Candidates Debate Land Planning Role for Martha's Vineyard Commission

Gazette Senior Writer

Thoughtful land planning, the end game in development, difficult decisions in the name of protecting the unique qualities of the Vineyard - values, values, values. These were the central themes this week when candidates for the Martha's Vineyard Commission squared off in a public forum one week before the biennial state election.

"As a child in West Tisbury I found an ideal environment of streams, ponds and woods to play in and I guess it never left me. Now 25 years into the building boom, I see there's a lot of good left out there, and the Martha's Vineyard Commission has laid the groundwork in protecting those values," said James Athearn, an Edgartown farmer who is running for a second term on the commission.

"I find three concepts lacking in the Martha's Vineyard Commission; respect for the land, respect for the law and respect for the will of the people. This commission has thumbed its nose at the law," declared Ronald Monterosso, a Chappaquiddick resident and attorney who is running for the commission for the first time.

"Change begets change begets change, and the closer we get to buildout the more critical it is that we plan things to enhance the values that the commission was created to protect. We have values about what the values are," said Linda Sibley, a Vineyard Haven businesswoman and West Tisbury resident who is running for an eighth term on the commission.

"I struggle at times with my decisions, but I feel that simple is better and less is more. I will be critical of land use decisions that I feel fast-track the Vineyard toward a place called the mainland," said Andrew Woodruff, a West Tisbury farmer who is running for a second term.

This was a small sampling of the wide range of remarks heard at the forum held Tuesday night in the Oak Bluffs School cafeteria.

Sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard League of Women Voters, the forum also featured candidates for the Dukes County Commission and point-counterpoint statements about Question 4, a local ballot question about changing the way the Vineyard Steamship Authority governor is appointed.

But the main stage was reserved for the 12 candidates who are running for nine elected positions on the 21-member Martha's Vineyard Commission.

The commission has been under the spotlight in recent months and weeks amid the bruising debate around the Down Island Golf Club project.

For the most part the forum veered away from golf and into the broader themes around buildout and development, and the role of the unique land use commission created by an act of the state legislature in 1974.

Mrs. Sibley, who is now the senior member of the commission, wore a T-shirt printed with the opening paragraph of the commission's enabling legislation.

"When we are looking to evaluate a project and asking whether it is appropriate, are we looking at the values that we had 25 years ago or the ones we have today? It is unrealistic to turn back the clock, but we need to keep in mind what was here when the commission was created," she said.

"If you look at Linda's shirt, you know what the Martha's Vineyard Commission is about and it's supposed to be to protect and preserve the Island," said Doug Sederholm, a Chilmark resident and attorney who moved to the Vineyard in 1995 and described himself as the newcomer among candidates. "I want to be on the commission because I believe it is the steward of what we have here. It's an asset that has a limit and we need to hold onto it," he said.

At least one and not more than two members must be elected from each of the six Island towns. The key contested races this year fall in the towns of West Tisbury and Edgartown, where four candidates and three candidates respectively are running for seats.

The forum format included introductory and closing remarks by the candidates and a single question posed by the league. The question focused on the third and least familiar of the three purposes outlined in the commission mission statement: "To promote public services and economic activities suited to the Island's resources and ecology."

The question sparked answers that revealed a clear glimpse into the convictions - and also the profiles - of each candidate.

"We need to develop some alternative to the building trades. A lot of people on this Island swing hammers who would rather not be swinging hammers. Sooner or later this boom is going to end and a lot of people are going to be looking for work," said Richard Toole, an Oak Bluffs resident who is seeking a second elected term on the commission and was also an appointed member for eight years. "The Martha's Vineyard Commission is the most important thing that's happened to Martha's Vineyard. We need to protect the resources; they are our life blood."

"The commission is a powerful body and I believe we must respect that power and use it wisely, but these are hard times and there are difficult decisions to make," Mr. Woodruff said.

"The commission is a vital, thriving part of the community. . . . If liberals are conservationists and conservatives are all for property rights, then I guess I am a liberal," said Aquinnah candidate Megan Ottens-Sargent, who has served for four years as an appointed member of the commission and is now running for election.

Deborah Moore, formerly a familiar face in Vineyard politics and a member of the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank for a number of years, reintroduced herself to the community.

"I am a newcomer to the commission, but I bring with me a long background in regional planning," she said. Ms. Moore said she would like to see the commission play a role in forging more collaboration among the regional agencies on the Vineyard.

"At this point in time, I want to say that I am most optimistic about the role the commission can play in the future of the Island. We need to plan for the future and react less and less; I think it's the most important role we can play," said John Best, a longtime Vineyard Haven resident who is running for a seventh term.

There was another view.

"I am concerned that if changes don't occur, that the Martha's Vineyard Commission may not continue to exist. The commission has a history of evaluating controversial proposals with no clarity, creativeness or fairness, and many commissioners carry a bias," said Paul Adler, a West Tisbury resident and builder who is running for the commission for the first time. Mr. Adler and Mr. Monterosso both stood out as the two sharpest critics of the commission.

Mr. Monterosso was especially vehement; among other things, he accused the commission of going astray when it approved a project in Edgartown that included 40 acres of conservation land.

"The commission took 40 acres of conservation land and handed it to a developer. The only way you could get me to approve taking 40 acres out of conservation is to pry it from my cold, dead hands. This commission is a runaway train," he said.

"I believe the Martha's Vineyard Commission came at the right time and did a good job," countered Robert Mone, a West Tisbury resident who served on the commission in the 1980s and is running again.

Mr. Mone painted himself as the moderate in the group, citing his long business background on the Island, first as a fish wholesaler and later an insurance and real estate broker. He did not mention his role in recent years as a paid consultant to golf course developers on the Vineyard, including the Down Island Golf Club.

"I am here to present you with a choice. I believe the commission has polarized the community and I will offer a more moderate role," Mr. Mone said.

Christina Brown, a member of the commission who is seeking reelection to a third term from Edgartown, was the only candidate who could not attend the forum, but she submitted a written statement.

"I believe strongly in the purpose of the Martha's Vineyard Commission. I want time to work with the new executive director and to do more active planning," she said.

The recent vote by the commission to reject the Down Island Golf Club only surfaced once near the end of the forum when a member of the audience asked the candidates how they would create a level playing field.

"We all come with our values, but we all try very hard to have an open mind," began Mr. Athearn. He concluded: "You talk about a level playing field - well, on the golf course the vote was 8-8. The final vote was cast by a commissioner who one minute before didn't know how she was going to vote. You can't get any more level than that."

The candidates forum will be broadcast on Channel 8, the local Island cable channel, on Saturday, Sunday and Monday at 6:30 p.m.