter Brings Hard Economic Times
At the start of February, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services reported demand for its help was at an all-time high, and few were surprised given that the jobless rate also hit a new high of 7.5 per cent. The regional high school foreshadowed cuts to staff and programs. And the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals decided to close its Vineyard branch, effective in May.
The Gazette managed to find some good news in the bad economy, though. Nancy MacMullen, Island cobbler, reported that her services were in greater demand as people opted to mend, rather than buy.
Meanwhile, drug enforcement advocates, among them Vineyard police, complained about changes to the law decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. But judging by the strong vote in favor of the change the previous November, most Islanders were not much concerned. And as became increasingly clear over the rest of the year, there were far more serious drug problems for the cops to worry about, a significant trade in heroin and cocaine.
There was controversy, too, among Island fishermen over moves to make striped bass a game fish only.
And the long, convoluted saga of the proposal to build affordable housing on the Bradley Square site in Oak Bluffs continued. A revised plan was put forward, as controversial as its predecessor but nonetheless approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
March saw the unfortunate effects of one of the more inane federal laws of recent years, forcing Island thrift stores to throw out almost their entire stock of kids clothes, toys and games. It prompted the closure of Martha’s Closet II, the only kids’ consignment shop on the Island. The law was designed to protect children from lead, but what about protecting them from the cold?
The competitiveness, cunning and chicanery of the Vineyard’s bass and bluefish derby is legendary, but is it the stuff of general-release cinematic drama? DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg’s studio, apparently thinks so, for in March it was revealed that it had bought the film rights to David Kinney’s cracker book about the derby, titled The Big One.
Against the economic tide, the board of the Vineyard YMCA voted to begin work on its long-awaited 38,000-square-foot building opposite the high school, even though it had only $9 million of the required $11 million in hand.
Maybe a few degrees of extra heat would not be unwelcome in this cold place, but the attendant rise in sea levels could see large parts of the Island underwater in the not too distant future. The question of what to do about it became one of the major issues and most heated (pardon the pun) debates on the Island this year.
In March, Edgartown moved ahead on plans for a 300-foot tall wind turbine at its wastewater plant. And the Vineyard Energy Project began an initiative to map Island wind resources.
The next month, two Island farms proposed a project where they would generate power from wind, and maybe ultimately sell power, along with produce, through farm share programs.
The proposals for generating renewable energy from the wind just kept coming through the year, faster than the regulators could keep up. Small ones for individual properties, large ones for schools and towns, really big ones for the whole Island, mega ones for the state.
April brought bad news. State cuts to health spending threatened the budget of the Vineyard Health Care Access program. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum put its ambitious fund-raising and relocation plans on hold. Boat line traffic was down again and advance bookings were poor. Summer rentals were slow.
There was one tentative bit of possible good news. Rumors circulated that the new President, Barack Obama, would vacation here in the summer. That might lift things a little. Oh, the audacity of hope.
Finding Shelter in a Storm
In May, the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard took over operations of the MSPCA. A public, private partnership involving the county, it became one of the rare funding success stories of the year.
Things were looking less rosy for people in need, though, especially those in need of housing.
May saw early questions asked about the cozy financial arrangements involved in the provision of affordable housing — specifically about the construction of eight homes at 250 State Road in West Tisbury. The South Mountain Company was chosen to design and build the homes for the $3.1 million project. The cost was a very high $400 per square foot; the West Tisbury selectmen were critical of this and the fact that John Abrams, co-owner of South Mountain, served as a board member of the Island Housing Trust and its sister organization, the Island Affordable Housing Fund.
And the debate about wind energy really fired up. Martha’s Vineyard Commission executive director Mark London bluntly warned that the state’s proposed Ocean Management Plan could result in a thicket of commercial wind turbines around much of the Vineyard’s coastline. The warning drew little response.
Tisbury police chief John Cashin’s public utterances, though, drew lots of notice. He launched a scathing attack on his own department in the media, saying it was dysfunctional, accusing a number of his officers of insubordination and of spreading malicious rumors about him. He threatened to sue. He was promptly ousted from his job, and the Tisbury selectmen ordered a review of the department’s operations. It later emerged that Mr. Cashin had said similar things about the Norwalk police, when he worked there. Chief Cashin cashed out with a $30,000 severance payment.
Meanwhile, over in Oak Bluffs, facing a combined deficit of an estimated $1 million or more for the current and next fiscal years, they were looking for ways to slash spending and shed staff.
There was some good news in May, courtesy of the Hon. Cornelius J. Moriarty, associate justice of the superior court, who upheld a cease and desist order by the town of Edgartown imposed on William S. O’Connell of Chappaquiddick.
Mr. O’Connell, having been involved in a successful fight to stop an affordable housing project on land adjoining his — arguing it was environmentally sensitive — subsequently bought the land, clear-felled it, and called it a heliport.
When the town issued its order, he argued it could not regulate helicopter landings by way of zoning bylaws, because they amounted to “an accessory use customarily incidental to the permitted use of the property.” Put simply, that meant helicopters were analogous to cars — simply another means of getting to and from a property, which the town could not restrict.
During the hearing, Judge Moriarty observed if that argument prevailed, “Katama Bay would be littered with fuselages.” He permanently enjoined Mr. O’Connell from using the property for landings or takeoffs.
Another positive development in May: Island fishermen convened at the Home Port in Menemsha for the first annual meeting of the Martha’s Vineyard Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, a voice for the small fishermen against the big corporate operations.
Island Community Mourns Tragic Loss
June brought perhaps the most wrenching story of the year. It was the week of high school graduation when a car driven by Kelly McCarron of Oak Bluffs ran off the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road and Jena Pothier, 18, also of Oak Bluffs, was killed. Police said the car was speeding and subsequently laid multiple charges against Ms. McCarron including drunk driving and vehicular homicide.
And the bad economic news kept coming. The Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, in the course of doing reappraisals for people seeking to refinance their homes, found roughly 75 per cent of them were worth less than their assessed value.
Island employers reported a reversal of the usual summer labor problem. Most years, there were too few potential employees; in 2009, there were too many. Some employers had literally hundreds of applications, many from overseas students, lured here on the promise of work, sadly misled.
Meanwhile Oak Bluffs’s woes continued. The town was ordered to spend $350,000 to dig up parts of Ocean Park and replace failing septic grids.
Month’s end brought a surprising revelation. In defiance to those early predictions of a red-ink year, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital posted an operating gain of more than $650,000. This was despite big paper losses on its investments, and an increase of seven per cent in salary and wage costs and eleven per cent in fringe benefits, at a time when most Island workers had their pay frozen.
A Gazette analysis of figures collated by the state on insurance payments gave some clue to how the hospital managed to remain in the black: high fees. A first trimester ultrasound cost eight times here as much as it did at comparable nearby mainland hospitals. Overall, Island hospital outpatient services cost more than twice the state average.
July brought the release of the draft Ocean Management Plan. It provided for as many as 166 giant turbines, standing more than 400 feet high, as close as three miles offshore near Noman’s Land and the Elizabeth Islands. Still there was little reaction from most town office holders.
Meanwhile, there were multiple harbingers of the problems climate change will bring to an Island already beset by erosion problems. On the south shore, Lucy Vincent Beach was in fast retreat; bathers were forced to detour around the top of the cliffs to get to the eastern end. A replenishment project at State Beach also was less successful than hoped; a large part of the new sand pumped onto Bend in the Road promptly slid into the ocean. An engineering report found parts of East Chop Drive in Oak Bluffs were at risk of imminent failure. Sand pumping was becoming a boom industry on the shrinking Island. The Cow Bay Beach Association, having paid $150,000 the previous year to help underwrite dredging and replenishment, offered Oak Bluffs $1 million for dredged sand.
A Conversation on Race
The other big non-economic story of July was a sudden, intense debate within the Island black community about the relativities of race and class. It began with an article by one of their own affluent brothers, Touré, in New York magazine, suggesting the Island’s black residents were themselves segregationist, elitist, perhaps racist and certainly “ascensionist.”
The debate was further intensified by the arrest on July 16 of perhaps the nation’s best-known black academic, Harvard professor Henry Louis (Skip) Gates Jr., after he was seen forcing entry to his own home. Was it racial profiling, as some suggested, or just police taking a dim view of an abusive Harvard bigwig. Race or class? The debate eventually enveloped the highest office in the land, when President Obama invited Mr. Gates and the officer who arrested him to share conciliatory beer at the White House, and drawing darts from right-wing pundits for doing so. Skip Gates himself, appearing later at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival, suggested affirmative action policies had been a “class escalator” for some black people, but now served to divide the black community. He advocated class rather than race-based affirmative action.
On the economic front: Vineyard Community Services unveiled its budget, projecting a $500,000 or 10 per cent cut in spending, and a reduction of programs, salaries, benefits and hours. They were not the only worthy organization in dire straits. An analysis by the Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative found more than half of Island nonprofits had seen their donations decline; 20 per cent had seen dramatic declines.
On the upside, Community Services made a good call in moving its Possible Dreams Auction — long considered the premier fundraiser of the summer, but disappointing in the previous two years — to Ocean Park. People’s wallets might have been a bit lighter, but there they could fit more of them in, and the August 2 event raised more than $500,000. (A $250,000 deficit is still forecast.)
Another fundraiser — the third annual Island Affordable Housing Fund telethon — was accompanied by an advance proclamation from executive director Patrick Manning:
“We’ve started to grow in the last couple of years, big time,” he said. Reportedly, the previous two telethons raised $500,000 and $1 million respectively, so he sounded perfectly credible.
On August 5, the White House announced President Obama and his family would indeed vacation here, from August 23 to 30. Big surprise! Secret Service guys had been seen nosing about for weeks, checking out more than 20 potential vacation properties. The Gazette had revealed the final choice — Blue Heron Farm, on 28.5 acres in Chilmark — weeks before. Already local pilots were upset at security restrictions on aircraft movements. Of particular concern was the suggestion that Angel Flights, the nonprofit which flies critically ill people from the Island to mainland, would be stopped by presidential security
Still, the visit was a bit of happy news among the unhappy. Early August also brought two drownings at South Shore beaches and the first swine flu death on the Island. Elton Barbosa, 26, of Oak Bluffs had no other known health problems.
Chilmark became the first town to voice serious concern about the Oceans Plan, and an all-Island selectmen’s meeting was scheduled for Sept. 16 to consider the issue
And Oak Bluffs’s wastewater problems increased: the plan to divert effluent impinged on a public drinking water zone.
Summer White House Returns
The Obamas duly arrived on August 23, a little late due to the lurking Hurricane Bill, but under sunny skies. Media and the public were barred from the airport.
At the first Island media conference, deputy press secretary Bill Burton blithely announced: “Nobody’s looking to make any news.” But events intervened.
First, the President found it necessary to hold a press conference here to make a market-calming announcement that he was reappointing Ben Bernanke to another four-year term as head of the Federal Reserve. (Mr. Bernanke was flown in for the brief event.)
Then Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, friend, mentor and crucial supporter of the Obama presidential campaign died, after a long bout of brain cancer. The President and First Lady flew to Boston so he could deliver a eulogy at the funeral.
Otherwise, the visit was low-key, in stark contrast to the visits of the last President who vacationed here, the high-profile, glad-handing Bill Clinton. It seemed the President’s main focus was improving his golf game.
Gov. Deval Patrick made a coincidental visit. While here, he attended the groundbreaking for the Bradley Square project, and spoke on behalf of the Island Affordable Housing Fund and Trust.
Meanwhile, swine flu was sweeping the nation. On the Island, a group comprised of the various town health agents, representatives of the Vineyard Nursing Association, hospital, schools, tribe and others, begin planning to vaccinate Islanders against the new H1N1 flu strain, as well as the regular seasonal flu.
So September arrived, usually every local’s favorite month on the Vineyard. Usually. Tourists mostly gone, water still warm, weather mellow, time to kick back, live off the fat of summer, maybe catch a few fish.
But this year, the living wasn’t so easy. Oak Bluffs decided it must cut $200,000 from the school budget to partly fill its $500,000 budget hole. The high school was facing a $300,000-plus deficit.
Still, the annual Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) found the kids were doing all right. All the public schools scored well in math, reading and science. Then again, two of them — Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, which have the highest concentrations of special needs and low-income students — did not meet their adequate yearly progress targets in math and English. It was the third such year for Oak Bluffs.
In other news, the 1929 Edgartown house where Henry Beetle Hough wrote Country Editor and more than two dozen other books, and where Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation was conceived was marked for demolition by its new owners. It is but one of several such threats to historic Island properties. Whither Island heritage?
And someone stole four chickens, among them several blue ribbon winners, from their cages at the Agricultural Society fair.
Finally, though, all the Island’s elected officials appeared to have woken up to the import of the state’s draft Oceans Plan, two months after its release. In an extraordinary display of unity all the towns, the MVC and county commission declared their objection to the wind power plan, in particular to the fact that the Island would have little say in the decision making process. The state Energy Facilities Siting Board would have the final say on any big proposed projects.
At a subsequent public meeting at Katharine Cornell Theatre, more than 100 people lined up to express concerns as diverse as bird strikes, impacts on fishing and ancient Wampanoag spiritual beliefs. A few spoke in favor of big wind power.
Don’t Drink the Water
Coming into October, Oak Bluffs was beginning to seem a bit third-world. Residents were told not to drink the water, after sampling showed contamination with coliform bacteria.
The boil-water order was lifted within days, and the problem later traced to a cracked water main, damaged by an unknown contractor. But really, a tap-water ban in one of the environmentally cleanest places in the country?
Then again, America itself sometimes seemed a bit third world at times this year. A New York Times analysis of federal data on water safety found 20 per cent of the nation had drunk unsafe water over the past five years. The rest of the developed world has universal health care. America could not even manufacture sufficient vaccine to inoculate its citizenry against the flu.
On Oct. 28, more than 100 of the Island’s 700-odd high schoolers called in sick, including 10 members of the football team, 10 of the boys’ soccer team and the cheerleading coach. The presumed cause: swine flu. Similar absentee rates prevailed for a week before the outbreak declined. The wry joke was that by the time officials found enough vaccine to give the kids, they would all have had it.
Nor was there enough vaccine to complete a planned all-Island clinic against the regular flu on Nov. 11.
Meanwhile, the opposition to the Oceans Plan was taking concrete form. The push was on for the designation of all of the Vineyard and its surrounding waters, out to three miles, as a district of critical planning concern, which would mean a year-long moratorium on big wind projects. But the unanimity of the towns broke down.
On Nov. 5 the Martha’s Vineyard Commission voted without dissent to designate a DCPC over the waters, but Edgartown resisted a similar designation over its land. The reason was the town’s own plans for a giant turbine.
But state officials got the message; in a concession to Island anger and to the lobbying efforts of Mr. Madden and state Sen. Robert O’Leary, the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Ian Bowles, promised to amend the plan to give the MVC final say over developments.
There are other problems. The town of Gosnold wrote to the state indicating its willingness to have a wind farm, but there are questions about whether the MVC’s jurisdiction extends to Gosnold. A court is likely to decide.
Can’t Pay the Rent
Now let’s go back to the August boast by Patrick Manning that the Affordable Housing Fund was growing “big time.”
Mr. Manning abruptly departed the fund shortly after he made the statement, and in October was replaced by a new executive director, T. Ewell Hopkins. And just weeks after that, the fund made a surprise announcement that it could no longer pay for the rental assistance program through the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority. Subsidies were suddenly in doubt for 45 landlords, and their tenants.
After that, things moved fast. The litany of affordable housing woes — and recriminations — continued to grow.
It turned out Mr. Manning was taking a generous cut from fund-raising, on top of his salary, a practice Mr. Hopkins has ended. And in fact contributions fell sharply on Mr. Manning’s watch; debt soared, cash evaporated. A dance floor was bought for $23,000 for a gala fund-raiser; a Ford Explorer given to the fund was being driven by a former employee.
John Abrams departed the board. The fund wants the towns to take over payments to the rental assistance program. The Bradley Square project was looking ever more perilous. The Oak Bluffs Community Preservation Committee voted to deny the fund’s request for $400,000 more for the project.
Another development, on Lake street in Vineyard Haven, was subject to questions about the transparency of its process and potential conflicts of interest. The trust agreed to draft new selection criteria for all future affordable projects, after rejecting two bids for the design of Lake street.
And the ambitious plan of a separate organization, Bridge Housing, to build 22 homes in Vineyard Haven was stalled, in default on a $2.35 million loan, with little prospect of raising more money and no chance, it would seem, of getting $1 million promised by the Affordable Housing Fund.
Of course, many of the Island nonprofits were in financial trouble this year; A survey by the Donors Collaborative end of year newsletter reported that nearly half the health and human services agencies expected a deficit this year, and 38 per cent expected to be in deficit next year too.
Other things happened in the last six weeks of the year, too, but they were a bit swamped by the housing fund affair. There were more drug busts, notably two men caught as they stepped off the ferry, carrying 105 grams of heroin and 79 grams of cocaine.
After two years of debate and amendment, Aquinnah became the first Island town to adopt a bylaw regulating private and public wind turbines.
And after four years’ work by scores of members of various working groups, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission finally finished and adopted its massive utopian blueprint, the Island Plan, to an underwhelming response in most quarters and hostility in others. The Edgartown selectmen found it “riddled with contradictions.”
But the year does not end on a flat note. There are some hopeful signs. The government says the recession is ending. The end of year land bank numbers showed tentative signs of a recovery in the real estate market, at least at the lower end — houses under $600,000. And, as morally repugnant as some might find it, Wall Street firms are again paying huge bonuses, which might mean more construction and other work in the new year.
And besides that . . . the days are getting longer.