A s a summer resident of Chappaqui ddick for close to half a century, I, in concert with the Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA), a taxpayer association, have many times brought attention to the town of Edgartown on problems threatening our island. Even though there is a substantial number of Chappaquiddick landowners paying taxes, the seasonal residents have had no voice in matters affecting them. The town treats Chappy as a colony of Edgartown. Here are some examples from my experience as a champion of preserving the rural character of Chappy.
Even though initially I was able to take only two weeks every summer from my profession as a professor of medicine, I always managed to attend the annual meetings of the CIA. There I learned from angry residents that Chappy receives very little, if any, benefit from the taxes paid to the town, i.e., no police protection or road maintenance. The residents were threatening to secede from the town and even went so far as to design their own flag.
The anger was somewhat abated by the selectmen promising to come to the annual meetings and hear the complaints. Unfortunately, that practice stopped 10 or more years ago.
Over a decade ago my wife and I became concerned about the development of undersized lots that were grandfathered. Present zoning requires a three-acre lot for residential development. We were especially concerned with lots less than one acre being developed as there is inadequate separation of the well from the septic system. This creates a danger of contamination from the septic system. We proposed a solution for this danger: to limit the definition of grandfathered lots to a minimum of one acre.
The evidence for our proposal was based on the conclusion of a careful, scientific Cape Cod Commission study, which had been endorsed by Bill Wilcox, the water quality expert on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Our proposal was rejected by town officials. They argued that, in the future, water safety would be greatly improved by new technologies for alternative septic systems and that these technologies would allow construction on lots as small as 5,000 square feet. It is frightening to imagine what damage to our groundwater and to the nitrogen levels of the ponds that level of build-out would cause on Chappaquiddick. In face of this rejection, all we could do to prevent building on undersized lots surrounding our property was to purchase two lots. The one in front of us we gave to Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation to be permanently in conservation, and the other one behind us we put a deed restriction on, not allowing any future building.
A second example relates directly to my love of bicycling. It is well known to Chappy people and to the editor of the Vineyard Gazette (August 17, 2006) that I am an avid and enthusiastic cyclist. This dependency on bicycling goes back to early 1960s when I was a medical resident at Harvard and became influenced by Dr. Dudley White, the legendary cardiologist. I began my bicycling when he was preaching the importance of biking for health. I feel I am indebted to him for my long life despite a serious genetic heart disease.
I use the Chappy main road for my biking. In recent years, in July and August, I have noticed increasing numbers of people using the main road for walking, jogging, biking and other sports. Safety has become an issue for Chappy people because they see some drivers not paying attention to the speed limit. I discussed various solutions to this problem in a Vineyard Gazette commentary that was published in 2009, when a bike path for Chappy was debated. I did not think building a bike path was a solution to the problem. In my opinion, it would have had major impact on the rural character of Chappy without eliminating the concern for safety. I offered several solutions. One solution was to request from the Edgartown police department that a police officer be assigned at random times during the months of July and August to stop the drivers going too fast. I made the request several years ago and as yet have not heard anything from the police department.
My let downs with Edgartown officials are minor compared with the blow that the CIA received from Edgartown voters. In 1999-2000 the CIA spent over a year to go through a visioning process to develop a master plan for the island under the guidance of a consultant from the University of Massachusetts named John Allen. Nearly the whole island participated in several committees formed to study a variety of issues concerning the future and to come up with recommendations. The issues were far-ranging and addressed issues relating to house size, ratios of house to lot size, water quality, affordable housing, transportation, zoning regulations, infrastructure to name a few. The report was used to submit as an application for an island-wide district of critical concern (DCPC), first to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which approved it, and then to the Edgartown town meeting. This would have enabled a year’s moratorium on building while new regulations could be agreed upon.
Unfortunately, Edgartown voters rejected the proposal. The voters were mostly builders, architects, real estate agents, landscape workers, property caretakers, etc., all people who understandably were in favor of supporting their short-term business interests. They did not care that uncontrolled growth may turn our island into places like Revere Beach in Boston or Coney Island in New York. There is already evidence that the rural character of Chappy is changing to become a summer resort for attracting large crowds of people. Although I warned of this possibility happening in a piece published two summers ago in the Vineyard Gazette, Edgartown officials did not try to stop the commercialization of the most historic site on Chappaquiddick, Sampson’s Hill, where there was an ancient meeting house and a Marconi tower. They ignored our protests despite the fact that commercial development on Chappy is illegal.
The action of Edgartown voters turning down the DCPC in 2001 made me aware of how impossible it is for Chappy to have a voice when there are so few residents who are registered voters. We have not had an elected representative from Chappy since 1990 when Edo Potter stepped down after 12 years of being an excellent advocate for Chappy in her role as selectman. To remedy this situation in a small way, my wife and I decided one year to change our voting registration so that we could vote for Roger Becker, a Chappy resident whom we greatly respect and who is now president of the CIA. He was running as a candidate for the planning board. It worked! He was elected by a margin of three votes. Roger represented Chappy well on the planning board for one term and then was voted out of office by Edgartown voters who did not see him as toeing the line of entrenched town officials. Chappy voters cannot rely on the voting process to have a voice. We are outnumbered.
What is the solution?
Summer residents have good ideas. They have a vested interest in protecting the natural beauty of the island. Why not give them a voice? Why not create a government that allows participation in decision-making of non-resident taxpayers as the town of Eastham has done? (The website address is EPRTA.org). In that small Cape Cod town, it has been realized that both year-round and part-time residents have common interests in keeping taxes low and in preserving the unique features of all of Eastham. Part-time residents are allowed by the state legislature to be appointed to town boards and committees. They can speak at town meetings and vote on warrant articles. There is a spirit of cooperation with the town that has encouraged summer residents to participate fully in the decision-making process. This would be the ideal solution.
But until that Utopia can happen, I propose that all part-time residents unite to demand a voice in the decision making. Edgartown has far more nonresident taxpayers than resident taxpayers. We should not allow a small minority to make all of the decisions about our island. For example, since 1990 there has been no selectman elected from Chappy. One solution could be a change in the election laws to designate that one of the selectmen be from Chappy. Another solution would be the Eastham model of enabling summer residents to vote. Either of my solutions proposed above might go a long way toward eliminating the accusation of taxation without representation.