As a general contractor based on Chappaquiddick, Richard S. Knight Jr. recognizes that the Vineyard will inevitably reach a point where all the land is accounted for and there is no more room to build.
"We're an Island, and there's only a finite amount of land left, so eventually we'll hit buildout," Mr. Knight said. "Sooner or later, it's going to come. And I think we're coming down to the end of it."
By the latest count, roughly 15,000 acres - or a quarter of the Vineyard - is still available for development. But Mr. Knight, 60, who goes by Dick, believes that a certain percentage of that land should be preserved as open space and put into conservation.
He is concerned that by further extending municipal sewer and water service, Island towns might artificially push the Vineyard beyond its natural limits.
"I wonder whether we're exceeding what the land can absorb," Mr. Knight said this week, after a walk along trails through a large piece of property that his family has protected so it cannot be developed. "We need to listen to what the land is telling us; we need to let the land determine what's right," he continued.
"There are limits, we just have to recognize them."
Determining that limit - and quantifying how much is too much - will be one of the goals of the Martha's Vineyard Commission in its ambitious Island Plan, which will attempt to draft a comprehensive blueprint for the future of the Vineyard based on feedback from the community. Familiar with such blueprints, Mr. Knight this week applauded the commission for undertaking the job, but warned that the hardest work was still to come.
As one of the people involved with planning on Chappaquiddick, he found that, after listening to the public and pulling together their comments, the real difficulty came in trying to find a middle ground and consensus, and then, beyond that, in actually finding a way to proceed and enact change.
He cited the ongoing, decades-long debate about whether to build a bicycle path on Chappquiddick, as well as the attempt to create an islandwide district of critical planning concern (DCPC). Edgartown voters in 2002 rejected the proposed Chappaquiddick DCPC regulations, and today much of the planning work involved in that process is gathering dust.
"We're still recovering from that. It tore the community apart, and we've been healing ever since," Mr. Knight said of the proposed DCPC. "All that planning is sort of on the back burner now. It's like a hot potato; no one wants to touch it."
Though he grew up in Boston and moved around throughout his childhood, Mr. Knight is very much a man from the small island off the eastern end of Edgartown. His family traces its ties on Chappaquiddick back to the 1920s, when his grandparents first came as summer residents, and almost 25 years ago his daughter, Gabrielle, was born in the early morning hours on the Chappy ferry, an unplanned event.
Mr. Knight said that he and his five siblings always considered Chappaquiddick home, and four of them now live along the edges of the 45-acre Cape Pogue Bay property that their father, an Episcopal minister, bought in 1960.
Since moving there full time with his wife Daryl 35 years ago, Mr. Knight has been deeply involved in Chappaquiddick affairs, as well as other town and regional boards. He spent 10 years as the elected Edgartown representative on the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank commission, has logged 30 years and counting on the town zoning board of appeals, and another 25 years on the volunteer fire department. He is currently the captain of the Chappy fire truck.
But Mr. Knight quickly and gracefully diverts the attention away from himself, and says instead that he has benefited from and been heavily influenced by the many friendships he has forged in his different roles on the Island over the years, either through his civic work, or on the job site with co-workers and clients.
Walking along a trail and wearing a collared denim shirt, he comes to a stop to admire the view out over the bay to Cape Pogue, and Nantucket Sound beyond. It is a site, he points out, where the land bank purchased an existing home and took it down to restore the historic view. From the property, on a clear day, he can see the meteorological test tower put up by Cape Wind Associates for their proposed offshore wind farm on Horseshoe Shoal.
"I'm all for it," Mr. Knight said, bluntly, about the renewable energy project that has generated a great deal of controversy around the region. "I see no reason not to do it. We have to do something. We're a day late and a dollar short on that one."
Every community should be looking to produce its own energy, he said, at one point during the walk identifying an old Native American peet bog, which the Chappaquiddick Wampanoags harvested as one of their primary energy sources.
Mr. Knight said he tries to make green choices in his own construction projects, but acknowledged that it is difficult when the energy efficient products are both more costly and of lesser quality than the other options. He also believes that changes in energy use will come more from education and incentives, rather than regulation.
"You can do more with a carrot than with a stick," he said.
He describes himself as a supporter of free enterprise, and said he is less than enthusiastic about the current approach toward affordable housing on the Vineyard.
"We are using government to artificially subsidize a whole group of people, and I'm not sure that's the best thing to do," he said.
He worries that the current housing initiatives will create second-class citizens on the Vineyard. He tried to urge his son, Benjamin, to apply for a youth lot, but Benjamin, now 28 and a carpenter in Vermont, said he was not interested because of all the limits that would have been placed on the property.
"It's social engineering, but I don't think we're smart enough to do that," Mr. Knight said. "I don't know another way to do it yet, so I'm still in favor. But I'm hoping we can come up with something better."
Mr. Knight acknowledged a growing divide between the working young people, who are trying to make a living on the Island, and the wealthier seasonal residents, who pay the lion's share of the tax base and donate millions of dollars each year to Island nonprofits. He said he often sees such struggles play out before the zoning board, where, as a member, he is currently named in a lawsuit filed by some of his Chappquiddick neighbors who are trying to prevent three young families from building homes on their affordable one-acre lots.
"Affordable housing always has to be in someone's backyard," Mr. Knight said. "I run into this frequently in the many different parts of my life - but the answers elude me."
Mr. Knight first started building the house in which he lives today at the age of 16, and after adding onto what began as an A-frame, in 1983 he built a Cape Cod style house over most of it.
When he and his partner started their construction company on Chappaquiddick, almost all of their projects involved the building of new homes. Now, as they get closer to buildout on the island, their work is nearly exclusively tear-downs and renovations. Because the construction trade has become such a big piece of the Vineyard economy, he expects that trend will likewise play out across the rest of the Island as it runs out of developable vacant land.
Many people consider Chappaquiddick a microcosm of the rest of the Vineyard, but Mr. Knight cautions against such a simplistic interpretation. He noted that each of the six individual towns on the Island are incredibly unique, which is something he thinks the commission must embrace as it tries to develop a plan for the entire Island.
"We have to have a regional plan, because we are on one Island and the resources are common to us all," Mr. Knight said. "But each Island town is also its own community with its own character, and we have to be careful that we really respect that."
The commission also cannot forget about the struggling Vineyard residents while worrying about the environment.
"There's the land, and then there's the people," Mr. Knight said, looking toward the future through his circular glasses. "The land bank and other conservation groups have done a remarkable job protecting the land and looking after it. But the other part is the people - and that's a much harder thing to get a hold of."