He arrived when the Martha's Vineyard Commission was still in its early years - not yet a decade old, not yet accepted as a full member in the peculiar society known as Vineyard government. In fact, when Charles W. Clifford took over as executive director of the commission in 1982, if the commission was anything at all in the Island community, it was a point of controversy.
Two towns had pulled out of the MVC amid bitter differences over the unique powers of the commission. In Edgartown home rule had been the cry, and in Tisbury there was lingering resentment from the Steamship Authority second slip controversy. Just when the popularity of the Vineyard as a summer resort was on the rise and a development boom was beginning to take shape, Edgartown and Tisbury were out of the regional land use commission.
Enter Mr. Clifford, a 40-something, bushy-haired, pipe-smoking regional planner who had been the director of a 22-town planning agency in the state of New Hampshire.
Two years later both the dissident Vineyard towns had rejoined the commission. Although he won't take the credit directly, Chuck Clifford is generally acknowledged as the man who made the commission whole again.
Today Mr. Clifford is a 60-something with hair that is not so bushy anymore. He put the pipe aside many years ago after a heart attack changed his life, but he never put aside his town-centered philosophy of regional planning.
"No town has ever asked for something that they have not gotten from this commission," he said over breakfast at Linda Jean's early this week.
Last week, Mr. Clifford announced that he will leave the commission at the end of December. The announcement came with little fanfare late in the evening at the end of a regular commission meeting.
This week many reacted to the news with warm words of praise for the outgoing executive director.
"Chuck has an understanding of the unique role that the commission can play in shaping broad policies for the Island, and he has always been willing to push the envelope. In all my dealings with him, he has always been open, receptive and willing to help towns use the commission to advance the issue they were concerned about," said Ronald H. Rappaport, an attorney who is town counsel to five of the six Vineyard towns. Mr. Rappaport has also represented the commission on a number of legal matters. He has known Mr. Clifford for his entire tenure at the MVC.
Mr. Rappaport pointed to the recent period when the entire town of Aquinnah was designated a district of critical planning concern.
"The entire town was a DCPC - they adopted extremely far-sighted and tough regulations, and he never stepped in and said, ‘No you can't.' It was always, ‘How can I help you accomplish what you want to accomplish?' " Mr. Rappaport said.
"He also writes beautiful decisions [for developments of regional impact] - and from a lawyer's end, it makes defending the commission much easier," he added.
"For as long as I can remember, Chuck Clifford has been the commission's official face to the legislature and to the community. He has always been thoughtful and helpful and candid, and whenever we need anything up here he has always been happy to give it," said Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington.
At breakfast on Monday, there was a break in the conversation when Donald Widdiss, an Aquinnah resident and former member of the commission, spotted Mr. Clifford and came over to shake his hand.
"Who do you think you are, Michael Jordan?" Mr. Widdiss joked. "No, because this time I'm not coming back," Mr. Clifford returned with a laugh.
It was a reference to the stop-and-start career that has marked Mr. Clifford's tenure at the MVC. He was executive director from 1982 until 1986, when he left to take another job in regional planning. In 1990 he returned to take his old job again.
A total of 15 years translates to hundreds of DRI reviews and dozens of planning projects, including a wide range of DCPCs - special overlay planning districts allowed under the commission legislation.
Mr. Clifford reflected on the highlights - and the low points.
"There were things that this commission approved that should not have been approved, and the driving range is the prime example that stands out through the years," he said. Poor planning at the Windfarm Golf driving range resulted later in the need to put up towering black nets because golf balls were landing in the barnyard of the farmer next door. Many Vineyard residents see the nets - they're visible from miles away - as the symbol of the worst decision in the history of the commission.
There are other projects on Mr. Clifford's poor-decision list. "I think the airport was a lousy decision, not because of the building but because of the traffic flow; it just doesn't work," he said. "I also happen to think Four Flags [at the Triangle in Edgartown] was a bad idea. It's a terrible design, it's not an attractive complex and I really don't think it was needed."
But the recitation is not all negative.
"The better decisions? The Waller Farm is one - and of course Herring Creek Farm. I think Herring Creek Farm came out with the best for everyone. The Wallaces got their dollars, The Nature Conservancy got their conservation land and the FARM Institute will get to perpetuate farming. Supporting farms has always been a central mission of the commission. The tribal housing project was another winner. The commission did what was morally and humanly right with that project," Mr. Clifford said.
He said leaps of faith have guided the commission through the years. "Take the Sengekontacket Pond DCPC - that was a shot in the dark in those days, but you took the risk. Sometimes you have to cross your fingers and say, ‘Okay,' " he said.
He confessed to his affinity for Island people. "It is a chosen way of life and you have to adapt to the Island - not the other way around. It is a special mindset and you have to understand that you live at the whim of whatever the system is that connects you with the mainland - you know, you can't get theah from heah," he said in his best Down-East imitation. He continued:
"And you have to accept that, but you don't try to change it. In my 15 years at the commission, I think that has been the biggest change I have seen here. When I first came to the Vineyard it was toward the end of what I call the Islander period. The people who come now don't accept what they have here and it is a social, attitudinal change. The Vineyard used to mold people, and now people are molding the Vineyard."
What is the next step for Chuck Clifford? Breakfast was long over, the coffee was cold, but still he was somewhat enigmatic on the subject. There was a mention of two granddaughters and a grand-nephew. There was a whisper about the state of Maine, where he grew up. There was something in his eye.
"Whichever way the wind blows is what I am going to do. But there is obviously some sadness. I've spent a good chunk of my life in this place. I've got a hole in my head and a hole in my heart and I'm not sure which is bigger," he said.