The early framers were the Thomas Jeffersons of the Vineyard - visionaries and idealists ahead of their time. They looked down the road, saw trouble and took action, with an eye toward a regional solution.

The result was the Martha's Vineyard Commission, a regulatory commission considered unique in American government, both then and now.

The commission marks its 30th anniversary tonight with a dinner at the agricultural hall in West Tisbury. The legislation creating the Martha's Vineyard Land and Water Commission was signed into law by Gov. Francis Sargent on July 27, 1974. The first election for the nine at-large members of the 21-member commission was held on Nov. 5, 1974. There were 42 candidates for nine seats.

Vested with unusual powers to both plan and control development on the Island, the commission still stands as one of the most distinctive land use agencies of its time. It has endured the sharp agony of controversy and the trying weight of apathy. It has been broken apart and made whole again. It has been tested in court more than once.

The beginnings of the commission reach back more than 30 years, to the old Dukes County Planning and Economic Development Commission, the Metcalf and Eddy Report and to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's Nantucket Sound Islands Trust bill.

"This is the time for us to do something about planning and stop living by crisis," declared the late Anne Hale in 1969, soon after she was named interim director for the county planning commission.

Mrs. Hale's commission did a survey and learned that 90 per cent of respondents felt the Island was in clear jeopardy from development. The survey led to the Metcalf and Eddy Report, a conceptual planning scheme for the Vineyard which outlined a choice between "a well-ordered program of preventive and prescriptive medicine or environmental terminal cancer."

The report was controversial and rejected in more than one quarter - but in fact its predictions proved accurate, and the maps that accompanied the report would later become a blueprint for zoning. The Metcalf and Eddy Report would also in the end become a cornerstone for the MVC legislation.

But first there was the Kennedy bill.

In April of 1972 Senator Kennedy authored an unprecedented proposal for federal legislation to protect the two Islands. The debate grew to a fever pitch overnight.

"All the Kennedy bill does is take away people's rights to their property without compensating them," said Robert J. Carroll, a prominent business and political figure in Edgartown.

On the other side stood Henry Beetle Hough, the late editor of the Vineyard Gazette.

"No word has been said against the purpose of the bill. We can recognize in it the common purpose in us all. Every Vineyarder knows in his heart that the Island is in deep trouble that will not go away. We have kept our heritage intact for more than 300 years, but a new era has closed in about us and we must act. More than the preservation of scenery is at stake. Our tax structure, our basic economy, our customary pursuits, our quality of life, are all in hazard," the country editor wrote.

Debate over the Kennedy bill stretched on for years, but by August of 1973 talk began to center on a state bill, crafted by Governor Sargent and eventually embraced as a compromise. In July of 1974 the Sargent bill was enacted as Chapter 637 - a special act to protect the land and waters of Martha's Vineyard.

Meanwhile, developers had already begun to carve the Vineyard into grid-style suburban communities. Two prominent ones were the Chira development on Lake Tashmoo in Vineyard Haven and the Strock family plan for hundreds of houses on the land which is today Farm Neck.

The Strock proposal, called Island Properties, would be the first legal test for the commission.

There was uncertainty as the first commission felt its way, and much skepticism, especially from the down-Island towns.

Tisbury flinched at the one-year building moratorium which went into effect as the commission developed goals and priorities. Edgartown railed against the districts of critical planning concern, special overlay planning districts for environmentally sensitive areas. Oak Bluffs refused to adopt them.

"Whatever else it has accomplished in its first two years, the Martha's Vineyard Commission, anyone can see, has nourished its critics," the Vineyard Gazette mused in an editorial in 1976.

The controversy eventually led to a series of amendments to the commission legislation.

In 1977 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its landmark decision on Island Properties, upholding the broad powers of the commission. Specifically, the decision found that the commission act trumped the grandfathering provisions under Chapter 40A, the state planning and zoning act. The Strock development must be reviewed by the commission, the high court found, even though the plan was filed before the commission was formed.

It was an important victory, but more rough road lay ahead.

In 1978, Edgartown voted to withdraw from the commission. Two years later Tisbury followed suit after a controversial decision over Steamship Authority plans to build a second slip in Vineyard Haven.

Six years later the two towns had returned to the fold and the commission was whole again.

The mid 1980s marked the heavy development years and on the Vineyard developments of regional impact became a household word. Commission meetings ran late every week, and developments like Katama Farm, Nevin Square and MVY Realty Trust dominated the news.

Plenty of developments won approval, including Nat's Farm in West Tisbury, Pilot Hill Farm in Vineyard Haven and Boldwater in Edgartown.

By the late 1980s the white-hot development years had faded and planning again occupied center stage, as the commission announced the first comprehensive master plan for the Vineyard.

In the early 1990s the commission confronted a new challenge: high-end developments funded by developers with deep pockets who were willing to test the commission's authority - and its shoestring budget - in court.

The David and Goliath battle over Herring Creek Farm went on for 10 years, and more recently the battle over the southern woodlands went on for another four years.

Both projects ended in a limited development compromise: part conservation, part housing.

"Regional is all about consensus. You have to give a little to get a lot," said longtime commission executive director Charles W. Clifford in a 1999 interview with the Gazette.

The big battles left scars; the southern woodlands debate tore the town of Oak Bluffs down the middle and a heated campaign to have the town pull out of the commission failed in a historic special election in May of 2003.

Today the commission is experiencing a new phase of quiet. There are no large subdivision plans on the horizon, but commission leaders say the challenges are no less than they were 30 years ago.

"The challenge still is how do we keep the place nice without wrecking it and overbuilding - unfortunately the laws of economics have done a lot more to determine what has happened on the Island through incremental development," said commission chairman James Athearn, an Island farmer who was reelected to a two-year term this week.

His message was not all gloomy.

"One of the things the commission has accomplished for the Island is what you don't see - the developments that didn't get built, whether because the commission turned them down or because a developer decided not to try it knowing the hurdles that he would have to jump through," he said, concluding:

"But we can't be complacent - I'd like to see us scour the country for innovative regulations and start trying some stuff and never listen to the voices who say, ‘you can't.' "

Commission executive director Mark London had a similar sentiment.

"Most of the Vineyard has already been settled, the pattern has been set, many subdivisions have taken place for much of the Vineyard, so one would think the work of the commission is largely done," Mr. London said. "But the remaining areas are subject to even greater pressure than those areas developed for the last 30 years. And as more and more parts of America get developed, these places that have managed to preserve their character and environment are even more prized. So the pressure is going to be there.

"And then there is the community issue - it's not only the physical character and the environment, it's getting a vital and varied community. The challenges of affordable housing and having a balanced and sustainable economy are equally important." He concluded:

"People sometimes think it's conservation versus development and they think that because the Vineyard has done a lot of conservation, that this has somehow stymied or blocked development, when in fact Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket have grown far faster than anywhere else in Massachusetts. It shows that it's not a matter of freezing things the way they are, but it's also not a matter of giving up being vigilant about the character and the environment of the Vineyard. The challenge is to do both."