Trees all along the perimeter of the southern woodlands in Oak Bluffs are plastered with bright yellow No Trespassing signs. Over at town hall, the town clerk is verifying a petition with more than 250 signatures demanding a vote on whether to take the 270 acres by eminent domain.
These are the most concrete developments to arise in the aftermath of last week's vote by the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC), denying, for the second time, a plan to transform the woodlands into a private luxury golf course called the Down Island Golf Club.
The commission is scheduled to affirm its 9-7 vote next week when the written decision is prepared.
But in the post-golf landscape of Oak Bluffs, many questions remain unanswered. Will the woodlands be clear-cut to make way for a massive housing development? Or will a court battle in Boston uphold the authority of the Martha's Vineyard Commission to review such a plan? And will selectmen and the voters of Oak Bluffs, unhappy with the MVC golf vote, push for withdrawal from the commission?
Then there's the question of eminent domain. The petition, if its signatures hold up under review, would trigger a special town meeting before March 29.
"In the best-case scenario, the court would say that the Martha's Vineyard Commission has permitting authority, this project goes to the Martha's Vineyard Commission and the commission turns it down and the town is spared," said Michael Dutton, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen.
The Connecticut developer behind Down Island Golf, Corey Kupersmith, has promised that if he couldn't get his golf course, he would play a different kind of hardball - building a mixed-housing development with a staggering 366 units, a quarter of them reserved as affordable housing. Under a state law called Chapter 40B, such a project could skirt local zoning bylaws, but lawyers for the commission are arguing that the law doesn't put the project above the Vineyard's regional land use agency.
When Mr. Kupersmith unveiled his alternative plan last spring, town leaders agreed that a housing development so enormous would bankrupt Oak Bluffs, which already struggles to balance its budget each year.
Oak Bluffs selectman Roger Wey, an opponent of golf who had openly called Mr. Kupersmith's housing plan a threat, said this week that the future of the woodlands hinges on that court case. "Everything will be determined on the basis of the decision of the judge on the commission's authority," he said.
But while a court decision siding with the commission would appear to give the town added protection, Mr. Wey's fellow board members appear to be listening closely to factions that want to see Oak Bluffs sever its relationship with the commission. Both Mr. Dutton and selectman Ken Rusczyk say they believe a lot of residents are so angry about the golf decision, they want the town to pull out of the commission.
"I've heard loud and clear voices saying, whatever we need to do to get out of the commission, we'll do. I'm aware of a petition that calls for our removal from the commission," said Mr. Dutton. "My understanding is that it's got upwards of 500 or 600 signatures, and more are being collected."
But as of yesterday, no such petition had been submitted to the town clerk's office. Only 200 are needed to force a special town meeting. Twice last year, Theophilus Nix Jr., an attorney in Oak Bluffs who first opposed Down Island Golf and then supported it, came before selectmen and indicated he was prepared to present a petition. Both times, he backed down and kept it under wraps.
Mr. Rusczyk, a supporter of the golf club proposal, said this week that he has received about five calls from people who want to sign the petition. A commissioner himself, Mr. Rusczyk has been openly critical of the regional agency.
The commission vote on golf was "unbalanced" and commissioners do not represent the Island equally, said Mr. Rusczyk, who believes that the board is slanted toward up-Island interests.
He said that commissioners failed to take Mr. Kupersmith's housing development seriously. "There was denial going on. They thought this great bird of conservation would swoop down and save them," he said. "But now, all the things the commissioners were trying to save - the imperial moth, the walking trails - will be lost."
Indeed, the developer has already made it clear how he feels about the commission vote. No Trespassing signs were posted this week on nearly every other tree along the property. Last week, a huge billboard was erected along Barnes Road, announcing plans to build the Homes at South Woodlands.
The sign, slightly over four by eight feet in dimension, was put up illegally. Not only did the building department issue no permit for the sign, but it is also four times the size allowed under town bylaws. This week, graffiti spray-paint on the sign spelled out the word "WEAK" in large black letters.
But neither Mr. Dutton nor Mr. Rusczyk view the housing plan as anything to take lightly. Both selectmen spoke of the need to negotiate with Mr. Kupersmith and persuade him to consider a much smaller-scale development of perhaps 90 houses.
Mr. Dutton held out little hope of an eminent domain take-over of the land, citing court cases that bar towns from taking such action after a 40B application has been filed. "If the town chooses to take that land [by eminent domain], it would not be with my backing," he said.
But Mr. Wey said he is open to any alternatives, including sitting down with the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank in a closed session to talk about coming up with the money for such a takeover.
Mr. Dutton said he would like to see a special town meeting where both eminent domain and the issue of the town's withdrawal from the Martha's Vineyard Commission appear on the same warrant.
Mr. Wey agreed. "Put it before the people. Let them make the choice," he said.
Mr. Dutton declined to say how he'd vote on the withdrawal issue, commenting only: "The Martha's Vineyard Commission did Oak Bluffs no favor turning this [golf] proposal down."