What Might Have Been

In September 1976, a breathtakingly bold scheme to federalize land-use planning on Martha’s Vineyard died in Congress. For better and worse, the Island is still living with the legacy of what came to be known as the Kennedy bill.

What if there were no Vineyard Golf Club? No trophy houses on the grass plains of the south shore? No Tashmoo Wood subdivision in West Chop with six tennis courts and a heated pool? No Residents Only signs keeping public toes off pretty beaches?

 Then again, what if every adjustment on the face of the Island landscape had to be blessed by a Washington bureaucrat?

Bottom line: How might the Island be different today, for better or worse, if Congress had passed the Nantucket Sound Islands Trust bill of the early 1970s? Aimed at slowing down or even stopping the genesis of a development boom, the so-called Kennedy bill nearly brought Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands under the umbrella, or fist, of a protective federal trust.

The Kennedy bill died in Congress in September 1976, thirty years ago. But the legacy of the failed legislation is very much with us – as are many of the wide-open conservation areas it was meant to acquire and protect, and some of the suburban developments and gated-off enclaves it was meant to prevent.

Vineyard Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough delivered a speech to the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club in the mid-1950s: “Who, among our community,” he asked, “enlightened as it is, can count on holding intact many large tracts of land when economic law says there is a one hundred percent profit in selling off half? . . . Who is optimistic enough to think that this equation will not make a marked difference on Martha’s Vineyard within a fairly short span of years?”

And lo, a decade later, the first Waterview Farms subdivision appeared in the vast Strock woodlands along the shores of Sengekontacket Pond. Soon thereafter, an Island farm morphed into Island Farms, a North Tisbury housing development. In 1969, a streak of angular, gray condos sprang up behind the dunes of Mattakesett. That year, the only sections of the Island protected by zoning were Chappaquiddick, downtown Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, and West Chop. Off-Island speculators discovered an undervalued and unprotected frontier of fields, forests, and beachfronts, and a surge of land grabbing, lot clearing, home construction, and population growth followed. Observers saw an omen of disaster or a bellwether of opportunity, depending on where they sat.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, for one, sat on the mainland – in Washington, Boston, and Cape Cod. Since his youth, he’d sailed frequently to the Vineyard and Nantucket from Hyannisport, and he treasured the charms of the Islands. In 1970, he read a report entitled Islands of America, published by the Department of the Interior. “Islands are fragile resources,” said the summary, “vulnerable both to destructive natural forces and to the inconsiderate actions of man.”

Out of 26,000 islands studied, the report specifically named Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands as “islands of national significance that warrant federal action for protection.” Kennedy had long wanted to fulfill his brother Jack’s desire to bring the Islands into a protective federal trust, akin to the Cape Cod National Seashore, a program established in 1961 to purchase and preserve undeveloped coastline – notably the outer Cape beaches – and keep them open to the public.

 Emboldened by the report, Kennedy formally introduced the Nantucket Sound Islands Trust bill on the floor of the U.S. Senate on April 11, 1972. After four years of rejection, amendment, reintroduction, rejection anew, more amendments, and introduction for the third and last time, the Trust bill passed the Senate in 1975. The bill then failed in the House of Representatives and died for good – thirty years ago. Between the introduction and final knockout on Capitol Hill, the bill fomented a maelstrom on the home front, pitting native Vineyarders against seasonal outsiders, year-rounders against each other, conservationists against business and real estate interests, Island politicos against the feds.

The Islands Trust bill saga isn’t merely one for the history books. For as it lay dying, the bill jump-started a spate of homegrown land-use initiatives that have spared the Vineyard the level of runaway development that Kennedy sought to contain in the first place. This legacy of the Kennedy bill is probably here for the ages.

For many Americans, conservation was still a Renaissance concept in 1970, the year of the first observation of Earth Day. It was also the year that Metcalf and Eddy, a leading engineering and planning firm in Boston, was wrapping up a study for the Dukes County Planning and Economic Development Commission to assess the environmental and economic well-being, present and future, of Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands.

The findings yielded a grim picture of what unmanaged growth would cause: erosion of dunes and heathlands; noise, water, and air pollution; indiscriminate land use; congested roads. Eighty-one percent of the acreage in the county (which includes the Elizabeth Islands) remained undeveloped. Yet only 11 percent of the land was actually protected, whether by public statute or private goodwill. Since 1950, the daily peak-season population of residents and visitors had more than doubled, to 43,500. By 1990, it could more than double again. Metcalf and Eddy warned that if its recommendations weren’t soon heeded, the county “will not only have been fully raped by the despoilers, but also will have contracted environmental terminal cancer.”
Coincident with the study, K. Dun Gifford was busy shaping Kennedy’s bill. Born to an old Nantucket summer family, Gifford was a young Harvard-trained attorney and Kennedy aide, distinguished in part for supervising the legendary “boiler-room girls” – the cadre of female aides that did much of the groundwork for Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign.

Gifford and his team researched the state of land management on the Islands. They found almost none. In an increasingly feverish market, the Island was relying on fading, insular notions of tradition to keep the landscape more or less the same. The Gifford team became students of land-use planning, an emerging concept at the time, gathering expert input wherever they could find it – the Department of the Interior, academia, and even from towns in England and France, where various planning strategies were being tried.

The original 1972 draft of the legislation didn’t call for the creation of a national park, as the Cape Cod Trust did. But it did propose the selective purchase of private properties and divvied the land into four classifications:

• Lands Forever Wild – later simplified to Open Lands – included “areas whose scenic or ecological or other values are so great that no development should be permitted on them.” This category largely comprised the perimeter beach lands. Any existing structures – public or private – would be removed.

• Scenic Preservation Lands, intended mainly for public recreation, included areas in which the intensity of current development should not be increased.

• The third and fourth classifications – Town Lands and County Lands – were made up of areas where future development should be confined, leaving the decision-making to Island jurisdictions, so long as the Department of the Interior liked their decisions.

Three commissions – one each for the Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeths – would administer the Islands Trust with the aid of $30 million in federal funds for land acquisition and maintenance. Commissioners would include representatives from state and town governments as well as a representative from the Department of the Interior.

After two years of working on the draft, Gifford recalls Kennedy asking: “‘Are we ready to go?’ I said, ‘It’s up to you.’ Then all hell broke loose.”

Tom Hale, owner of the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard and resident of Hines Point on the Lagoon, got word of the bill from Kennedy just days before it was slated to be introduced in the Senate. Hale was mystified. Quite recently, he and his wife Anne and friend Edith W. Potter of Chappaquiddick had met with Senator Edward Brooke, a Massachusetts Republican, in his Washington office. They had urged the senator, also an Oak Bluffs homeowner, to take action in Congress in much the same way.

The Hales had moved to the Vineyard from Mystic, Connecticut, in 1961 and had quickly immersed themselves in the Island’s emerging conservation causes. “We were tree huggers,” says Hale, who adds that Anne, now deceased, was the harder working of the two. A landscape architect, Anne helped create the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary on the shores of Sengekontacket Pond. Edith Potter was a seasonal resident turned year-rounder whose family had established Pimpneymouse Farm on the Chappaquiddick landscape she hoped would remain untainted and wild.

Brooke agreed to help the tiny delegation, with a strong caveat: Pursue the effort on-Island first.

Alas, the Kennedy bill was already out of the starting gate, and Hale was alarmed at some of its contents. “It would have accomplished what we wanted,” says Hale, “but we knew it would also cause ill will.” Hale implored the senator to postpone the bill’s introduction until he’d talked to Island leaders first. Kennedy declined. (Henry Hough, editor of the Gazette, argued for the stealth tactic after the fact: “Obviously any other approach would have helped speculators and set off a scramble of divided opinion,” he wrote in a 1972 story.) The Hales announced the bill to the Vineyard at a last-minute press conference at the shipyard office before it was introduced on Capitol Hill, hoping to get Islanders at least generally interested in the cause for slowing development. “We tried to explain a bill we barely understood,” Hale says.

The reaction was quick and fierce. What drew immediate attention were the erosion of private property rights, the taking of powers from town governments – which were all but termed weak and inept – and an immediate moratorium on construction that would have put contractors out of business and workers out of work. (“That was cruel,” says Hale of the moratorium.) The Kennedy bill blindsided nearly everybody, from the most prominent Island officials on down. Even Senator Brooke was out of the loop.

“Kennedy blew it,” says Hale. “I respect him a lot. I’m a staunch Democrat. But Ted’s made two major mistakes: the Trust bill and his opposition to the wind farm [proposed on Nantucket Sound].” In the following months, some people crossed the street when they saw the Hales coming. Certain storeowners asked them not to come back. Someone threatened that the shipyard would burn.

Vineyarders split roughly into two camps: people who found the bill wanting and people who just plain hated it. Two committees quickly formed: Vineyarders to Amend the Bill, which hoped to soften the infringements on Island authority and private property rights, and the Island Action Committee, which wanted federal noses out of Vineyard affairs, period.

“I told Kennedy’s people to stick their bill where the sun doesn’t shine,” says Bob Carroll, then an Edgartown selectman and head of the Chamber of Commerce, who led the opposition. The Island Action Committee largely included Vineyard politicians, such as Dukes County Commissioner Shirley K. Frisch, young state senator Gregory Mayhew, and leaders of business and real estate interests, for whom growth was encouraging and profitable. Their battle cry was “home rule.”

“Initially, people’s opposition to the bill probably influenced my own position,” says Mayhew, a fisherman and descendent of the founding English family who settled here in 1642. “But my gut reaction was that something was being jammed down our throats.”

Furthermore, the original draft of the bill didn’t seem to comprehend that the Vineyard, unlike Nantucket, had six proud and diverse towns that would take umbrage at being lumped into a single Island-wide commission. “I remember when people from the different towns even had different accents,” says Carroll.

The secrecy with which the bill had been written and introduced miffed Carroll quite personally. Kennedy and Carroll had been friends since the early ’50s, and it was Carroll who, in 1969, whisked Kennedy back to Hyannis in his private plane after the automobile accident on Chappaquiddick. Nowadays, Carroll considers Kennedy a good friend. “Best senator in D.C.,” he says.

In the 1960s, Carroll cheered on the influx of developers, excepting those “sleazy” speculators who bought properties on the cheap and flipped them within months at extraordinary profit. “If you grew up poor here, you thought something really good was happening,” he says.

“Farming was in decline back then,” says John Alley, a retired farmer and West Tisbury selectman. “It became cheaper for people to buy Hood milk in the stores. The cooperative dairy basically went under. Selling to developers was a good way for farmers to dump some land. They were happier than hell.”
Alley was head of Vineyarders to Amend the Bill. From his seat on the West Tisbury finance committee, he felt that, given some tinkering, the Kennedy bill was just what the Vineyard needed. Development and population growth were raising expenses – most notably, the school budget – faster than reasonable tax increases could handle. Lands that people once walked across were now somebody’s backyard. Beach rights were being sold off, too. (“We hardly went to the beach anyway,” says Alley. “It was mainly the summer kids who went.”)

For the most part, those who championed the bill were seasonal residents; passionate conservationists such as Anne Hale and Edith Potter; and the well-heeled and prominent: Pulitzer Prize–winning author William Styron, Gazette editor Henry Hough, New York philanthropist Anne Simon, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Jerome Wiesner. For them, the Vineyard was an idyllic retreat from the real world, and they wanted it to remain that way. For Islanders, the Vineyard was the real world, and since the real world was given to change, Islanders ought to be the ones who decided how it would change.

Across the Vineyard, divisions hardened and sharpened. A private survey conducted in 1973 found that seasonal residents were overwhelmingly in favor of the bill. In a later referendum, year-rounders, native and otherwise, voted against it by a three-to-two margin. The Kennedy bill fanned anew the eternal embers of unease between Vineyarders who could vote and the seasonal residents who paid most of the taxes, but couldn’t. “They hadn’t counted on people like me and Shirley Frisch,” says Carroll of the late county commissioner. “They discovered Islanders could read and write.”

“Locals who didn’t support the bill looked upon us as turncoats,” says John Alley, recalling some “spirited” discussions with Carroll. “Then we’d have a cup of coffee – or whatever it was. Back then, you could disagree with Island people and still talk with them. You can’t do that anymore.”

In the interest of damage control, Kennedy sent Gifford to the Island on several occasions to negotiate amendments to the “working paper,” as the bill was re-branded. He was welcomed in the parlors of the supporters, and attended angry meetings with the foes. For the Nantucketer, there were no cups of coffee afterward. “The biggest surprise was the personal vitriol,” says Gifford. “I was told that if I ever came back to the Vineyard, I was never going to leave. But if you ask me if I’d do it all over again, I’d do it all over again.”

By contrast, when Kennedy made an appearance to discuss the bill at a heavily attended meeting at the Tisbury School, “everyone was polite,” recalls Alley. “People disagreed with him, but they were respectful. They didn’t get nuts.”

Over time, the legislation tweaked the land-classification maps, restored some authority to the towns and the private-property owners, and made year-round residency a prerequisite for serving on the Trust commission. The Vineyard got more of a say in how it might plan and regulate the landscape – but with help from Washington. The trade-off was a cut in the proposed grant – from $30 million to $10 million – to mollify the Department of the Interior for the reduction in its influence in Trust affairs.

 The bill’s final showdown began in June 1976 at a daylong hearing in Washington before the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation. Hough and Kennedy, among others, testified in favor of the bill. Brooke, who initially sided with the opponents, ultimately endorsed it too. Carroll and Frisch testified with equal fervor against the bill – and prevailed.

Gifford argues that the fate of the Kennedy bill had little to do with how things played out on the Island. “It became a national issue,” he says. “In those days, Republicans in Congress thought Kennedy was making too big a name for himself.” Kennedy talked of reintroducing the bill yet again the following year. But by then, even Nantucket, which had initially endorsed the bill, had turned against it, and the campaign drew its final breath in September.

After the shock-at-the-shipyard press conference in 1972, the Kennedy bill began to influence how land was to be regulated on the Island itself. At a Tisbury town meeting that May, the agenda included a warrant article to adopt zoning and building codes. It had been defeated twice before, once narrowly. This time – with the Kennedy bill and the threat of unregulated growth on everyone’s mind – the zoning measure passed by a vote of 455 to 2.
Many Vineyarders acknowledge that the bill gave the Island a kick in the hind quarters. Those who insisted to the feds that they could steward their own land realized they’d better get to it. “Zoning happened because of the Trust bill,” says Gifford. “No question about it.”

Given the historic antipathy to regionalization, it’s ironic that the biggest and most direct consequence of the Trust legislation was the creation of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Proposed by Governor Francis Sargent in 1974, the Commission, made up of representatives from all six Island towns, regulates large and significant developments, and helps towns grapple with problems arising from growth. To opponents of the bill, the Commission was a way to forestall the need for federal legislation. “It was [Republican] Governor Sargent’s way of thumbing his nose at Democratic Senator Kennedy,” says Alley. After some intra-Island wrangling and compromises with the state, Vineyard voters quickly gave the Commission the nod. Early commissioners included some of the key players in the Kennedy bill, supporters and opponents alike: Shirley Frisch, Anne Hale, and John Alley’s brother Jim.

“The idea of ‘regional’ was still scary to a lot of people,” says Gregory Mayhew, “but the idea of ‘federal’ was a sledgehammer.”

Over one issue or another in these past three decades, towns have pulled out of the Commission, and towns have come back. But it looks like a permanent feature on the political landscape. Unlike most planning boards around the country, the Commission has regulatory authority as well as planning responsibilities for open spaces, water resources, transportation, sustainable economy, and the preserving the nebulous idea of the character of the Vineyard. The Commission oversees Districts of Critical Planning Concern, such as shorelines and roadside vistas, and has ruled on hundreds of Developments of Regional Impact. Hence, today’s televised Commission hearings, where would-be developers squirm before a no-nonsense panel of inquisitors. More often than not, the parties come to terms.

“I’m of two minds about development,” says Linda Sibley, chairman of the Commission and an Island wash-ashore at the time of the Kennedy bill. “I want to preserve the environment, but I don’t want to turn the Island into a museum.”

Martha’s Vineyard today is roughly one-third developed and one-third protected. The remaining third is theoretically up for grabs. The high-season population stands at 75,000, according to Commission figures from 2000. (Yet housing starts are down from a high of 400 a year in the 1980s to 200 a year today.) It’s difficult to know how the Vineyard might be different if the Kennedy bill had passed. So many like-minded initiatives – public and private, large and small, pre-bill and post-bill – have since made an impact on the landscape.

Edith Potter, for one, has misgivings: “If the bill had passed, all that wonderful, pristine waterfront along the south shore would still be available to everyone. There wouldn’t be so many trophy houses. But there’d probably be just as many people here. The open space would attract people. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission has done a wonderful job, but they can’t [do] it all.”

“We didn’t get 100 percent of what we wanted from the bill, but we got 70 percent,” says Dun Gifford, in reference to the homegrown achievements. “Not bad for a day’s work.”

“What Martha’s Vineyard has done on its own is far better than could ever have been done by the federal government,” says Tom Hale.

For all the toil and turmoil, Ted Kennedy says he has no regrets about sponsoring the bill that he envisioned would preserve the Islands for the people who live there and for future generations. “We learned as we went along,” he said in a recent interview. “The basic concept was whether local ordinances could stand up to large developers. That concept was ultimately picked up by the Islanders themselves. They did it their way. I wish them the best, and I will always do my best to support their efforts.”

Growth and development march on, more slowly now and with more rules and watchdogs, but with no apparent end. Yet first-time visitors can still drive, bike, hike, or paddle the Vineyard and find a rare paradise. They have no idea that, just over the grassy dune or beyond the thicket of pine trees, there may be a 200-home subdivision that looks rather like the neighborhood they left at home.