Making history and setting a new standard for community planning on the Vineyard, the people of Aquinnah voted this week to adopt a sweeping set of regulations for a townwide district of critical planning concern (DCPC).
“We’re leading the way. There has been a lot of talk about doing an Islandwide DCPC, and I hope this is going to be a first step for that,” said James Vercruysse, an Aquinnah resident who is a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
“You have an opportunity tonight to make a statement in history regarding the Island community,” said Aquinnah selectman Carl Widdiss.
The vote to adopt the DCPC regulations came at a special town meeting on Tuesday night. The vote ended a yearlong planning process and also a building moratorium which had been in effect since April of 1999, when the DCPC was first nominated by the MVC. It was the first time in the history of the commission that an entire town had been nominated as a DCPC.
A total of 68 voters turned out for the special session, whose sole purpose was a discussion and vote on the DCPC regulations. The meeting ran for more than three hours. Moderator Walter Delaney presided. Voters combed the 22-page DCPC regulations one paragraph at a time, calling on the town planning board repeatedly to explain both rationale and process.
Opinion was not unanimous.
“We have no property rights, we only have privileges. Is this an accurate statement about how the town feels today?” asked Aquinnah resident John Walsh, an outspoken critic of the regulations throughout the meeting.
“We all have rights, but this is where the balancing act comes in. Considering others while exercising our rights  — it is a privilege,” replied planning board chairman Camille Rose.
“I think it sets up inequities,” said Aquinnah resident Elise Lebovit.
“The reason for our success is our rural ambiance. I see this as an act of self-preservation. And I’m not sure people’s rights extend to the point where they can come down and change the social context in which we all live,” said Russell Smith, an Aquinnah resident who is the legislative liaison for the Vineyard.
It was a small sampling of the back-and-forth dialogue heard throughout the meeting.
Voters and town officials alike also turned frequently to town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport for his opinion.
At the outset of the meeting Mr. Rappaport coined a phrase which would become a refrain of sorts.
“As a general matter, do I think this is legal? Yes. Do I think we are on the cutting edge with this? The answer is also yes,” Mr. Rappaport said.
The regulations include new and lower height limits for buildings and detailed guidelines for siting, design and landscaping around buildings. The regulations target all areas of town which are considered open and highly visible. The guidelines are framed around a clear theme of respect for the natural environment.
“We began with the idea that the beauty of our landscape is our sole economic asset,” Ms. Rose said.
She noted that the townwide regulations incorporate both language and concepts from the Moshup Trail and Coastal District DCPCs. She also noted that the regulations are all framed around a process of site plan review and special permits.
“Virtually nothing in these regulations is prohibited. Everything can be obtained by special permit,” Ms. Rose said.
The regulations also include a groundbreaking section for archeological resource protection, a detailed section to regulate the use of cellular towers in town, and a steep set of building impact fees which are aimed at fostering more affordable housing.
At the outset of the meeting, the discussion began to flow almost immediately over what might have been seen as a routine part of the bylaw on siting of houses.
“I’m just thinking, are we getting a little too much into what should be up to the builders and the homeowners,” said Aquinnah resident Marc Widdiss.
Mr. Vercruysse had another view.
“To me these are two of the most important things in this bylaw. I don’t think this is taking away rights from people. I think it’s giving us more,” he said.
Megan Ottens-Sargent, an Aquinnah resident and member of the MVC, agreed.
“I think the planning board has done a great deal to come up with cutting-edge, proactive regulations. What I hear Camille saying is valid. Things have changed,” she said.
Mr. Walsh sided with Mr. Widdiss.
“My own personal belief is that we ought to put guidelines in a community, but the guidelines are voluntary,” he said.
Aquinnah resident Barbara Bassett urged townspeople to stand together.
 “A lot of people who have been here a long time find it hard to be told what to do. But we are under attack right now by people who don’t understand this town — whatever our individual interpretations of this place are. There is a lot of money out there that has no regard for anyone else. We’re all on the same side, and I don’t think you’re going to have the problems you are foreseeing. We’re trying to keep our town safe and we have to bond together if we are going to do that,” she said.
Mr. Widdiss moved to strike the section on siting houses, but the motion failed.
Later voters did agree to strike one section of the bylaw which discouraged the use of white paint on houses, and they modified another section which discourages the use of glass walls and encourages homeowners to use shades or curtains to occlude interior light.
“Are we expecting a war? It sounds like now we are going to have light police and tree police,” declared town clerk Jeananne Jeffers.
Ms. Lebovit was also sharply critical. “I think we really are squelching a lot of creativity to keep a quiet, gingerbread-styled, light-colored look. I have some dreams that encompass how I use my land. I came to this town to live out my dreams, to create and feel open,” she said.
But Ms. Rose said the regulations do not dictate architectural style. “We did not address architectural style, nor did we need to. All we ask is that we be able to work with owners to minimize intrusion on the landscape. We’ve all seen what happened in the Hamptons. They had no regulations, and now they are in trouble and their values are declining,” she said. “We have used the term repeatedly throughout the bylaw: to minimize. We’re not saying that someone can’t live out their dream,” she added.
The provocative discussion took on new energy near the end of the meeting when voters discussed the building impact fees.
The graduated impact fees range from $100 for a house up to 2,000 square feet to $25,000 for a house over 5,000 square feet.
The current fees were revised downward from an earlier proposal. The impact fees are intended for use by the town resident homesite committee, which is actively developing an affordable housing program for town residents.
On Tuesday night Derrill Bazzy, who is chairman of the resident homesite committee for the town, gave the overview.
“This is considered to be cutting edge, as the phrase goes. This is really something that is right with its time and might be ahead of its time,” he said.
Mr. Bazzy said the voters would be asked to pass the bylaw with the impact fees, but he said town officials had also decided on advice of counsel not to enforce the impact fees until there is a disposition on two test cases currently pending in court.
One case is in Barnstable and another is in the town of Franklin, where similar impact fees were adopted and are now the subject of two separate court challenges.
“We have the advantage of having Barnstable ahead of us,” Mr. Bazzy said.
Mr. Rappaport agreed. He said after detailed research, including discussions with the counsel for the MVC, he had concluded that the impact fees are subject to court challenge — and could be struck down.
On one point, Mr. Rappaport said the courts have been clear: “No property owner should pay a fee that is an obligation of the entire community — and affordable housing is an obligation of the community,” he said.
But Mr. Rappaport also said that the MVC was vested with broad powers by the state legislature, powers which have repeatedly been recognized and upheld by the state’s highest courts.
He told town voters that if they adopt the bylaw with the impact fees but do not implement the fees, there can be no legal consequence.
Mr. Bazzy and Ms. Rose said it is important for voters to adopt the impact fees now, and under the umbrella of the DCPC.
“It’s a gesture of good faith for an idea whose time has come,” said Ms. Rose.
In the end voters adopted the DCPC regulations in two separate votes. A request for Australian ballot was rejected. Voters approved the first section of the bylaw — all but the cell tower regulations and impact fees — 40-17. The last section of the bylaw was approved 30-3. By that time it was just past 10 p.m. and the number of voters had dwindled.
In the only other article on the special town meeting warrant, voters postponed a spending request for $10,500 to build a boardwalk at Philbin Beach.