In a landmark decision which marks a sweeping victory for the Vineyard and deals a crippling defeat to the Herring Creek Farm Trust, the chief justice of the Massachusetts Land Court upheld three-acre zoning in the town of Edgartown yesterday. The decision is believed to be the most important legal opinion for the Vineyard since the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of the Martha's Vineyard Commission on the Island Properties case nearly two decades ago.

And it concludes at least one chapter in what has been the most contentious and costly series of legal battles in the history of the Island.

The decision is also seen as a victory for the 22 other communities in Massachusetts which have large lot zoning — many of whom have watched this case closely for the last three years.

"This is not just Edgartown. We fought the battle on our own, but it was for all of Massachusetts. It was a major accomplishment," said a jubilant Edgartown selectman Fred B. Morgan Jr. yesterday.

"What the case stands for is that a community such as Edgartown, which has engaged in serious planning over a 25-year period and has enacted regulations which are protective of the environment and are fair to all property owners — that planning will be upheld," said Edgartown town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport, who tried the case.

"I am pleased we could justify all those people in Edgartown and all the Islanders who stood with us in making the defense. It is a wonderful day for the Island," said Richard W. Renehan, a partner with Hill & Barlow in Boston who assisted Mr. Rappaport as special counsel on the zoning case.

The lead attorney for the Herring Creek Farm Trust confined his remarks to technical legal issues and indicated that an appeal is likely. "Reading this suggests to me that the decision is highly vulnerable on appeal. But that is as far as I'll go," said Jeffrey S. Robbins, a partner with Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo who tried the case for the trust.

The 17-page decision was issued yesterday afternoon by the Hon. Robert V. Cauchon, chief justice of the land court. The judge found that three-acre zoning in Edgartown was conceived soundly and out of a legitimate need to protect the fragile Island environment.

"There is ample credible evidence to support the finding that [three-acre zoning] serves a permissible public purpose. [Three-acre zoning] facilitates the provision of open space, conserves the value of the land, promotes the conservation of natural resources, prevents blight and pollution of the environment, and preserves the Island's unique natural, ecological and other values," wrote Judge Cauchon.

Principals in the Herring Creek Farm Trust are farm owners and seasonal residents Neil and Monte Wallace. Five years ago the Wallaces filed plans to build 54 luxury homes and a private beach club on their land — 215 acres of fragile Great Plains farmland fronting the Atlantic Ocean, Crackatuxet Cove and the Edgartown Great Pond. The development plans were rejected by the Martha's Vineyard Commission after an exhaustive review process that went on for some three years.

Meanwhile the Wallaces began filing lawsuits against an array of parties on the Vineyard; among them was the challenge to three-acre zoning in the RA120 district in the rural coastal perimeters of Edgartown.

Filed in September of 1993, the lawsuit charged that three-acre zoning is unconstitutional, exclusionary and inconsistent with the zoning of neighboring properties. Later the complaint was amended to include the charge that three-acre zoning discriminates against poor people and minorities.

The trial began in September of 1994 and lasted for 21 days, stretching throughout the winter and concluding in May of 1995. Among other things, 36 witnesses testified and 195 exhibits were introduced into evidence. The trial saw many heated moments, including one toward the conclusion of the trial when attorneys for the trust formally asked the judge to recuse himself from the case.

In the end Judge Cauchon ruled soundly for the town, rejecting the arguments of the plaintiffs on virtually every count.

"There is simply no credible evidence on the record...for the court to disturb [three-acre zoning]," he wrote.

An array of expert witnesses testified for both sides during the trial, but in his decision Judge Cauchon underscored the testimony from Dr. John Teal, a coastal ecologist and senior scientist with the Woods Holes Oceanographic Institution who testified for the town. "Plaintiffs conclude...that drinking water would be adequately protected by reducing the three-acre zoning to two-acre zoning," the judge wrote. He continued:

"I find the testimony of Dr. John be the more credible... [T]hree-acre zoning...does allow for a reasonable safety margin to provide for future and possible unforeseen problems."

Also noting the environmental importance of the Vineyard, the judge wrote: "A further justification is the unique ecological integrity of the area...[I]t is undisputed that the world's only remaining sandplain grasslands are on Martha's Vineyard...Nantucket, Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands, Block Island and parts of Long Island."

Citing case law at length, the judge found that three-acre zoning in Edgartown is not exclusionary, and he rejected expert testimony from the plaintiffs as too broad, vague and even incompetent.

"They testified to...a generalization based on national or regional statistics...While such testimony may well be helpful in understanding general trends, I find it incompetent and ineffectual when applied to...[the] unique characteristics of Edgartown, or even Martha's Vineyard as a whole."

And finally the judge rejected the argument that zoning thwarts affordable housing and is an attempt by the town to discriminate against minorities.

"Plaintiffs presented no competent evidence that the zoning bylaw had any casual relationship between the racial and ethnic composition of Edgartown," he wrote, also questioning whether the trust has legal standing to raise the issue, "inasmuch as there is no record of plaintiffs proposing a low-income development to the town of Edgartown."

After reading the decision yesterday Mr. Renehan, unlike Mr. Robbins, said he saw little basis for appeal. "When a judge states expressly that he accepts your experts and disregards the other side's experts, it makes it extremely difficult to pursue an appeal," he said.

Mr. Renehan concluded: "I hope that when the Wallaces review this decision with their attorneys they will conclude that they fought the good fight, that they lost and now it is time to go on about their business without any further divisive litigation."

Mr. Morgan praised the work of town attorneys, their assistants and town hall staff who were engaged during the long trial.

"They all have to be commended. This also supports the efforts of our townspeople in preparing zoning in the first place. It was a team effort and it withstood the test," Mr. Morgan said.

Concluded Mr. Rappaport: "The message of this decision should be clear. Edgartown and the other communities on the Vineyard will stand and fight to protect our environment against anyone, no matter how well financed, aggressive or obnoxious. It is a proud day for Edgartown and for the Vineyard."