The West Tisbury conservation commission must now act as judge and jury for a key town leader - sorting through selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter's request to permit four docks in Tisbury Great Pond that he has been using for years.
The verdict must come down within three weeks, and the conservation commission - a board appointed by selectmen - isn't quite sure how to sort through the mess.
Here's what they know:
Mr. Manter broke the rules when he installed more than 400 linear feet of floating dock off family land without first securing a permit. Somebody complained. Mr. Manter applied to his own board of selectmen - they act as harbor masters in the harbor-free town of West Tisbury - for permission to use his unlicensed docks. In early February, while Mr. Manter abstained, his fellow selectmen, John Early and Glenn Hearn, signed off on the seasonal docks.
That's when Judy Crawford's phone started ringing. Ms. Crawford, chairman of the town conservation commission, began hearing from town residents who saw the selectmen's meetings on MVTV. The selectmen's action, it was discovered, ignored an eight-year-old town policy (made official in a memo stashed away in a town hall filing cabinet) which says the commission gets first swing at such dock requests; the selectmen and harbor masters come later.
No one says the selectmen intentionally reviewed the docks out of order. They chalk it up to the new executive secretary not yet knowing all of the less-formal town hall policies. One week later, selectmen rescinded their vote, and sent the issue to the conservation commission.
The conservation commission review has not gone smoothly.
For more than an hour Tuesday evening, Glenn Provost, Mr. Manter's agent, stonewalled commission questions. Mr. Manter stayed home, to avoid further awkwardness.
"I've steered as clear as possible of the whole process, and I can't do much more than that," Mr. Manter said yesterday. He deferred all other questions to Mr. Provost.
It is not just a thorny question of procedure; commission members also find themselves knee-deep in a family feud.
Skipper Manter's brother Whit, who lives on the furthest point of the pond, complained about the docks, a quarter-mile of clearcutting along the pond's edge and dead spots on the neck's tip caused by dock storage. Neighbors joined the chorus of complaints, describing Muddy Cove as a "little marina" each summer.
By the end of Tuesday night - their second hearing on the subject - commissioners had learned from Mr. Provost little more than that "each seasonal floating pier is located on a separate lot of land and services the owners, tenants, friends and guests of that property. The number of boats tied up at any one time is variable depending on how the property is being occupied."
Mr. Provost stressed he'd be offering no more information, and commissioners pressed.
"Do you believe it's not possible for your client to estimate the number of boats that will be here?," asked commissioner Patrick Phear. "We'd be opening a wedge. An open-ended commitment to whatever you want is a lot to ask - particularly given that I don't think we have to do that."
Neighbors and commissioners admitted Mr. Manter's docks - one of which he says has been there for two decades - are head-scratchers. Every year, neighbors say, he adds more appendages to the docks, and neighbors find themselves rowing around them to get out to the pond. But as each year passes, neighbors don't see more boats.
"That's what I find so mystifying. The docks are increasing at an alarming rate, but the boats aren't. I don't understand what's on Skipper's mind. Is there a secret plan we don't know about?" asked Carly Look, who lives across Muddy Cove. Commissioners and neighbors then joked about Mr. Manter hiding submarines in the cove.
But Mr. Hearn, fellow selectman and also a property owner on Town Cove, said at the Tuesday hearing that if the docks get bigger but boats didn't multiply, the commission should take that as a sign that too many boats won't be a problem. Mr. Hearn said yesterday that he attended the hearing as a private citizen who wants to apply for his own dock soon.
Commissioners discussed handing the whole thing over to the Martha's Vineyard Commission as a development of regional impact.
"We are not going to get any more information. What we're left with is to condition the hell out of it. I'd love to pass it along," said commissioner Prudy Burt.
Conservation commission members know that as soon as they rule on the issue and pass the application over to the harbor masters, the town faces another ethical dilemma.
Mr. Manter obviously can't vote. Mr. Hearn, because of his riparian owner status and participation in the commission's review, might need to sit it out as well. That leaves Mr. Early - and the board without a quorum.