The blockbuster special town meeting this week in Oak Bluffs was supposed to chart the future of the southern woodlands, the last undeveloped stretch of land in town.
But even after a record 861 voters piled into the high school Performing Arts Center to say no to an eminent domain taking of the land and yes to a first step toward secession from the Martha's Vineyard Commission, no one can quite agree on what it all means.
Does it pave the way for a golf course or a massive housing development? Or does the split vote on eminent domain keep alive hopes for conserving 275 acres in the woodlands?
The issue of eminent domain came first, and the measure failed to win the necessary two-thirds majority; the vote, seven shy of a simple majority at 433 opposed and 427 in favor, revealed a town torn right down the middle.
"I've always said that we have about half the people who feel strongly one way and half feel strongly the other way," said Michael Dutton, chairman of the board of selectmen, four of whose five members supported plans for a private golf course in the woodlands. "There is a degree of healing that must get done."
The one thing that's certain in the aftermath of this town meeting, said Mr. Dutton, is the threat of a high-density, 366-unit housing development. Corey Kupersmith, the Connecticut developer who owns the land and who has failed twice to win commission approval for his private golf club, now wants to turn the woodlands into a housing subdivision that bypasses town review by including 92 affordable units.
Mr. Kupersmith filed plans last year under the state's Chapter 40B law. Lawyers for the Martha's Vineyard Commission are fighting in state land court for the regional agency's right to review 40B applications.
Backers of the proposal to get Oak Bluffs out of the commission argued that it was the best way to save the town from Mr. Kupersmith's housing development. A sharp rebuke to the commission, some said, might send a message to commissioners and open the way to a golf course, not hundreds of houses.
But what about golf? This week, Ron Mechur, chief spokesman for Mr. Kupersmith, stopped short of committing to another golf plan in the aftermath of the town meeting.
"It's very exciting, but it's a complicated question of where to go and what to do. Corey has to decide on the economics of the golf plan," said Mr. Mechur. "The housing plan is all that's on the table for him."
While a final vote to withdraw from the commission could virtually assure approval of a golf course by town boards, it would also leave Oak Bluffs with no protection against Mr. Kupersmith's housing plan. Neither voters nor town officials in Oak Bluffs mentioned that possibility at Tuesday's special town meeting.
Instead, there was anger over the commission's actions to deny golf even when most selectmen and town boards favored it. That anger and frustration built up steam over the course of the meeting as voters called for secession from the commission and a return to home rule.
"We have people who can guide the town. We don't need the Martha's Vineyard Commission," said Sandra Lippens, owner of Tilton Rentall. "We need to take back our dignity."
Loud cheers greeted her remarks and others like it. There was a visual spectacle as well. Hordes of people turned out for the meeting. They waited outdoors in the rain and then packed themselves into the foyer on their way to the registrars' table.
Moderator David Richardson looked to the voters for guidance, asking them if they should wait to start the meeting. It wasn't until 8:15 p.m. that he gaveled the forum to order. Even then, voters were still jammed in the entryway. Many sat in aisles as attendance swelled far past the hall's 800-seat capacity.
Voters, when asked by Mr. Richardson, went along with the suggestion for Australian, or secret, balloting. But there were plenty of people who had no desire to conceal their opinions.
Jack Wuerth immediately amended the eminent domain question to make sure it was considered under state law Chapter 80A, an approach that would have guided selectmen to take only the first step toward taking the land. Under that process, three court-appointed appraisers would determine a value for the land, leaving the town to decide later if it wanted to pursue an eminent domain purchase. Earlier this month, the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank commission had voted unanimously to pay 80 per cent of the cost associated with the first step and pledge 80 per cent of the acquisition costs if a reasonable price was set for buying and conserving the land.
Manuel deBettencourt was the first to rise in support of the proposal, arguing forcefully that conservation was within reach.
"All the selectmen are on the record saying that conservation would be the best, but said, ‘We can't do it.' But yes we can," said Mr. deBettencourt. "Eminent domain has been used in this country for years because it's the fair way of saying that the public interest is greater than the private one."
He urged voters to take the initial step and to disbelieve people who said the land couldn't be had for less than $45 million. "Elected officials told us it was impossible to purchase Trade Winds," he said.
Mr. deBettencourt criticized the developer's tactics. "He tried to bully us, to buy us. Some of us they'd like to bury," he said. "He turned us against each other. That's not a way to do business in this town."
He tried to appease voters' fear of making their town liable for damages if they began the eminent domain process, arguing that Mr. Kupersmith's own lawsuits have had a delaying effect.
But other voters followed, arguing that the town was opening itself up to spending vast quantities of money on eminent domain.
"It could cost the town $30 to $40 million," said one woman. "The lawyers jump on it and go to town."
Others pointed to concerns that eminent domain could still carry the risk of houses. Town counsel Ron Rappaport has advised that a public taking of the land might stand a better chance in court if the use of the land included affordable housing.
Joanne Philbrick asked if the land bank "was willing to put their money where their mouth is" and cover 80 per cent of damages even if they reached into the tens of millions.
Linda Marinelli, the former selectman who is campaigning in this year's selectmen's race, tried to sway the crowd, but she was derided when she asked voters to imagine bulldozers tearing down trees in the woodlands.
Some laughed at her, and Mr. Richardson urged Mrs. Marinelli to wrap up her comments. She ended by pleading with voters to "ignore the fearmongers."
Selectman Roger Wey tried to clarify the financial side of the question, telling voters that the 275 acres were assessed at about $11 million and that the town stood a good chance at spending little or no money to take the land.
"This town was conceived by people who planned wisely and well," said Mr. Wey. "They planned for future generations. We must do the same."
But Brion McGroarty came to the microphone armed with contrasting numbers, quoting recent land bank purchases that suggested the woodlands would cost a fortune. A parcel near Morning Glory Farm recently sold for $129,000 an acre, he said.
James Lengyel, executive director of the land bank, was told by Mr. Richardson he would have a chance to clarify such figures, but he was never given the opportunity. Instead, Tim Dobel, a school committee member, told voters that if they supported eminent domain, they "were potentially on the hook for a lot of dough."
The promises of money from conservation groups, the state or private donors, Mr. Dobel said, were "too good to be true." His parting shot injected another dose of fear, that houses in the woodlands would overwhelm the school system with new students.
By the time discussion was closed, it was after 9 p.m. The measure would require a two-thirds majority to pass. Registrars passed around makeshift ballot boxes. Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Richardson let discussion begin on the commission withdrawal question while registrars tallied the ballots on stage.
Somehow, the mood changed along with the question in front of voters. Ms. Lippens kicked off the debate with an assault on the commission and its actions. She defended Mr. Kupersmith as a developer willing to do whatever was asked.
"He wants to give us trails, open space and protection of water," she said.
Ms. Philbrick returned to the mike and urged voters to "send a shot across the bow" of the commission. "When push comes to shove, blood is thicker than water," she said, "and this is our blood."
But Richard Toole, a commissioner for the past nine years, said that "Oak Bluffs needs the Martha's Vineyard Commission now more than ever." To get out, he said, "was a very short-sighted decision."
Mr. deBettencourt spoke again and asked voters to consider the risks of leaving the protection of the commission, especially given the town's spotty track record in building enforcement.
"You think the town will be able to handle things? Do we remember the bathroom fiasco?" Mr. deBettencourt said. "How about those lovely boxes with the sewer? There's a sign up there by the woodlands that's illegal. How come it hasn't been removed? By getting out, are we going to get any better?"
Mr. Dobel then offered up an amendment aimed at ensuring that this vote to withdraw was just a first step, sending the issue to the state legislature and then back to the ballot box for town voters to make the final decision.
With nothing to lose, voters appeared more willing to take a first step. And when asked by the moderator, they saw no need for an Australian ballot. The measure passed with a voice vote and a raising of yellow cards. It was a clear majority, but there was no official count.
Voters never even took up the third article which asked the town to hire its own planner, ostensibly to replace the services lost by leaving the commission. Voters agreed to withdraw the article.
In the aftermath, there was both disappointment and celebration this week, but little clarity about what might happen next. The action to leave the commission will go to the state legislature for approval, but state Rep. Eric T. Turkington (D-Falmouth) said this week it won't be a quick process since the bill will be filed late in the session.
Meanwhile, Kerry Scott, the petitioner who put forward the eminent domain proposal, plans to try again with another petition. Mr. Dutton said it's up to selectmen and the planning board now to lead the town on the issue of the woodlands.
"The landowners there include the town, Corey Kupersmith and the land bank," he said. "We need to start an active discussion with these players."