Fifty Years of Conservation

The executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission considers what’s happened on the Vineyard over the past twenty-five years and what will happen in the next.

The quiet of the north shore at Lambert’s Cove.
Alison Shaw

Here’s a fun exercise for rainy days: Think of all of the signs never carved on the Vineyard.

Waskosim’s Rock Estates. The Galleria at Nobnocket. Blinker Light Office Suites. The Gathering at Herring Creek Farm.

In 1985 the buzz and grind of construction and development carried across the Island’s plains and ponds. One place in particular where it was inescapable, where it rattled the panes and drummed in the brain, was the town hall in every town. The sound of construction is a curious thing. It carries.

In the six town halls it droned, for preceding the buzz was the chopping up of land into house lots, a public process known as the subdivision control law. Two, or three, or sometimes four chop-up petitions would pile up in the town clerks’ offices and go to public hearings.

While each town hall had a pod of subdivision applications, it was worse at the Vineyard’s regional planning board, where the larger ones were funneled for Island-wide consideration. At the Old Stone Building in Oak Bluffs, the development buzz led Martha’s Vineyard Commissioners to do something quite practical, but also telling: They had to set their own curfew. Session adjournments were set (theoretically at least) at 11 p.m., for surely night-shift nurses are the only ones who can think clearly later than that.

Was there any quarter of the Island that could be immune? None. Transformation was everywhere, at Edgartown’s South Beach, on Lambert’s Cove Road in West Tisbury, at Tashmoo in Tisbury, everywhere. Transformation.

Islanders were more than bleary-eyed. They were anxious.

In 1985 the Martha’s Vineyard Commission was a decade or so old and had already nudged its signature defense strategies – the coastal district and the Island-roads district – into the towns’ bylaws. With the coastal district’s mandated setbacks from salt and brackish waters, there would be no jumping from second-story balconies into a bay. And the Island-roads district guaranteed motorists a green margin as they tooled along, which meant country roads would not evolve into conveyor belts where legions of driveways and forests of mailboxes whizzed by.

In the quarter century since 1985, these overlay districts have served as the base for new overlays – around the great ponds, atop the Gay Head Cliffs, along the “wild and scenic” north shore, at Lagoon Pond, over the entire municipality of Aquinnah, and multiple others. The commission also sat opposite, and faced down, would-be developers.

All the while, the towns were working independently to keep level the rate of growth. Five of them enacted municipal wetlands rules, tacitly declaring the commonwealth’s standards to be anemic. All of them adjusted their zoning regulations, tightening up in anticipation of threats.

And while the buzzing and chopping careered on, remarkable things were occurring at the Mary P. Wakeman Conservation Center in Vineyard Haven and at the office of the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank in Edgartown, which had opened in 1986. Stunningly, giant hunks of land were donated to land trusts, for perpetual conservation. Edwin Woods turned over more than five hundred acres near the Panhandle in West Tisbury to the Nature Conservancy. Elinor Irvin conveyed more than one hundred acres at West Tisbury’s Cedar Tree Neck to Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, which also entrusted some hundred and fifty Quansoo acres in Chilmark given by Florence “Flipper” Harris. The Long Point ocean beach in West Tisbury grew by 80 percent – yielding a full mile of publicly accessible surf – with Arthur Hadley’s fifty-acre gift to the Trustees of Reservations. Heard repeatedly from donors was that they were honoring a beloved mother or father who had cherished the land – truly a tribute to the power of blood, considering the enormous monetary value being forsaken.

Hundreds of other acres were protected, either via smaller gifts or outright purchase. New names entered the Island lexicon or, more properly, were reborn. Weahtaqua was a forgotten place-name in Island history books; now the Weahtaqua Springs Preserve is perched at the fundus of Lagoon Pond in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury. Pecoy slumbered in old deeds; Pecoy Point Preserve in Oak Bluffs revived it. Add as well: Sepiessa, Manaquayak, Wapatequa, Muskoday.

This is not to celebrate the Island’s toponymical heritage. It is instead a gazetteer of the Vineyard’s conservation advances, where just the land bank alone conserved 3,000 acres in the score-and-five years since 1985, the equivalent of what Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation has garnered in its fifty years.

The towns themselves weighed in with their own open-space acquisitions. Edgartown voters seized vulnerable properties in Katama and along Pennywise Path, to stave off overdevelopment. West Tisbury saved the 365-acre Margaret K. Littlefield Greenlands, over the heart of the Island aquifer. Aquinnah teamed with the Vineyard Conservation Society to protect the coastal heathlands along Moshup Trail. The commonwealth too leaped in, securing South Beach (now a state park) and the lower third of the golden Chappaquiddick East Beach.

The “green archipelago” concept has thrived. In its most ideal incarnation, a hiker would begin his morning on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs and end it in Menemsha, having trod across some of the most beautiful spots on the Vineyard in the meantime. The conserved “islands” in the archipelago would be linked by ancient ways, plus negotiated trail easements sited at the yonder reaches of the intervening private properties. While wide gaps exist, much has been stitched together between 1985 and 2010. Clearly the “freedom to roam,” if not revived, has been given a vitamin boost.

Ah, the next twenty-five years.

As always and everywhere, demography is destiny, and the Vineyard’s destiny will depend on how the population here thinks. Vineyarders have long prided themselves on being an outdoors people. They dig quahaugs. They hunt deer. They tend gardens behind their houses and mind that their backyard chickens do not raid the tomatoes. They wander in the woods seeking undiscovered paths. They fish under the Cliffs.

Their children graduate from beach to beach, progressing as surely as they do at school. The tykes first encounter the sea at State Beach. By middle school, only the Big Bridge rates any appeal there, for the boys and girls have moved on to deliberating whether to choose Katama’s right or left fork. High school sends them west, to Squibnocket in Chilmark or Moshup Beach in Aquinnah.

Yet all Americans have changed since 1985, delighting more than ever in their gadgets and entertainments and technologically charged houses, and Vineyarders cannot be expected to be immaculate of the trend.

So will tomorrow’s Islanders exult in the outdoors? The future of conservation depends on it. If Vineyarders remain vigorous, conservation will come down three avenues into the future.

The first is the quest for elbowroom. Martha’s Vineyard abounds in glorious places; a summer afternoon spent at, say – let’s pick one arbitrarily, since dozens qualify – Chilmark Pond beach will whet the appetite for more. There is just too much to like.

These glorious places, however, come at a price. Here is where the land bank and other conservation groups will follow different tracks: These spots, fearsomely dear, cannot often be donated into conservation. Without the prospect of a meaningful tax deduction, no one can be expected to surrender an asset of such magnitude.

Only a public treasury can contemplate such an undertaking. The Island’s choicest places for flexing one’s elbows – ocean beaches, hilltops, ridges, grassy pond-side fields – are available in all of the towns. The logical public treasury is the land bank’s, although the towns or the commonwealth might, under particular circumstances, want to play a role.

The second quest: exercise. The green archipelago has its aesthetic appeal, but it is also a vast proving ground for health-minded Vineyarders. At last count, the land bank maintained 130 miles of trails across the Vineyard – and yet the network itself still has a certain insularity.

The trails do loop, and loop again, but only in a few locations do they arrive at the zenith destination: a beach. In time, and with patient negotiating and a lot of alertness, the network can be expanded to what it was originally conceived to be: an east-west, north-south, coast-to-coast system of public paths.

The last quest: undevelopment.

On one level, undevelopment is the essence of Martha’s Vineyard – it’s been all around us these past few decades. “Undevelopment” is just technical terminology for a tear-down. Or a blow-away. Cabin after cabin and cottage after cottage, built casually in the 1940s and 1950s, were blown away, er, undeveloped, forty years later by speculators and new owners – seldom by heirs – after having been pronounced utterly useless, utterly anachronistic.

A conservationist’s undevelopment has a different flavor. The cabin or cottage is forebear not to a pumped-up version of itself, with atria and marble, but instead it is a forebear to ...nothing.

Just nothing. Switchgrass, maybe, or path rush. But otherwise nothing.

The human eye is uniquely gratified by undevelopment, as it cheerfully exaggerates the actual effect of the razing. When the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation dismantled a two-story beach-house near Caleb’s Pond in Edgartown in 1997, the effect was electric. Although the house had wedged itself alongside only a couple of hundred feet of outer Edgartown Harbor beach, the eye was easily tricked: a half-mile of sand seemed to have been unshackled.

Mind you, it’s something of a lofty concept; a Martha’s Vineyard can contemplate undevelopment, an Ocean City, Maryland, cannot. It requires foremost a pride of place, a sensibility that not all seaside towns possess. Such a pride will allow a town to picture this future, this excised landscape, with equanimity. An Ocean City will bollix up at this prospect, while a Martha’s Vineyard will peer at the idea, turn it over, decide where it works best, and then do it.

There will be sound reasons for targeted undevelopment in the six towns, the most significant of which will be public recreation and wildlife protection. Houses, if spirited away to be reincarnated elsewhere on the Island as affordable housing and other uses, will yield new oases for people, for fishing and swimming and sailing and even just picnicking.

But spiriting away that house may also reunite that one patch of restored wilderness with nearby, ideally abutting, conservation areas. When undevelopment reunites, it also transduces – new beneficiaries join in, whether it is the heathland grasses and shrubs that prosper in uninterrupted swaths of land, or hawks and butterflies that have their own interpretation of elbowroom.

Will Vineyarders, prompted in 1985 by the buzz and chop to more finely balance development and conservation, opt to continue this balance in the next twenty-five years? There is, as Brutus said, a tide in the affairs of men; the Vineyard escaped its own version of Shakespeare’s miserable shallows by cultivating its existing institutions and chartering new ones. That sort of ambition, that sort of self-confidence – the ability to gauge the tide and harness it – created the Vineyard of 2010. And it can create the Vineyard of 2035.