Despite bluntly expressed concerns about the changing character of the Island and a widening economic divide among its residents, the Martha's Vineyard Commission last week approved an upscale members-only recreational facility proposed for Katama.
More than one commission member who voted for the project said that though they were personally opposed to the prospect of a private club, they felt they could not deny it for cultural reasons alone. The commission on Thursday night voted 7-3 to approve the project, named the Field Club, as a development of regional impact (DRI).
Commission member Nathaniel J. Orleans of Tisbury in a prepared statement warned his colleagues against what he described in emotional terms as the dangerous threat of economic prejudice. Other commission members suggested that the Vineyard is becoming a playground for the rich and is losing its identity as a small rural community.
Commission member Andrew Woodruff of West Tisbury, who joined Mr. Orleans and John Best of Tisbury in opposing the project, said the project jarred uncomfortable memories from his own childhood growing up on the Island. He recalled visiting friends in Edgartown during the summer, and said candidly that at times he felt like a second-class citizen.
"One of the things about a project like this that bothers me the most is that it really creates walls and barriers between families and children that are coming here, who maybe have the good fortune of having significant means, but are not intermingling with the local populations," Mr. Woodruff said. "It bothers me a lot, and it concerns me."
Like most of the commission members who spoke last week, chairman Linda Sibley of West Tisbury praised Mr. Orleans for his heartfelt remarks and said it reflected her own concerns about the Island. But she characterized private clubs as symptoms, and not the cause, of a much larger force that is attracting new wealth to the Vineyard.
"I guess if I feel that if this was going to actually make something worse, I would vote against it. But I don't," she said.
Mrs. Sibley also suggested that the prejudice Mr. Orleans warned against might be double-sided.
"I believe in the diversity of the Island, and believing in diversity kind of means tolerating people where they are and who they are," Mrs. Sibley said. "If there are people who want to be a part of this kind of club - and that's the experience they want for their families and their children - then I guess I don't feel comfortable telling them that we disapprove of that."
Spread out over seven acres, the Field Club proposal calls for an 11,000-square-foot fitness center, a 7,200-square-foot "learning center," an outdoor tennis pavilion, eight tennis courts, 74 parking spaces, a pool, a pond, and an area for lawn games.
Developers of the project plan to sell 500 memberships, at a price of $80,000 plus annual dues, which would provide access to both the Katama recreational facility and also a private club on the second floor of the Navigator restaurant in downtown Edgartown. It is part of an ambitious effort by a group of Edgartown investors - led by Gerrett D. Conover and Tom LeClair of LandVest Inc. - who say they want to revitalize the town. Mr. Conover and Mr. LeClair yesterday could not be reached for comment.
Commission member Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark acknowledged on Thursday that the Vineyard lives and dies as a resort Island, but he added that Martha's Vineyard is not about tennis clubs, particularly those with $80,000 membership fees.
"Do these people have a right to build it? Well, yeah. It's America," Mr. Sederholm said. "But we have a unique charter as a governmental body to protect the values that are very special to this place."
More than one commission member during the deliberations read from the enabling legislation of the commission, the broad language that created the regional planning agency and charged it with preserving and enhancing unique cultural and natural resources of the Vineyard. Mr. Orleans suggested that the commission is an appropriate body to regulate the changing character of the Island because its enabling legislation specifies that it must consider the indirect and intangible detriments of a project.
But other commission members countered that, as a land use agency, it would be inappropriate for the commission to act as a social engineering board.
"We can't force those that are wealthy and want to visit private clubs to mingle with the working class," said commission member Carlene Gatting-Condon of Edgartown, who added that there has historically been enough room on the Island to accommodate people of all economic levels. "If people want a private club, I don't think we can deny it."
Mrs. Condon and other commission members also noted that the proposed location of the project - within an approved residential subdivision on a former gravel pit - would have a relatively benign effect from a land use perspective.
If built, the Field Club facility would occupy seven lots within a 32-lot residential subdivision on 24 acres surrounding the former Grant Brothers gravel pit. The commission in early 2004 approved the subdivision, which is owned by another investment group that includes Edgartown selectman and former commission member Michael Donaroma. Field Club memberships would be extended to the future owners of the remaining 25 lots in the subdivision.
The investment group led by Mr. Conover and Mr. LeClair has an option to buy the seven lots contingent on obtaining the necessary approvals, including a special permit from the Edgartown zoning board of appeals.
An attorney for the investment group said during public hearings at the commission that the facility will not be built unless enough memberships are sold to make it feasible.
Some commission members, including those who voted in favor of the project, said publicly last week that they hope it fails.
"This proposal is clearly not representative of the Island I chose to move to," said commission member Mimi Davisson of Oak Bluffs. "I like to think that there aren't enough people here that will join this."
A significant point of contention during the commission review was whether the project should be allowed to tie into the town sewer. The discussion echoed a larger debate within Edgartown about how to plan and set priorities for future service areas.
By allowing the recreational facility and surrounding subdivision to connect to the sewer, it will transfer the wastewater output from the Katama Bay watershed to the Edgartown Great Pond, which is more nitrogen sensitive. The commission tried to mitigate the impact by ensuring that project developers assist other homeowners within the great pond watershed in reducing their nitrogen output.
Though the wastewater issue dominated much of the public hearing process, in the end the commission vote came down mostly to the cultural questions. Mr. Orleans admitted defeat, but pledged that he would continue to fight against similar projects in the future.
"I just see this as one in a string of things - some of which have happened, but many more of which are going to happen - that are going to change the character of this Island considerably," Mr. Orleans said. "As a commissioner, I have a picture of what I believe this Island can be - I might even go so far as to say should be. And that's the vision that I'm putting my efforts toward. You win some, you lose some, but you keep trying."