No Island Is an Island: Year 2003 in Review


Moments before seven Island teenagers set to sea this June in a 28-foot wooden vessel bound for the Hudson River, the students speculated that the journey ahead would likely be eventful. One week, 180 miles and several storms later, the novice sailors and their vessel Mabel made it to the shores of New York. Ragged yet safe, the teens agreed: The adventure had been memorable.

And so it was for the Vineyard in 2003. Setting out in January, Islanders could only guess at the impact of the 12 months ahead. The passage through the year did prove a lively one. A few were tattered from the battles, but at year's end, almost everyone had a good story or two to tell.

The News from America

Mabel's voyage from Vineyard Haven to the Hudson was only one way Islanders encountered life beyond these shores this year; it was a year that reminded us all of our deep connections with the larger world. News of America gearing for war in Iraq blared from television sets in living rooms across the Island last winter. In some Vineyard homes, word of war came as deployment orders for fathers, husbands and grown children. Some have yet to return home.

War in Iraq mobilized other Islanders to street corners in protest. They raised their objections quietly but firmly in placards, letters and speeches aimed at national leaders hundreds of miles away. Others protested the protesting, pacing Five Corners and waving patriotic signs. The dividing lines surfaced in the high school when a group of students marched out of an assembly to shout their objections to the war at passing cars on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

Shifts in other national priorities also disrupted the Vineyard's quiet life. Chilmarkers learned that plans to expand the Island's Coast Guard presence - as part of a larger national movement to bolster homeland security - will force their police out of the Menemsha substation. A raid by federal immigration officers to the Island in September shook the Island's Brazilian community, sending hundreds into hiding as officers hunted for several foreign workers who had violated deportation orders. Many in the Brazilian community still live in fear of the next immigration sweep.

The Waters Around Us

The waters within and around the Vineyard were in the news repeatedly in 2003, with events reminding Islanders just how fragile and precious our marine resources are.

When 90 per cent of the fledgling shellfish crop died in the Lagoon Pond hatchery this summer, Island attention turned to environmental problems in the pond. "I have never seen anything like this ever before," said a disheartened Rick Karney, director of the hatchery which relies on water pumped from the Lagoon. "We don't want to scare people, but really we have a huge water quality problem here."

The Vineyard's surrounding waters also suffered this summer when more than 15,000 gallons of oil leaked from a barge in Buzzard's Bay. Island shores were unaffected, but the disaster was still a wake-up call. And off the West Tisbury Road in Edgartown, a nitrate plume was found contaminating the groundwater beneath a residential neighborhood. The source of the pollutants was still undetermined at year's end.

Meanwhile, Island waters were still a playground for residents throughout the year.

Frigid winter temperatures froze the Island ponds early in the year, bringing ice skaters and boaters out to enjoy the slippery surface. Summer brought a season of sailing that included regattas and concluded with the grand parade of the Moffett Race. And this fall, hurricanes skirted the Island, delivering only giant waves which provided entertainment for beachgoers and exciting rides for surfers.

It was a stormy year for the Steamship Authority, the public agency responsible for carrying Islanders back and forth across those waters. The authority's first full year with a five-member board of governors - a new structure imposed on the agency in 2002 - brought approval in May of plans for fast-ferry service between here and New Bedford. A private firm is building a new high-speed boat this winter and hopes to begin service in the summer ahead.

Money was the main issue for the Steamship Authority in 2003 - how to balance the books with revenues down and labor costs running high. Boat line governors agreed to boost rates for rides to Nantucket and the Vineyard beginning this month, and also explored an ambitious set of new marketing initiatives, including advertising on SSA vessels.

And on top of the SSA's own rate hikes, the boat line this month begins administering a 50-cent head tax, with revenue to go to port towns.

"We don't like raising rates and we have some very big challenges going down the road and the challenges are to reduce costs," said authority CEO Fred C. Raskin, "but we are on that road."

The Course of Development

Across the Vineyard, even as the rest of the nation wrestled with a balky economy, the Island building boom continued. Construction trades flourished, supported by a burst of high-end building activity in downtown Edgartown. Already high prices, even for starter homes, continued to climb.

It also became clear in 2003 that the day is past when any development, no matter how high-minded, can count on a smooth road to approval. This summer, several Katama neighbors protested the plans of the newest Katama Farm tenants, the FARM Institute. The judge ruled for the farmers, and this educational nonprofit has now settled in for the winter and is busy spiffing up the run-down farm.

Affordable housing activists also met sometimes fierce opposition to their development projects. Plans by Bridge Housing, an ecumenical nonprofit group, for 15 duplexes in woodlands off State Road in Tisbury remained hung up in court at year's end. The Jenney Lane project, a cluster of new homes planned for an Edgartown neighborhood, slogged through commission review this year and now awaits review by the town planning board. Some neighbors complain the new homes will overburden their residential streets.

But as in the two years before, the heavyweight bout on the Vineyard development front in 2003 continued to be between Corey Kupersmith, Connecticut owner of 270 acres in the southern woodlands in Oak Bluffs, and the Martha's Vineyard Commission. The regional agency, which had three times rejected plans for a luxury golf club, most recently in October of 2002, found itself faced early last year with a well-funded campaign to pull Oak Bluffs out of the commission.

Several Oak Bluffs selectmen openly backed the pull-out campaign, but in May, townspeople voted 1,031 to 933 to remain in the commission. "I am clearly disappointed, but as chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen it is now time to reunite this community," said Richard Combra.

Quiet talks were held last summer exploring a possible public purchase of the woodlands property, but at year's end, the owners were suing the Martha's Vineyard Commission on a variety of fronts, meanwhile felling trees on the property and threatening to denude the woodlands entirely. "When we are done the property will be returned to its 1938 post-hurricane condition when there wasn't a single tree on the site," said Brian Lafferty, the Bolton developer who is Mr. Kupersmith's associate. On Dec. 18, the commissioners agreed that the tree-cutting plan qualifies as a development of regional impact and is also subject to MVC review.

On the far end of the Island, a disagreement over a much smaller project - the building of a tiny utility shed beside the Wampanoag tribe's new shellfish hatchery - continued to play out with potentially vast consequences. The question of zoning jurisdiction became tied up with the federal issue of tribal sovereignty, and in June a state judge ruled that the Wampanoag tribe cannot be sued because it is sovereign, despite its previous promises to be subject to local land use regulations. The selectmen of Aquinnah voted in December not to challenge that court ruling, but an appeal is under way. At year's end the state attorney general joined in that appeal, arguing to uphold the 1983 settlement under which the tribe agreed to abide by town zoning rules.

The case of the little zoning shed is ultimately expected to go all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Battle Lines

Discord found its way into the halls of town government as well as private workplaces this year. Bosses and employees could not seem to get along, and the disagreements were both public and personal.

No place was this drama more fierce than at Martha's Vineyard Community Services, the Island's largest health and human services agency. After more than a year of negotiating on an initial contract, mental health counselors and managers could not agree on fair wages. The impasse even cast a shadow over the agency's celebrity fundraiser after singer/songwriter Carly Simon threw her support behind the counselors. The standoff stretched into the fall as the counselors threatened to strike. A contract has still not been signed, but at year's end, managers and employees were talking behind closed doors. And more than a hundred nonmanagerial workers at Community Services received a holiday gift - a bonus of just over $100, thanks to a donation from Ms. Simon and Edgartown author Norman Bridwell.

School leaders fell under scrutiny this year after culinary arts teacher Peter Koines admitted to stealing school supplies and equipment from the school as well as pocketing payments for the program's catering services. The saga at first concerned missing pie filling and appliances, but the community debate inevitably broadened to issues of trust and accountability. The community demanded explanation and accounting from superintendent Kriner Cash; school leaders begged the community for closure. At year's end, the state had been called in to assist with a review of school accounting practices.

Around the Island

At the outer edges of the Island, 2003 was the year of bridges. The big and little bridges on Beach Road need replacement, according to the state highway department. And the Lagoon Pond drawbridge, shakiest of them all, will not last until a permanent replacement can be designed and built. State officials are discussing plans for a temporary bridge.

More growth means more planning and new infrastructure, and the Island stepped up to the challenge this year. Sewering continues in Tisbury. The Chilmark landfill is filling up, and the regional refuse district is figuring out how to deal with all the construction material that must now be shipped off-Island. The Chilmark library is complete, and Oak Bluffs has one on the drawing board. Edgartown's new school is complete, but in West Tisbury, voters twice rejected moves to rebuild the town hall. The Steamship Authority is shopping for a new boat and discussing a new terminal facility in Oak Bluffs.

The Island managed to solve a few long-standing problems this year. After an epidemic of fender-benders, the blinker light at Barnes Road became a four-way stop. Who would have thought the answer was so simple? Hallgate finally got cleaned up, concluding a three-year effort to rid the Edgartown property of junk cars. The Winnetu Inn and Resort reached a compromise with neighbors: Wedding parties will stay inside. And for the Island's corps of young skateboarders, the years of being hounded from one parking lot to another ended triumphantly with the opening of a new skatepark next to the ice arena.

As it does every year, this community celebrated anniversaries, retirements, new beginnings, and victories and loss on the playing fields. In 2003, radio station WMVY turned 20, and Camp Jabberwocky turned 50. District clerk magistrate Tommy Teller stepped down after four decades of service. Edgartown highway superintendent Larry Mercier passed the torch as did Patricia Nanon, founder of The Yard. The Rev. Arlene Bodge retired as a United Methodist minister, and Leslie Leland gave up his Vineyard Haven pharmacy. Art Buchwald handed in his gavel as head auctioneer of the Possible Dreams Auction. And on a sun-splashed chilly Saturday, the Vineyard football team triumphed over Nantucket - and then went on to win a weather-delayed state championship, our first since 1999.

The Hebrew Center got its first full-time rabbi, Caryn Beth Broitman. For the first time, Island residents could watch meetings of the Martha's Vineyard Commission and the high school committee from their living rooms, thanks to the startup of cable station MVTV. Oak Bluffs got its first historic district, protecting some 300 homes in the town's Copeland district. The Tisbury Inn, now the Mansion House, again stands at the foot of Tisbury's Main street.

The year also saw the passing of some of the Vineyard's most beloved citizens. The Island lost outdoorsman and conservationist Ed Tyra, philanthropists Tony and Anne Fisher, activist Marguerite Bergstrom, educator Helen Maley, artist Stanley Murphy, Wampanoag chief Donald F. Malonson, farmer Ann Bonner Hopkins and retired police chief George Manter.

Just in case Islanders think 2003 brought more heartache than triumph, remember names like Annie Finnerty, Dylan Rice, Gail Croft and Scott Sanfilippo. Young Miss Finnerty reeled in a 40-pound striped bass during the derby this year. Eleven-year-old Mr. Rice's message in a bottle floated all the way to Spain. Ms. Croft turned her lunch money into a $1 million lottery prize, and that lucky streak pushed on to the end of the year, with Mr. Sanfilippo becoming the second million-dollar Island lottery winner just last Saturday.