"I don't know who would want to vote our town out of the commission now," said Oak Bluffs selectman Roger Wey. "It would open up the floodgates."
Less than three months after voters in Oak Bluffs overwhelmingly voted to take the first step out of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, a decision by the Massachusetts Land Court has given the commission the power to defend the town against the one thing it feared most - a massive housing project in the southern woodlands.
In simple terms, the ruling handed down last week states that the Martha's Vineyard Commission has full power of review over housing projects filed under state law's Chapter 40B, a provision that allows developers to skirt local zoning review if at least one-fourth of a housing project is set aside for affordable units.
This week, folks in Oak Bluffs began to react to news of the decision. Some leaders viewed the ruling as a victory, one that would surely convince voters that they must remain in the MVC if they want protection from a development that town leaders have said would overwhelm public services such as the school system.
But others were not only skeptical of the powers granted in the court decision, but also committed to solving the southern woodlands dilemma without the commission playing any role.
"The commissioners should not feel any comfort that Oak Bluffs might reconsider its decision to leave the commission," said selectman Richard Combra. "I still think there is a plan for the southern woodlands that includes a golf course."
But if Oak Bluffs voters were to cement their plans to leave the commission - with a second, affirming vote at an unspecified time in the future - their town would stand alone as the only one on the Vineyard without the commission's layer of protection against housing developments filed under Chapter 40B.
Some selectmen, though, are taking pains to downplay that fact. "The court decision should have little or no impact," said Mr. Combra.
From the beginning, Mr. Combra and the majority of selectmen have backed plans for a private, luxury golf course in the woodlands. But the MVC has rejected two separate applications from Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith.
Last year, after his first application was shot down, Mr. Kupersmith tried another tactic, filing plans under Chapter 40B for a 366-unit housing development in the woodlands. It was widely viewed as a simple threat - approve the golf course, or suffer the consequences of hundreds of new houses in a town that already wrangles each year with budget shortfalls.
When the commission turned down Mr. Kupersmith's application a second time, in February, the issue of the southern woodlands landed back in the laps of townspeople. Two separate voter petitions forced a special town meeting that drew a record attendance of nearly 800 people.
On the question of whether the town should take the southern woodlands by eminent domain, the vote split nearly down the middle, revealing a deep and bitter divide.
But in a vote whether the town should leave the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the response was angry and decisive. Voters were convinced that the MVC had failed to take Mr. Kupersmith's threat seriously, leaving them open to the 40B housing development.
Now, that's all changed.
"A lot of the people who voted against the commission were concerned about the housing and how devastating it would be," said Mr. Wey. "It's not an issue anymore."
But Mr. Wey's colleagues on the board disagree. Selectman Michael Dutton said he's unsure that the land court ruling really gives the commission so much power to turn down a project filed under 40B.
"The town and the commission won a battle here, and that's a good thing," he said. "But it's not a bar to 40B developments."
"The opinion was vague," Mr. Dutton said. "What powers does the commission have that our [zoning board] would not have? Is this a great thing for Oak Bluffs or just another stop along the process?"
But the court decision put it pretty bluntly.
"I conclude that the MVC is not a local board and a Chapter 40B project within the geographical jurisdiction of the MVC must be referred to the MVC before a local ZBA can act on it," wrote Judge Peter Kilborn. "The ZBA may not grant the permit without the permission of the MVC."
The other question raised by the court decision goes beyond how voters will behave when they're brought back to another town meeting to make a final decision on whether to leave the commission. That is, how does the ruling affect the future of the woodlands?
Mr. Combra this week said that this board will meet in closed session next week to talk about a proposal for the woodlands, one that would include golf.
But when asked whether the court ruling has effectively eliminated Mr. Kupersmith's threat of housing, Mr. Combra again insisted that the land court action has changed little.
Mr. Dutton hedged on the question. "It's given us a little breathing room," he said.
But Cape and Islands Rep. Eric Turkington offered a perspective from outside town on the impact of last week's ruling.
"The court decision clearly affects the Oak Bluffs position regarding the 366-unit affordable housing project which is on the horizon," he said. "The only thing that stands between them and the housing is the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
"I would be surprised to see the voters of Oak Bluffs not recognizing that."