Oak Bluffs Heads to Polls; Commission Vote Casts Fate of Town and Island

Gazette Senior Writer

Oak Bluffs voters go to the polls Tuesday to cast ballots in a crucial special town election whose outcome will set a clear course for the town - and also the entire Vineyard - for many years to come.

A simple majority of voters will decide whether to stay in or get out of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

Strong community interest is expected to fuel a healthy voter turnout for the special election, which will be held in the Megan Alley Community Room at the Oak Bluffs School. Polling hours are from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m.

In the final days before the vote, campaigning grew fierce on both sides of the issue which has divided the town of 3,000 people known for its gingerbread houses, its parks and its diversity.

"Vote no on May 13."

"Vote yes on May 13."

Signs, bumper stickers and lapel buttons, radio television and newspaper advertising sprouted around town like so many spring bulbs. The work of two separate and opposing citizen groups took on a feverish pace, as volunteers handed out literature at the town post office and appeared on local talk shows.

If the town votes to withdraw from the commission next week, it will mark the first time in 24 years a town has pulled out of the 28-year-old regional planning agency. Edgartown pulled out in 1978, and Tisbury pulled out in 1980. Both towns rejoined in 1984.

The special election next week is the final step in a process that began 14 months ago when a record turnout of Oak Bluffs voters took the first step toward town withdrawal from the commission at a special town meeting. The state legislature later approved a home rule petition for withdrawal and a second vote by the town is now required for final action.

The move to withdraw from the commission is rooted in the decision by the MVC to reject - three times in two-and-a-half years - Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith's plan to build a private luxury golf course and housing development on some 270 acres he owns in the southern woodlands. Mr. Kupersmith later threatened to build a massive affordable housing project on the same property under Chapter 40B, a state law that allows affordable housing projects to skirt most local zoning rules.

Housing versus golf is still a strong subject for debate in Oak Bluffs, although the housing threat changed dramatically last year when the chief justice of the Massachusetts Land Court upheld the right of the commission to review Chapter 40B projects.

Created by an act of the state legislature in 1974, the commission is vested with powers that go well beyond those of local land-use boards.

In recent weeks and months the question of Oak Bluffs' withdrawal from the commission has at times taken on the complexity of a Russian novel, richly human and full of twists in plot.

The five Oak Bluffs selectmen are split on the issue: three selectmen are strong supporters of the golf club and favor pulling out, while two favor staying in. At the annual town election last month the top two vote-getters for selectmen were both strong supporters of staying in the MVC.

There has been some confusion about the ballot question, which is somewhat counter-intuitive. A yes vote favors pulling out of the commission, while a no vote favors staying in.

But for all the disagreement and all the confusion, there is no debate about one simple fact: On Tuesday the voters of Oak Bluffs will decide.

"This is democracy," said Oak Bluffs selectman Roger Wey.

"The town of Oak Bluffs participates when it comes to political issues - we always turn out a good vote," agreed selectman Todd Rebello.

Mr. Rebello and Mr. Wey do not agree when it comes to the question of town withdrawal from the commission. Mr. Wey wants the town to stay in, while Mr. Rebello wants the town to pull out.

Late yesterday, with just a few days to go until the election, each town father took a minute to step away from the noise and the rhetoric and reflect on the meaning of it all.

"This is all about golf and that's all it is - there is nothing more or less, it's just about building a golf course in the town of Oak Bluffs and there is nothing more. The commission does a great job and this is definitely a single issue and there is a lot at stake - why would certain people be so passionate about this if there wasn't a lot at stake?" said Mr. Wey.

"I have faith that the town of Oak Bluffs will do the right thing and stay in the Martha's Vineyard Commission and preserve our town and Martha's Vineyard for future generations," he concluded.

"I think we're at a crossroads and the town is going to decide on a path of going one way or the other. History will ultimately decide whether we took the right path or not," said Mr. Rebello. He concluded:

"For me this is kind of a culmination of everything the town has been through the last year - and my hope is that the healing process will begin the day after this election. I am prepared, as I said months ago, to accept a decision either way."