Oak Bluffs Presents Passionate Defense of the Martha's Vineyard Commission Before Legislative Committee Hearing

Gazette Senior Writer

An overflow crowd from Oak Bluffs and other Vineyard towns turned out for a state legislative hearing yesterday that was marked by an outpouring of passionate support for the Martha's Vineyard Commission and the unique role it has played in the protection of the Island for the last 28 years.

"The partnership between the Martha's Vineyard Commission and Oak Bluffs must not be abandoned. The support the commission has given the town of Oak Bluffs over the years is beyond measure, and the chain must not be broken. Oak Bluffs must remain in the Martha's Vineyard Commission and with the other towns it must preserve and conserve the special values that are Martha's Vineyard," declared Oak Bluffs selectman Roger Wey.

"The Martha's Vineyard Commission is our life jacket and our savior," said Oak Bluffs resident John Boardman.

"We have what could be described as a kind of constitution in the Martha's Vineyard Commission. I beg you: don't damage the commission. We have to learn how to work together and save the natural resources of the Vineyard," said West Tisbury resident Mary Lou Keaton.

"I hate to think about what would become of this town if we move to withdraw from the Martha's Vineyard Commission. For years we have had a layer of protection and I don't understand how responsible town leaders have led us to this decision," said Priscilla Sylvia, a retired teacher and longtime Oak Bluffs town official.

The comments came during a public hearing hosted by the Joint Committee on Natural Resources on Thursday at noon. More than 150 people crowded an empty bay in the Oak Bluffs firehouse for the hearing, which went on for nearly three hours. The crowd was mostly Oak Bluffs residents, although people attended from other towns as well.

The fire trucks were moved out of the station for the occasion.

The purpose of the hearing was to take testimony on House bill 5154, a home rule petition filed by the town of Oak Bluffs to withdraw from the MVC.

The petition followed a special town meeting in March, when a record turnout of voters in Oak Bluffs agreed to take the first step toward withdrawing from the commission. The campaign to withdraw from the MVC was started by a group of supporters of the Down Island Golf Club who were unhappy with the commission decision to reject the golf club development plan for the southern woodlands last year for the second time. The developers of the golf club project had threatened to build a massive Chapter 40B affordable housing project if the golf course project was not approved, and many townspeople were angered at the prospect of a ruinous housing project in the southern woodlands.

The political climate changed later when the MVC won a landmark court decision granting the regional agency full power of review over 40B housing projects.

A third golf club project is now under review by the commission.

Four of the 17 state committee members were present for the hearing yesterday, including Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington, who is co-chairman of the committee, and Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary, who is a member of the committee. Also attending were Rep. Michael J. Rodrigues of Westport and Rep. Robert M. Koczera of New Bedford. Mr. Koczera chaired the session, and he remarked more than once about the high quality of the testimony.

The hearing was marked by strong overtones of anger toward four of the five Oak Bluffs selectmen who have aligned themselves with the golf club developers.

"Removing us from the Martha's Vineyard Commission has been a well-planned ploy by the Down Island Golf Club and four of our selectmen. . . . Many of us wish to make a statement crystal clear: the selectmen do not speak for us," said Linda Marinelli.

"Four out of the five town selectmen who want to leave the Martha's Vineyard Commission do not represent the voters of Oak Bluffs," said town resident Tom Walsh. "I ask you to let home rule prevail and let the common good prevail against these special interests," he added.

"There is genuine distrust of the actions of the selectmen. The Martha's Vineyard Commission does represent a sound voice; it does not represent the whims of a few who say get out so they can have their way," said Mary Houghton, who is president of the Oak Bluffs taxpayers association. "The Martha's Vineyard Commission was created to protect the Island from such manipulative people. Keep the Martha's Vineyard Commission whole."

Three of the four selectmen and golf course supporters were among the first to speak.

"We are here today because what was before the Martha's Vineyard Commission was a development plan, and that development plan had a vision," began Todd Rebello, who is chairman of the board. "I'm not here to plead the developers' case - this is an economic engine for the town of Oak Bluffs," Mr. Rebello said. He urged the committee to approve the bill and move the issue back to the town, where a second ballot referendum vote is required in order for the town to withdraw from the commission.

I believe this vote has to happen and it needs to happen sooner than later," Mr. Rebello said.

"The reason we are here today is so you can act on behalf of the town of Oak Bluffs. We're asking that you allow us what has been granted to other towns on Martha's Vineyard. The citizens of Oak Bluffs, I believe, are poised to leave the Martha's Vineyard Commission," said selectman Richard Combra.

Later in the hearing Mr. Combra's brother, a respected former town official, offered a slightly different view.

"I think judging by the crowd we have here today, there is strong support to stay in the commission," said Herbert A. Combra Jr. A former town selectmen who led a move in Oak Bluffs to pull out of the commission many years ago and then changed his position and kept the town in the commission, Mr. Combra said: "History repeats itself. I think the selectmen try to do a good job, and I have talked to them and I think sometimes maybe they are blinded," he said. "I ask this committee only to allow this to go forward and let the voters decide."

Selectman Kenneth Rusczyk presented the committee with the minutes from the March town meeting.

"This was the largest political meeting ever held on Martha's Vineyard, and people were angry at the abuse they had taken at the hand of the Martha's Vineyard Commission," said Mr. Rusczyk.

Tim Dobel, a staunch golf course supporter and member of the town school committee, clung hard to the view that the only choice for Oak Bluffs lies between golf and more housing.

"I don't see a lot of other alternatives. . . . The best possible alternative is the developer's proposal," he said. "If the Martha's Vineyard Commission approves the golf course, I will vote to stay in the commission. If they continue to behave in what I believe is an arrogant and prejudicial way, I'll vote to get out."

I believe the interests of Oak Bluffs and the Martha's Vineyard Commission no longer coincide," said Skip Finley, a town resident and golf course supporter. "The Martha's Vineyard Commission performs well in its service to West Tisbury, Aquinnah and Chilmark, and I would encourage them to continue to serve them."

"The commission has lost its way," declared Oak Bluffs resident Philip Hughes.

"The commission has granted opportunity to some and refused opportunity to others. This will force a little change; the Martha's Vineyard Commission may need a little change to catch up with the times," said Kevin Cusack.

The predominant hair color of the crowd was gray, but there was a moment of counterbalance when Peter Rice, an Oak Bluffs voter and college student, stood to testify.

"I represent the younger generation that is the future of Martha's Vineyard. . . . This isn't just about Oak Bluffs," said Mr. Rice, who graduated from the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School two years ago. He formally presented the legislative committee with a petition signed by more than 1,000 Island voters and taxpayers urging the committee to block Oak Bluffs from pulling out of the commission.

Following Mr. Rice's remarks, a wheelbarrow was rolled into the room filled with artfully rolled brown paper scrolls containing the names of the thousand-plus signatures on the petition.

"This commission is a regional body and the only way Martha's Vineyard is going to survive is by working regionally. I can't believe that the people in this town would throw out all the regional protection and work that has gone on for so many years for the sake of a golf course development," said Richard Toole, who is an elected member of the commission from Oak Bluffs.

Edith W. Potter, a longtime town official in Edgartown, recalled the period when Edgartown withdrew from the commission for six years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "The developers moved in like vultures on a road kill. . . . If Oak Bluffs votes out of the commission they will have a struggle, I can assure you, to control their own destiny," Mrs. Potter said.

"I think the commission is the conscience of our community. We will miss Oak Bluffs if they leave," said Tisbury resident Mev Good.

"We are one Island, not six Islands. The right thing is for the legislature to defeat this bill," said Oak Bluffs resident Mimi Davidson.

At the outset of the hearing there was some criticism of the decision by the committee to host a daytime hearing, but after three hours of heartfelt testimony Mr. Koczera, who was visiting the Vineyard for the first time, offered a final observation. "We could have done this at 6 p.m., but I think you did a very credible job of giving us a viewpoint at noontime," he said.