Oak Bluffs Home Rule Petition Inspires Hot Debate in Hearing Hastily Convened by Legislature

Gazette Senior Writer

BOSTON - Small in number but passionate in expression, a compact assembly of Vineyard residents traveled to Beacon Hill this week to testify at a hastily called legislative hearing on a petition by the town of Oak Bluffs to withdraw from the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

"I'm here because the integrity of the Martha's Vineyard Commission is now being threatened," said West Tisbury resident Barbara Day.

"Some would have you believe that developers will plunder Oak Bluffs if the town should leave the MVC. This is the same extremist view put forth years ago by opponents of Proposition 2 1/2," declared Oak Bluffs resident and former MVC executive director Ron Mechur.

"I think withdrawal could be good for Oak Bluffs. This could be like an intervention," said Tisbury resident Steve Wehner, a developer whose gas station project was recently rejected by the commission.

"I care very deeply about every tree and every cove and every resource of Martha's Vineyard, and people who have moved to the Island five years ago have adopted the same values. The Martha's Vineyard Commission was created to protect those values," said MVC chairman James Athearn.

"I share your feelings about the value of the Island," replied Marblehead Rep. Douglas W. Peterson.

The comments came during a public hearing hosted by the Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Agriculture on the slumbering home rule petition that suddenly came alive again this week.

This marks the second time around in the state legislature for the petition, which was left as unfinished business when the legislature adjourned late last summer. A new bill was filed early this year. A second vote by the town is required for the bill to take effect.

Language in the current bill requires the second vote by the town to take place at an annual town election.

The hearing this week was called at the last minute, largely due to the work of Dennis Morgan, a lobbyist hired by Down Island Golf Club developer Corey Kupersmith.

Word went around the Island like electricity on Tuesday that the bill would be moved quickly through the state legislature so that the question could be put on the ballot in time for the annual town election on April 10. The deadline for ballot questions is March 6.

But on Wednesday committee members put the brakes on any rush job.

"As a practical matter, unless this goes quicker than anything I have ever seen in this legislature, this will not come out in time for the election this year," said Rep. Michael E. Fester of Melrose.

At the outset, state Sen. Pamela Resor of Worcester, who is co-chairman, said the committee was meeting for the first time and had not yet organized or assembled its staff. But despite the hasty nature of the hearing, committee members displayed a canny feel for the issues.

"If the town goes out from under the umbrella of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, won't that be opening the town up to unbridled development?" asked Rep. William Green of Billerica, who is also co-chairman of the committee.

The hearing was marked by two clear themes: The largely procedural matter of a home rule petition and the right of the town to decide for itself whether to withdraw from the commission, and the much broader topic of the wisdom - or folly - of withdrawing from the protective umbrella of the unique regional land use commission that was created by an act of the state legislature in 1974.

Cape and Island Sen. Robert O'Leary summed up both themes in his remarks to the committee.

"I will support the home rule petition, but I do not think that this is a good idea for the town," Mr. O'Leary said. "If I was a resident of the town of Oak Bluffs and this was on the ballot, I would vote against it. I think it's a mistake on the part of the town," he added.

Mr. O'Leary also remarked on the timing.

"This is coming at a time when towns all across the commonwealth are talking about smart growth, and here is the town of Oak Bluffs moving in an opposite direction," he said.

The petition dates to last year when a record turnout of voters in Oak Bluffs agreed to take the first step toward withdrawing from the commission.

Mrs. Day, who testified first, recited the events that led to the petition, including the campaign by the supporters of the Down Island Golf Club who were unhappy with the MVC decision to reject Mr. Kupersmith's golf club development for the southern woodlands. The developers 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 later changed when the MVC won a landmark court decision granting the regional agency full power of review over 40B housing projects.

"The town was scared. Townspeople were pressured into believing they had no choice but to vote to leave the commission. If the vote was taken today the results would be different," said Mrs. Day, who urged the committee to reject the petition.

Mrs. Day underscored the importance of the commission.

"There was a time when development on the Vineyard was not such a looming problem, but now space is running out, the pressures for development are taking over and the Martha's Vineyard Commission is more important than ever," she said.

Others echoed her remarks.

"This home rule petition has the potential to weaken a very unique regional land use agency. The members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission are Vineyarders - isn't this home rule of the best possible kind?" said Oak Bluffs resident Ann Margetson.

"How would it affect the commission if the town withdraws?" Senator Resor asked Mr. Athearn.

"It would be as if we lost a player on our team. We would be one player short," he replied.

"This has significance for the whole Island," Mr. O'Leary said. "It took a long time to put together the Martha's Vineyard Commission and this could be a first step in the dismantling of the commission."

Mr. O'Leary said he and Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington, who is a member of the natural resources committee, would urge the commission to take steps to "reexamine" itself. Yesterday the two legislators wrote a letter to the commission calling for the appointment of a regional task force to evaluate the commission.

"Putting this on the April ballot a year from now would allow all of these things to unfold," Mr. O'Leary said.

Mr. Mechur and Oak Bluffs selectman Kenneth Rusczyk had another view, promoting the golf course project as a great benefit to the town.

"We just want to take a crack at democracy - it may fail, and that's fine," said Mr. Rusczyk.

"There was a lack of understanding by the Martha's Vineyard Commission about this project," said Mr. Mechur.

Representative Green quizzed Mr. Mechur at length, especially on the subject of Chapter 40B.

"I'll be very honest - I think it's outrageous that developers use 40B as a club, it's meant to develop affordable housing, it's not meant to beat towns into submission and that's what happened in this case - it's being used as a club, it's threatening a town. It's a misuse and that's not what it's on the books for," he said.

"It was a way to put political pressure on the Martha's Vineyard Commission, which was being unreasonable," Mr. Mechur shot back.

"It seems like you are at great risk if the town should withdraw from the commission," Mr. Green said.

"That may be, but it should be up to the people of the town to decide," Mr. Mechur replied.