“I think in hindsight the legislation could have been a tool to manage development better,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said last week, speaking by telephone from his office on Capitol Hill. “The issues in the sixties and seventies were how to deal with those areas that need to be preserved wild, or where development needed to be frozen.”
Senator Kennedy was referring to legislation he introduced a quarter of a century ago, the Nantucket Sound Island Trust Bill.
The politics that swirl around the issues of development, environmentalism and protection of the essential character of Martha’s Vineyard are as divisive and as emotionally charged today as they were during the great boom of the 1980s, and Islanders generally cite those battles of a decade ago when debating the control of growth.
But the 25th anniversary of the Islands Trust Bill is a reminder that long before the eighties, the debate over growth versus preservation bitterly tore asunder Vineyard opinion. The legislation died in Washington, but it still affects us.
“Some good did come of it all,” Senator Kennedy said. “It drew attention to the concern over the environment and led to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and gave it powers to oversee much of the development, and then in 1986 there was the creation of Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank.
“The focus of the debate was that those opposed to the bill said they could handle the issues themselves. Some of the local controls have been effective, but the concern for me always has been, how long could they be effective? There’s increasing public sensitivity about the environment now, but I’m always concerned.”
Senator Kennedy doesn’t currently envision federal legislation directed at the Islands again. “I think people on the Vineyard and Nantucket tried to address this at a local level,” he said. “If they decide they need anything at the federal level, I’d be more than willing to help.”
That regulatory dance, two steps forward and one step back, seems to be a recurring theme. Perhaps it is nothing more than achieving a working consensus by making a bold proposal, then settling on a less sweeping compromise.
It may be that sheep farmers predicted the destruction of Vineyard values when the whaling trade became lucrative, and fishermen cried woe when Methodists began flocking to the Camp Ground. More likely, our modern worries took shape after World War II, when the ease of transportation — and our affluence — made the world so much smaller.
Not long after the war, in fact, Gov. Paul Dever proposed legislation “providing for the creation of the Massachusetts Authority for the Preservation and Development of Recreational Facilities and Historic Monuments.”
The proposal was defeated, the Gazette reported in May 1950, after “vigorous opposition, mainly on the ground that it would destroy local autonomy and put a state commission in the role of exploiting natural resources.”
In 1966, the fierce New England love of local independence was aroused when New Bedford district attorney Edmund Dinis suggested, the Gazette said, “that perhaps federal control was the inevitable alternative if the Vineyard did not reorganize its old governments into a centralized body, capable of planning effectively for the future. Specifically, he had recommended one township on the Vineyard, instead of the present six, a plan which would incorporate a single police department for the Island.
“It could not be said that Mr. Dinis’s proposal for a one-town Vineyard met with enthusiasm on the Vineyard.”
That bit of thunderous understatement could apply to almost any regional Island solution proposed today, from police to a middle school to a solid waste transfer station.
An earlier piece of federal legislation that was successful, however, helped shape the Islands Trust Bill. After being pushed by Massachusetts Sens. Leverett Saltonstall and John F. Kennedy, and supported by President Eisenhower, the Cape Cod National Seashore bill was enacted, protecting considerable land for recreational use. Senator Kennedy had become president by the time the legislation arrived at the White House in 1961.
In 1970, after a two-year study, the U.S. Department of the Interior suggested that the Vineyard, Nantucket and the Elizabeths be considered for possible acquisitions as trusts or National Seashores.
Then, in 1971, the late president’s youngest brother, the new Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, introduced legislation actually extending the Cape Cod law to the Islands.
He said then: “We are all of us familiar with the success of the landmark legislation of the Cape Cod National Seashore, signed into law by President Kennedy on August 7, 1961.
“But time has passed, and the very success of that legislation has pointed out the urgent lack of similar legislation for the Islands.”
Added Senator Kennedy: “By the 1950s, it was clear that if some of the most beautiful and historic areas were to be saved from rampant overdevelopment, from misuse or overuse, from lack of planning or uncoordinated planning, then the federal government must involve itself in preserving privately owned lands.
“The act establishing the Cape Cod National Seashore provided for acquisition of 27,650 acres of land with an appropriation of $16 million. In order to protect landowner rights and at the same time assure preservation of the very best of our scenic resources, a very delicate formula was worked out to everyone’s benefit. The federal government did not step in to take over homes and villages. Families were not shuffled around. No one was pushed to sell his property for less than what it was worth.”
He said that “we have struck a delicate balance which has worked uncommonly well. The Islands off Cape Cod which hold the greatest potential for growth and development are, of course, those large Islands which are the most beautiful and prized aesthetically, and many of these are beginning to show the face of disastrous lack of planning, commercial development and sometimes cynical lack of foresight.”
The Harvard Law School legislative research bureau weighed in with a study supporting the notion of bringing the Islands under the Cape Cod umbrella, an effort that inspired an editorial entitled “Scary Memorandum” in the Vineyard Gazette. “Our problem arises mainly from the pressure of steadily increasing numbers of tourists,” editor Henry Beetle Hough wrote, “and it is clear that any copy of the National Seashore here would attract even greater hordes along with campers and trailers.”
Deciding to follow a new approach, Senator Kennedy then drafted and filed the Islands Trust Bill, admitting at the outset that it would require considerable fine tuning before it could be enacted. The bill, using federal money, was designed to set aside Forever Wild land never to be developed, with existing buildings to be torn down after 25 years; Scenic preservation land had stringent controls, and a third category was land managed by the towns and the county, with development permitted. A commission, including local residents, would administer the Trust.
Editor Hough in a front page editorial entitled “The Kennedy Bill Must Be Enacted” said: “More than the preservation of scenery is at stake. Our tax structure, our basic economy, our customary pursuits, our quality of life, are all in hazard.”
The battle was joined. Real estate interests were appalled; many landowners feared that property values would be crushed; the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce came out against the bill. Businessman Robert J. Carroll helped form the Island Action Committee, which vigorously attacked the proposed legislation. Selectmen in the various towns also opposed the bill.
Mr. Carroll called the bill “a complete lie” and said it would “destroy one of the last areas to be governed by the town meeting system,” with an annual loss of $9.8 million added to $350 million in loss of land values.
In the other corner, the Vineyard Open Land Foundation supported the bill. It had been formed by Edward J. Logue and others, mostly seasonal people, and Mr. Logue actively worked to bring the measure to life. James Alley and his brother John were prominent local backers of the proposals. And favoring the bill with modifications were the Vineyard Conservation Society and the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club.
Modifications there were in abundance as the legislation went through several revisions; Forever Wild quickly was amended to allow landowners and their heirs to continue to use their properties, with the Trust having right of first refusal in case of sale. Beaches were to be open to public access, but it was limited. The bill authorized $20 million over three years to acquire land.
After a new version in July 1972, Senator Kennedy told his Capitol Hill colleagues: “As the people of the Islands consider the bill and its amendments, I hope they keep in the forefront of their minds this central question: What do they want the Islands to be like in 1980, only eight years from now; by the year 2000, 18 years from now? This central question has been grasped clearly by the youth of the Islands, so many of whom have written to me.
“They are right to be concerned. What we do today, or what we fail to do today, will create patterns they must contend with tomorrow and the days after tomorrow. If the population of the Islands doubles in 20 years, it is they who will be paying the taxes to support the new water and sewer systems, the new roads, the expanded police and fire and other services; and it will be they who will, ultimately, have lost the enjoyment of the quality of life of the unique and beautiful Nantucket Sound Islands.”
There were meetings galore over the coming years, both in Washington and on the Island. A private survey found that the Island seasonal community backed the Kennedy bill overwhelmingly. Vineyard year-round residents, however, by 60 per cent to 40 per cent were opposed.
A new version of the bill was written in 1973 and 1974, essentially increasing local authority and otherwise diluting the legislation, and in December 1975 the measure passed the Senate. At Vineyard hearings as the House considered the bill in the summer of 1976, the festering divisions of opinion still were obvious.
In September 1976, the Trust bill “died in Congress,” the Gazette reported, “after more than four years of divisive and often bitter debate over proposed federal legislation to protect fragile coastal areas of the Vineyard, Nantucket and the Elizabeth Islands.”
Senator Kennedy reintroduced the bill the following year, but it languished in committee and never really was an issue again.
“It faded so fast it wasn’t funny,” Martha’s Vineyard Commission executive director Charles W. Clifford recalled this week. “There was so much clamor about that Trust bill that Governor [William] Sargent looked at a locally controlled agency to help protect the environment. We [the MVC] were created as an experiment. We’ve been experimenting for 25 years.”
“Today almost everyone agrees that the National Seashore legislation was important,” Senator Kennedy said. “We hoped to preserve much of the beauty of Cape Cod. People tend to forget how much in the sixties the legislation was resisted.
“By the time of the Island bill, developers had even greater concern about preservation, and many landowners feared that their land might be declared unbuildable.”
Senator Kennedy still visits the Vineyard, he said, coming to the estate of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, now owned by her children, John Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, who keep him informed about Island environmental measures.
“I think to achieve reform for preservation of the environment and protected lands,” Senator Kennedy said, “we need strong public support; people need to think about what kind of Island they want and what kind of Island they will leave to their children. I think people have learned that there’s no either/or between business and the environment. People have learned that there can be both growth and protection of the environment.”