MVC Comes Under Fire; Leaders Assess the Future

Gazette Senior Writer

For the first time in years, one Vineyard town has decided to take steps to withdraw from the Martha's Vineyard Commission, leaving the 25-year-old regional planning agency with a new set of quandaries and new battles to fight. On the surface it appears that the commission is under siege on a variety of fronts, both inside and out.

In Oak Bluffs last week, a record turnout of voters said yes to withdrawing from the commission; at least one act of the state legislature and a second vote by the town will still be required to make it happen.

In Edgartown this week, two selectmen and their appointed member of the commission took turns criticizing the MVC.

The commission is currently without an executive director and a search process for a new director has dragged on, losing momentum.

But battles and quandaries are not new to this unique and venerable planning agency; in fact it is the battles that have helped to shape the commission over the years.

"I feel there is a lot of support for the commission still - I always get encouraging words, even from people who think we voted the wrong way on the golf course," said James Vercruysse, an Aquinnah resident who is chairman of the commission.

Last month the commission voted 9-7 to reject the Down Island Golf Club plan and even though the fallout has been nearly nonstop, Mr. Vercruysse said he has not lost heart.

"I don't feel discouraged," he said. "If you look back historically, there have been many times when the commission was controversial. I think it shows how important the commission is to the Island as a whole, and that encourages me. And if you look at the history you can see clearly the good things that the commission does," he added.

"I think the commission will survive," said Linda Sibley, a longtime member of the commission who has herself become the target of a smear campaign in recent weeks. Despite the unpleasant campaign, Mrs. Sibley remained sanguine. "I think that controversy of this sort is both difficult and sometimes clarifying," she said, adding: "I don't go back far enough to have been on the commission when the other towns withdrew, but clearly it had to do with their taking exceptions to decisions that had been made. I think the other two towns learned on net that the commission was doing them a great deal of good, and that getting out because of a decision they disagreed with was not such a good idea."

"I am wary of the phrase ‘under siege,' when what you have is a few vocal critics," said James Athearn, an Edgartown resident who was elected to the commission a little over a year ago. Mr. Athearn said his own brief experience on the commission has been very positive. "I have found that it is a very thoughtful and intelligent and considerate group of people who may hold opinions but keep their views open as long as possible to allow a full debate to take place. And my impression is it is civil debate and intelligent," he said.

Mr. Athearn said he has developed a new respect for the role of the commission in the community, and he said at times controversy is impossible to avoid.

"When you stick your neck out, it is inevitable that someone will take a chop at it. But in truth a lot of things are split right down the middle, and then people color their perceptions and their decisions according to their philosophy," he said.

Mrs. Sibley agreed.

"Sometimes I think the divisions on the commission do reflect the divisions in the community - and then it is almost impossible for the commission to win from a public relations point of view."

Mr. Athearn said it is a fallacy for a town to pull out of the commission under the guise of home rule. "It occurs to me there is more home rule in some ways with the Martha's Vineyard Commission than without - because without it they have to obey the state rules, and the state's rules are awfully broad and often not applicable," he said.

Mr. Vercruysse said he believes the controversy has helped to strengthen the commission staff, despite the absence of an executive director.

"The staff is really energized and wanting to be part of the process of finding a new director. I think they are really excited about the near future and the long-term future - they have really had to pull themselves up because the commission is under siege. They are jelling and doing their best work; people are energized and working hard," he said.

Two weeks ago, golf course supporters disrupted the Thursday night commission meeting with shouts and rude remarks directed at members of the commission.

The pounding was expected to continue last night; reports surfaced that the Oak Bluffs selectmen were planning to ask the commission one more time to reconsider its decision on the Down Island Golf Club plan.

Mr. Vercruysse said he had consulted with the commission's Boston counsel and was prepared to put the matter to rest.

"That decision is done - there is no way to reconsider that particular DRI [development of regional impact]," Mr. Vercruysse said. He said the golf course developers are welcome to bring in a new plan for the commission to consider. "There has to be a new plan; we are not rethinking the vote on the last plan. It's done - there is no way legally to reconsider it," he said.

Mrs. Sibley did not downplay the bruising effects of the current events, but she continued to take the longer view.

"I think it is clearly harmful to us in the short run, but if there is a good public dialogue then I think that it can strengthen the commission in the long run - even if we were to lose members. It's happened before and I think the commission came out stronger in the end," she said.

Mr. Vercruysse agreed.

"I am excited about what is going on - from the outside looking in it looks like the commission is crumbling, but to me it is getting stronger every day," he said.