How’s this for a long view of the Vineyard, let’s say some time after the year 2000 when this fragile Island enters the 21st century.
  • A summer population of as much as 260,000.
  • More than 40,000 buildings situated on only 64,000 acres of Vineyard land.
  • Miles upon miles of asphalt roads criss-crossing back and forth across the length and breadth of the Island.
  • Housing construction riveted to rigid, evenly spaced grid plans, like another Levittown. Forget cluster development with open spaces and green buffer zones.
  • Ponds covered in green algae.
  • Fresh water shortages.
  • Expansive facilities to house high-technology computer industries.
  • Choking pollution from heavy traffic congestion, especially at major intersections.
  • All six Vineyard towns confronted with enormous costs - perhaps beyond their means - to provide required services to support the Island’s swollen population.
All of this is possible if, even today in 1982, all Vineyard lots now zoned for building are built upon. Such a bleak picture allows for these outside limits of saturation development of the Vineyard in the next century, according to official studies and projections by land-use planners at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
This picture, while possible under the Island’s already approved zoning laws of today, is not likely, these planning experts say. Nevertheless, the extremes of a Vineyard Saturated by development should give all the towns pause to consider seriously their actions in the face of inexorable pressures, from within and without, to develop in the immediate months and years ahead.
What is more likely for the Vineyard in the shorter haul is this. The resident summer population of the Island is projected to be roughly 90,000 by the year 1990, the planners say. The current summer population is about 55,000. These figures do not include the 20,000 or more summer vacationers who will visit the Vineyard each day.
Planners also foresee a 60 per cent jump in new housing unit starts on the Vineyard, from 8,819 in 1980 to 14,110 in 1990. Building construction on the Island is now proceeding at a rate of more than 310 new units per year.
Even if this present rate of new construction continues — with no increase in the pace — Vineyard towns face far-reaching social and financial repercussions from development at today’s levels. What follows is a brief glance at some changes likely to flow in the not too distant future from the ever increasing pressure to develop this Island:
  • Installation of public water systems in all towns except Gay Head and Chilmark. High water demand will be accompanied by close monitoring of the ground water aquifer and checking for saltwater intrusion.
  • Installation of town-wide sewage systems in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury to replace scattered septic systems now serving those towns. Edgartown will have to expand its sewage system to populous areas of town.
  • Regional orchestration of a system to collect and dispose of vast piles of garbage.
  • Hiring more police and signing on additional firefighters to insure the safety of new residents and their property.
  • Increasing personnel in each town hall to handle the paperwork of more taxpayers.
  • Appropriation of funds to purchase new equipment for highway departments, to resurface existing roads and to lay miles of new pavement.
  • Policemen who direct traffic at congested intersections, such as Five Corners in Vineyard Haven, will have to wear gas masks on cloudy days, protecting themselves from auto exhaust fumes. Or the towns may install traffic lights at these intersections.
  • Patterns of initial rapid growth will mean throwing up houses along existing roads, instead of planning attractive cluster subdivisions.
  • To exploit the maximum value of Island property, developers may sell single-family houses on a time-sharing basis, whereby 52 people will own one house in Chilmark, spending one week each year in it.
  • Guest houses could stand on every lot in West Tisbury, making the number of residences twice the number of building lots.
  • More senior citizens than ever will reside on the Vineyard, having moved here for their retirement years. They will place a new load on the hospital and on the Elder Services program.
  • Court and parking clerks will be swamped with an increase in criminal and motor vehicle violations from residents and day-trippers.
  • Eutrophication in Island water bodies will increase, killing off fish and shellfish, leaving only algae and jellyfish.
  • High-technology industry will move south from the Route 128 computer center into extensive modern facilities at the airport and other up-Island locations.
Vineyarders must prepare for these expensive and often distasteful aspects of development, the planners say.
Maximum saturation of the remaining undeveloped acreage on the Vineyard is not inevitable. But rapid, unplanned and expensive growth is a given.
The statistics prove it. Dukes County was the fastest growing county in New England from 1970 to 1980. The Island experienced a 60 per cent increase in housing, compared to 56 per cent on Nantucket and 52 per cent in Barnstable County.
In some towns, the growth is even more startling. West Tisbury is reeling from a 98 per cent increase in housing units, while Edgartown’s increase was 80 per cent and Gay Head’s was 67 per cent.
Planners believe that housing con­struction will continue at these rates for the next decade.
The Vineyard’s year-round popula­tion, currently at 9,500, is projected at 12,000 to 14,500 for 1990. But that figure hardly reflects the dramatic increase in summer or retirement homes.
Douglas Ewing is a regional planner at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission who interprets these statistics. “People around me have tried to temper what I say, but this is what could happen.”
He and his colleagues have discovered that development is accelerating on the Vineyard.
Local residents who have inherited large tracts of land can no longer afford to pay taxes on the land. These people are land poor, and they manage to retain some of their land by selling part of it.
Even in these times of recession, Island landowners have no difficulty finding buyers for their property. “We’re recession-proof,” says Mr. Ewing. “When you hear real estate agents talking about people putting 50 per cent down, you know [these buyers] really aren’t affected by recession.”
The buyers are the very wealthy. They either plan to build luxurious summer homes on the Vineyard, or they are speculating in land. Either way, their purchase is a good investment.
Land developers constitute another group of buyers. They buy large parcels of property, subdivide into as many building lots as possible, and sell each lot for much more than it cost them. Often, years pass before houses are actually built on the property.
A convenient — though unattractive — pattern of building along existing roadways is a common practice, accord­ing to James Muth, cartographer/ planner at the commission. Town zoning regulations do not require planning board approval for houses along a road, as long as the plan meets the requirements of the building inspector.
“What happens is all your roads get a row of houses one deep, so that all you see when you’re driving down the road is houses,” says Mr. Muth.
Constructing guest houses on an existing building lot is another way the Vineyarder can hang onto his land despite hefty property and inheritance taxes. Some town zoning bylaws still permit guest houses, and the rent derived from those houses helps pay the property taxes.
Mr. Muth says the next step will be time-sharing arrangements for houses in attractive areas with three-acre zoning.
“It’s a matter of slicing it even thinner. You can make more money selling to 52 people for one week than to sell to one person for the year,” explains Mr. Muth. “They know that a certain number of people are going to go belly-up and have to forfeit their share of the house. Then they can resell it.”
Since the majority of home building on the Vineyard has been and will continue to be for summer residents, the effect on municipal services is dramatic.
Facilities such as water and sewage systems, police and fire protection, and waste disposal must be geared for peak demand.
Some towns have water systems which can pump five times the average amount of water needed during the winter, Mr. Muth explains. An increase in summer residents means an even more drastic gap between the minimum and maximum demands for water.
As an example, the planner cites the time of the afternoon when everybody comes in from the beaches to shower before dinner. This, Mr. Muth says, is when a fire would be most disastrous, because the water pressure is too low to fight it.
Mr. Ewing says that these public services will be needed as soon as building density increases. “The Island has been sitting in a luxurious situation because it hasn’t had to dish out for new services,” he says.
The Oak Bluffs water department budgets increased 132 per cent from 1975 to 1980, Mr. Ewing says, because of a demand for new water mains.
Only Gay Head and Chilmark will not have to install town-wide services, the planners agree, because the zoning requires three-acre building lots. Such large lots can accommodate both wells and septic systems without any danger of abusing the environment.
The expansion of public services sets in motion more development. For instance, as soon as town water and sewage systems are installed in Oak Bluffs, development of waterfront property will occur. According to Mr. Muth, waterfront land on the point of Circuit avenue extension “is just waiting for a high-rise.”
The lack of a sewage system, he says, “is the only thing holding back economic development in downtown Oak Bluffs.”
But Mr. Ewing worries that tourist trade expansion is just the type of economic development which the Island does not need. “If this continues, what you’re going to see is a slow erosion of the year-round economic base.”
Already, the population of young people on the Island is highly migratory. Unemployment is at 20 per cent during January, and land values have escalated so much that moderate and low-income people cannot afford to buy land — much less build on it. “Young people are forced to leave the Island,” Mr. Muth says simply.
If young people do buy land, he says, it is often in West Tisbury, where land values are lower and where a rural setting still exists. In addition to a 98 per cent increase in housing units in West Tisbury during the last decade, that town experienced a 123 per cent population jump.
“In the next 20 years,” says Mr. Muth, “you’re definitely going to see portions of West Tisbury that need public water and public sewage. It’s just a matter of time.”
Mr. Ewing warns of serious environ­mental problems in West Tisbury, unless it changes its zoning requirements from 1 1/2 to three-acre building lots.
He says that town officials have considered, instead, the advantages of developing light industrial facilities in order to supply residents with steadier employment.
As they consider the inevitable growth in construction and population, officials in all towns go to Mr. Ewing for statistical projections. Recent recipients of the census report, he says, were the town of Edgartown and its planning board. Edgartown, not a member of the commission, confronts some of the most serious growth projections on the Island. It issued building permits at a higher rate than any other town in the last decade, and will do so in the next, the planner predicts.
Real estate agents also ask Mr. Ewing for statistics. He says they want to know population and building projections for areas in which they are selling land, in order to determine its value.
Politicians want the data and Mr. Ewing’s interpretations in order to learn more about their constituents and about the most controversial growth issues.
Hospital personnel and Elder Services director Jacque Cage need statistics to fill in grant applications for state and federal monies.
Developers are curious about neigh­boring subdivisions and density levels, as well as precedents which they may follow.
The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce seeks economic statistics and projections for summer visitors.
The Steamship Authority wants to know the income level and hometowns of visitors to the Vineyard, but Mr. Ewing says the airlines and other ferry lines which serve the Island haven’t yet called on him.
Local police departments use the statistics as well as the commission’s two traffic counting devices to measure congestion. That information helps them assign traffic personnel and determine pollution levels from exhaust fumes.
The Coast Guard needed the same information to determine whether a drawbridge schedule is needed.
People who are starting businesses need the data to determine their clients’ ages and where they live.
Dukes County officials call Mr. Ewing for income and employment information.
The planner says he put together the data report based on the census last fall in order to deflect some of the calls. “Once I send them a data report they don’t have to call me,” he explains.
But for all of their questions about who, what, where, when and why, none of the callers ask Mr. Ewing “How?”
“The question that hasn’t been asked is the philosophical one. What do we want to see in the way of growth?”
But it is a question that must be asked and must be answered. Town planning boards and irate taxpayers can do nothing about the structures that have already gone up. Those buildings already make demands on public services.
But whether the public facilities can handle any more development without great expense, and whether that expense is desirable, has not been answered.
What is built is history, but the future is yet to be shaped.