For the last two years, as battles raged over whether a private golf club should be built in the southern woodlands in Oak Bluffs, voters in town have watched elected officials make all the decisions.
The majority of Oak Bluffs selectmen and most other town boards wanted golf, but the final say rested with the Martha's Vineyard Commission where the majority of commissioners, after weighing the merits of the Down Island Golf club proposal, voted twice to deny the plan.
But in all the political discussions and hearings, the question was never officially put to the residents of Oak Bluffs - until now.
Tuesday at 7 p.m., voters in Oak Bluffs will meet in the high school Performing Arts Center for a special town meeting to decide two central questions, each one laying the groundwork for very different visions of the southern woodlands, the largest undeveloped and unbroken tract of land in town.
Do voters want to try saving 275 acres of the woodlands for conservation through an eminent domain taking? Or do they want to withdraw from the Martha's Vineyard Commission, possibly clearing the path for a luxury golf club?
"We're going to hear from the citizens of Oak Bluffs," said selectman Roger Wey at a regular meeting of his board this week. "They'll let us know."
Indeed, the citizens of this town want to be heard. It was a petition signed by over 250 voters calling for the town to take the woodlands by eminent domain that forced next week's special town meeting. A second petition with some 200 signatures arrived next in town hall, proposing that the town withdraw from the regional commission and hire its own town planner.
Both petitions came in the aftermath of last month's decision by the MVC, rejecting plans by Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith for a private golf club on 280 acres he owns in the woodlands. Mr. Kupersmith has filed lawsuits challenging the decision.
And he has also put the town under threat of a massive housing development - 366 units in all - filed last year under state Chapter 40B laws that allow developers to avoid local zoning review if at least 25 per cent of a development is devoted to affordable housing.
Attorneys for the Martha's Vineyard Commission have been fighting in state land court for the commission's authority to review the 40B development. But voters in Oak Bluffs will have to consider their options this week without knowing the outcome of that case.
Mr. Kupersmith's plans, while not overtly mentioned in any of the three town meeting articles, form the backdrop for Tuesday's event.
Virtually everyone, on both sides of the golf club issue, agrees that a massive housing development would overburden town services and spell financial disaster for a town that already struggles with budget shortfalls and rising taxes. But not everyone agrees that granting a golf course permit is the only way to block Mr. Kupersmith's housing plan. Voters will need to pay close attention as they weigh passionate and sometimes complicated arguments from both camps.
Backers of the eminent domain position argue they have a good shot at taking the land, especially with the support of the land bank, which has promised to pay 80 per cent of the acquisition costs.
Their warrant article proposes a first step, asking the town to ask three court-appointed commissioners to set a value for the land. The process is allowed under state law Chapter 80A. Once an appraisal is reached, voters would meet again and consider whether to proceed with an eminent domain purchase.
Two weeks ago, the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank offered to pay 80 per cent of the costs associated with taking this first step in court, and promised to throw the same level of support behind acquisition costs if the land is committed to conservation.
"With a yes-vote to proceed on eminent domain, nobody can lose on that," said John Campbell, a member of the Oak Bluffs land bank advisory board. "There's an exit clause if we can't reach a reasonable, acceptable price."
Mr. Campbell and others from the land bank argue that the southern woodlands is worth saving not only because of its ecological importance but also as a natural setting to be enjoyed by the public.
"It's 300 acres of a naturally living ecosystem right on top of our drinking water," said Liz Durkee, another land bank advisory board member. "Aesthetically, it's a very special place offering people beauty and solace."
Land bank officials have shied away from estimating a value for the land, saying that job would be up to the court-appointed appraisers. But records show that Mr. Kupersmith has paid $6.4 million for his acreage, and the town has assessed the land at just over $11 million.
One of the lead petitioners for the eminent domain cause, Kerry Scott, told selectmen this week that she is confident that the town could raise funds to cover its 20 per cent share of a purchase.
This week, state Rep. Eric T. Turkington and state Sen. Robert O'Leary wrote a joint letter to the state secretary of environmental affairs, pledging to lobby for state funds to help preserve the southern woodlands if Oak Bluffs voters approve the article. Earlier this month, the state contributed $3 million to the purchase of 300 acres of open space in Mashpee and Barnstable that landowners had wanted to turn into a golf course.
While the plan for an eminent domain taking of the woodlands appears straightforward, there are several questions.
For one thing, it is unclear whether Tuesday's vote in Oak Bluffs on eminent domain will require a two-thirds approval or a simple majority. When Oak Bluffs voters in 1999 voted in favor of a Chapter 80A eminent domain taking of Webb's Camping Area (later purchased by developers for the golf club), the action carried on a simple majority.
But Michael Dutton, chairman of the selectmen and an open opponent of the eminent domain proposal, told the Gazette this week he wants to see a money figure attached to the article, and he expects an amendment to be offered at town meeting. If a money amount is attached to the article, it would likely require a two-thirds vote to pass.
The other question surrounding the eminent domain issue involves the town's financial liability simply for starting the process of a land taking. By state law, as soon as the town files a notice of intent to take the land, the landowner could claim that he lost revenue on the property during the time it was tied up in the appraisal and possible appeals process.
"If we lose on that, we could be sued for damages in the amount of what the developer lost over the course of time," warned Mr. Dutton.
No one can say what those damages would amount to, but the land bank has promised to pay 80 per cent of those costs as well. And one land bank official said that Mr. Kupersmith's claim would be weakened by the fact that his property in the southern woodlands is already hamstrung by his lawsuit against the commission.
Mr. Dutton said that in his view, the whole plan for eminent domain is simply too far-fetched. "If we could have that land, and we had all the money in the world, then why not?" he said. "We've been very receptive to purchasing the property, but we haven't seen the money."
The selectman questioned the environmental value of the land and said that eminent domain taking would force the town to spend money on litigation. He said it's time, instead, for Oak Bluffs to take the first step toward getting out of the commission.
The reason, according to Mr. Dutton and other supporters of the move, is anger and frustration over the commission's vote to deny golf. "The comissioners ignored their own staff, their own experts, four of the five leaders of our town and seven town boards," said Theophilus Nix Jr., one of the lead petitioners for the commission withdrawal. "They don't deserve to have our support."
If voters approve the proposal to withdraw from the Martha's Vineyard Commission, it would likely be the first of a three-step process. The state legislature, which created the commission in 1974, would have to approve the decision to withdraw and then would probably require voters to go back to the ballot box to confirm their town's exit from the regional agency.
The proposal for withdrawal from the commission is fraught with questions and serious ramifications. The commission, for example, is arguing in court that it has the right of review over a massive housing project in the woodlands, while it is clear that state law gives Oak Bluffs boards no such power. Still, Mr. Dutton said he is not concerned about losing the layer of protection offered by the Martha's Vineyard Commission land use review process.
"Short term, there's not a huge consequence to the town getting out of the commission," he said. He said the town would "need to come up with its own process" for dealing with developers.
Acknowledging that Oak Bluffs has a poor track record for enforcing zoning regulations on its own, he said leaders are working on tightening up zoning bylaws.
Mr. Nix said Oak Bluffs no longer needs the commission because the town is already built-out. "Unlike up-Island towns, this one is just about built-up," he said. "There's nothing left for us to guard."
If the town does leave the commission, it means that any future plans by Mr. Kupersmith for a golf course in the southern woodlands would require review only at the town level. It also means that his current plan for a massive housing subdivision would be completely beyond the town's authority to review.
Officials in favor of the withdrawal won't say directly that approving a golf course is their ultimate goal, but these same officials have sided publicly with the golf club plan during its two formal reviews by the commission.
While such officials point to the anger over the commission's decision against golf, there remains a lot of support for the commission in town. Commissioner Richard Toole came to selectmen this week with a long list of grants and service the agency has provided to the town. The grants alone, he pointed out, bring far more money into town than the town pays in its annual assessment to the agency.
Renée Balter, president of the Oak Bluffs Association, a civic and business organization, said it would be a mistake to leave the commission.
"Not only do we have a say in what goes on in our town, but also in towns that border us," she said. "We can't live by ourselves. We have to be part of the regional process."