Fed-up with petty internal politics, Dukes County voters this fall decided to take another look at the structure of their regional government. Hoping to prevent another divisive land use dispute, town and tribal leaders in Aquinnah spent months negotiating a potential peace accord. And with a solid financial footing, Martha's Vineyard Hospital trustees closed the year by securing approval for a new state-of-the-art facility and signing an affiliation agreement with the largest hospital group in the state.
These were among the top stories on Martha's Vineyard in 2006.
And looking back over the last 12 months, it was in many ways a typical year on the Island - filled with its fair share of conflict, goodwill and eccentric tales.
The year 2006 also brought with it a sense of balance - of firsts and lasts, arrivals and departures, like ferries passing each other in Vineyard Sound.
The Steamship Authority this summer launched the Island Home, a new vessel which is set to begin the Vineyard route sometime next month. But the year also marked the official end of the Nobska, which served the Island faithfully from 1925 to 1973 before its demolition in June as the last coastal steamer in America.
One longtime seasonal resident refused to say goodbye in 2006. Syndicated humor columnist Art Buchwald, 80, entered a Washington D.C. hospice in February, turning down dialysis treatment for his kidney. He was expected to live only a few weeks, but five months later came back to his Vineyard Haven home for the entire summer, presiding over the Possible Dreams Auction in August and writing a book about his hospice experience that was published this fall. Meanwhile, after years of failing health, his close friend and fellow writer's row denizen William Styron died on the Island in November at the age of 81.
But the year began on a lighter note. In late January, a pair of missing goats named Jekyll and Hyde broke into a Chilmark summer home and held a weeklong winter bacchanalia, knocking over furniture, destroying carpeting and ransacking drawers in the kitchen and office. "The destruction is unimaginable, Chilmark police chief Timothy Rich said after the incident. "I picture it as a beer party that went bad."
It was a subtle reminder that animals and insects make their homes here on the Island as well, and the incident was followed by a sticky spring, with the third consecutive year of winter moth caterpillar infestations munching their way across the Vineyard.
The Island real estate market started with a bang in 2006, as two hilltop Edgartown harborfront homes sold for record-breaking prices in the first two months. But aside from a few seven-figure sales sprinkled across the Vineyard, the market clearly stalled this year, with inventory flooding and the number of transactions dropping. But even at the bottom of the market prices remained out of reach for many Island residents.
Despite lobbying efforts by Vineyard housing advocates, the Massachusetts state legislature this summer turned down proposed legislation to tax some Island real estate transactions to fund affordable housing initiatives. The so-called housing bank bill sparked debate in both chambers, and was approved by the senate before it was killed by the house of representatives.
The town of Edgartown this summer broke ground on its 60-unit Pennywise Path development, the largest affordable housing project on the Vineyard to date. But while efforts continued to provide for lower income residents, some Island leaders expressed heightened concerns about a growing class divide. The Martha's Vineyard Commission in July reluctantly approved an exclusive members-only recreational facility in Katama, sparking an emotional discussion about changing values on the Vineyard.
"I just see this as one in a string of things - some of which have happened, but many more of which are going to happen - that are going to change the character of this Island considerably," said one commission member who voted against the proposal.
It was a recurring theme at the regional planning agency in 2006, even though the land use battles that typically engulf the Island were largely absent this year. Two of the biggest votes came within a week of each other in September, when the commission declined to review the first so-called trophy house to come before it, and also chose not to designate a small residential neighborhood in Edgartown as a district of critical planning concern.
In both instances, commission members expressed concern about the trend of out-of-scale homes cropping up across the Vineyard, but said the issue should be addressed as part of a larger planning effort. Perhaps with an eye toward such trends, the commission this year also launched the public phase of its ambitious Island Plan, hoping to chart a course for the future of the Vineyard.
Enrollment in Island schools dropped for the sixth consecutive year, and a years-long debate about the fairness of the cost allocation formula for the Up-Island Regional School District spilled over to the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School District when state education officials announced plans this fall to enforce a state law about how regional school budgets are divided among towns. Meanwhile, the Edgartown School found a new administrator to replace their longtime principal last spring, only to watch the him resign by the end of the year to take a superintendency elsewhere in the state.
The state's highest court this spring ruled on two environmental cases from the Island. In a decision that could help secure the fate of dozens of historic parks throughout Oak Bluffs, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in April blocked development on three wooded lots behind Crystal Lake. Two months later, the court found that the Edgartown wastewater treatment facility is part of the solution - and not the problem - to water quality pollution in Edgartown Great Pond, capping a ten-year legal battle over the plant.
The most closely watched legal decision of the year came soon after, when the Massachussetts Appellate Tax Board handed a key victory to West Tisbury assessors in a high-profile property tax appeal that attracted attention across the commonwealth. Though findings of fact have yet to be released, the tax board in its decision lowered the $51 million assessment of 235 acres owned by William W. Graham off Lambert's Cove Road by only $520,000 - a decrease of roughly one per cent. Mr. Graham has vowed to appeal the decision in a higher court in the coming year.
The case caused political ramifications on both the state and local levels. The presiding tax board chairman was forced out of her job after ruling on the Graham decision, and the longtime board of assessors chairman was nearly ousted in the annual town election this spring, holding onto his seat by only ten votes in a three-way race.
After a relatively quiet year in 2005, town politics in Oak Bluffs this year returned to center stage. The state ethics commission in November fined a former zoning board member for violating the conflict of interest law, and the former town administrator reportedly resigned in May - with her position filled by a former selectman. Months later, however, selectmen revealed that, at her request, they had actually fired the town administrator to trigger a clause in her contract that paid her more than $76,000 in salary and benefits. The ordeal also raised questions about the large number of personal service contracts in Oak Bluffs, negotiated largely by the former town administrator, which rewarded officials with additional perks and a higher level of pay than other municipal employees.
The questions mirrored a parallel discussion in Tisbury, where selectmen launched an investigation into lucrative multi-year contracts for officials who supervise the Tisbury Water Works and Oak Bluffs Water District systems. A town attorney this summer said that the Tisbury water department had no legal authority to operate as a financially independent entity, casting a cloud over practices it had used for half a century.
A beacon returned to Main street in Vineyard Haven this fall, when the Capawock Theatre succumbed to pressure from the downtown business community and reopened after a two-year hiatus. And while a town-appointed committee in Tisbury explored a longstanding desire to allow beer and wine sales in town restaurants, a surprise ballot initiative in Aquinnah this fall fell only two votes shy of making the smallest Vineyard town wet.
Heavy and frequent rains made for a difficult growing season for Island farmers. But interest in local small-scale agriculture bloomed across the nation this year, reflected here on the Vineyard with the launching of Island Grown Initiative and the popularity of the Community Supported Agriculture program offered by Whippoorwill Farm.
Fishermen had to work harder than usual to find their catch this year, though two Vineyard anglers who knew where to look walked home with the top prizes in the 61st annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Despite ongoing dissent and an aggressive campaign by the Humane Society of the United States, the 2006 Boston Big Game Fishing Club Monster Shark tournament was held as planned in Oak Bluffs with little conflict.
Controversy continued over the proposed wind farm in Nantucket Sound, and Cape Wind developers survived a death threat on Capitol Hill this spring after a legislative maneuver targeted to kill the project collapsed under political pressure. With climate change in the news and renewable energy policies gaining traction in 2006, the project also picked up momentum when Cape Wind supporter Deval Patrick was swept into the governor's office in a historic election this fall. Off the northwestern shore of the Island, the year also brought a formal application for a proposed underwater tidal energy project in Vineyard Sound.
In another Vineyard story that garnered national attention, a Chilmark resident was sentenced to three and a half years in federal prison after admitting to stealing almost 100 rare maps from educational organizations such as the New York Public Library and Yale University.
Three Island institutions dominated headlines this calendar year - Dukes County government, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), and the Martha's Vineyard Hospital.
County commission members began the year in another public spat with its appointed airport commission, as three airport commission members resigned and two more had their appointments rescinded in January. Relations between the two boards broke down on the issue that bedeviled them for years: employment terms for airport managers, and by extension the ultimate control of the airport.
A six-year lawsuit over the airport dispute came to an end, at a total cost of more than $600,000 to county taxpayers. Unhappiness with the seemingly unnecessary lawsuit culminated in an election this fall that served as a referendum on county government. Almost three-fourths of Dukes County voters supported an initiative that will create a charter study commission to analyze the present structure of county government and make recommendations for improvement. The study is set to get underway next month, and a final report is due May 2008.
Also in the fall election, two outspoken critics of current county leadership were the top vote-getters among a crowded field vying for four spots on the county commission. But expressing a measured mandate for change, voters also returned two incumbents to the regional governing board. Reelected to a third four-year term on the commission, incumbent Leslie Leland seemed to take the ballot results to heart. "We have to stop playing some of these games that go on," he said.
Town and tribal leaders in Aquinnah also tried to put their past disputes behind them, and spent the year brokering a potential peace accord for land use. After a costly battle over a small shed and pier near the tribal shellfish hatchery on Menemsha Pond, the two governments hope to prevent future lawsuits by crafting an agreement with a parallel permitting process for projects on tribal lands.
An early version of the agreement, drafted by town and tribal attorneys, became public at the beginning of the calendar year, and government leaders then negotiated the details during an unprecedented series of public summit meetings. But when the document came up for a vote at an August town meeting, some tribal members said they needed more time to consider its consequences, and Aquinnah voters - split largely along tribal and non-tribal lines - decided to table the issue.
The tribal council is set to make a final decision on the proposal next week. Tribal council chairman Donald Widdiss foretold the length and significance of the agreement one year ago.
"We'll take as long as we need to. If anything, this is a time to be patient," Mr. Widdiss said after the early draft was released. "From the tribe's perspective this will be a major intergovernmental agreement that must withstand the test of time. So it will take a lot of time."
Of all the events on the Island, 2006 will likely be remembered as a landmark year for the Martha's Vineyard Hospital.
After months of pre-planning and preparation, the Martha's Vineyard Commission in December approved the $42 million renovation and expansion project to replace the ailing 1972 hospital complex. Only weeks later, hospital trustees inked an affiliation agreement with the parent company to Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the top medical centers in the country.
The two long-term goals were achieved only a decade after a financial crisis forced the Vineyard hospital into bankruptcy. And driven by an increase in primary care physicians, the hospital profited financially in 2006 and closed in on the end of its historic fundraising drive to pay for the renovation with private donations.
"I cannot think of any better way that you could assure the future of the hospital," chief executive officer Timothy Walsh said when the agreement was announced in October.
And as the Island turns the last page on 2006, the words of Mr. Buchwald, whose lease on life was a lesson on embracing each day with dignity and good humor, echo in the ears.
"Instead of going to heaven I went to Martha's Vineyard," Mr. Buchwald wrote in an October column. "This was a wonderful way to end an adventure."