After less than 30 minutes of deliberation, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission last night unanimously and decisively agreed to add five Edgartown pathways dating back to colonial times into a special protection zone that will prevent them from being clear cut or widened in the future.
In voting 11-0 to amend the boundaries of the Island Roads District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC) to include the five paths, commissioners described the ways as vital links to the Island’s past and valuable recreational resources for residents today. Commissioner James Athearn of Edgartown recounted memories of enjoying similar ancient ways in West Tisbury when he was a young boy.
"On Sunday afternoons my father would take us out on these paths and we would try and find a path he took when he was a boy that took him to Menemsha. When I moved to Edgartown and started to enjoy these paths, I realized these were distinctly important to the Island’s character," Mr. Athearn said. Commissioner Christina Brown of Edgartown recalled walking the paths with Island farmer Elisha Smith, who told her that when he was a young boy his father would send him out on the paths with a milk cart so he could reach town as quickly as possible.
"[Mr. Smith] said you could walk along these paths and look down on Sengekontacket Pond and get a sense of the whole Island . . . these old paths are irreplaceable; once they are gone they are gone forever," she said. Portions of Ben Tom’s Road, Pennywise Path, Middle Line Path, Tar Kiln Road and Watcha Path will be added to the special protection district, which falls under the regulatory umbrella of the commission’s Island Roads DCPC, established in 1975.
The Edgartown planning board and the town byways committee will now work to come up with a set of regulations for maintaining and managing the old byways. The regulations will come before voters at the annual town meeting.
The five ancient ways date back to the 1600s and 1700s, and are believed to have been used as cart paths of that era. Historians believe many of the ancient ways were traced over paths previously established by the native Wampanoags.
Middle Line Path and Pennywise Path were both used to define early property lines, and Tar Kiln Road is a reminder of the Island’s nautical past, named for the colonial industry of extracting pitch from pitch pines for use in waterproofing the hulls of ships.
In recent years, some of the paths have become dumping grounds for debris, abandoned automobiles and old appliances. Protection efforts were stepped up early this summer after the Hall family began cutting down trees and widening several paths in order to create access to property the family owns. In June, the planning board asked the commission to consider the five roads for inclusion in the Island Roads district.
In August the commission unanimously agreed to nominate the paths as a DCPC, triggering an immediate temporary moratorium on all development around the five byways.
Benjamin Hall Jr., also an Edgartown attorney, has argued that the designation of the paths violates his family’s property rights. Late last week work crews hired by the Hall family again caused a stir when they began to cut down trees along Middle Line Road, despite the temporary moratorium.
Commissioners last night did not mention the tree cutting controversy - or the Hall family at all - but they did dispute some of the arguments made by Mr. Hall in recent weeks about his family’s property rights.
Chairman Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark said he does not believe placing the paths in a protection zone infringes on property rights. He said the town can designate an ancient way as either a vehicular road, a walking path or a bike path.
Commissioner Linda Sibley of West Tisbury agreed.
"This does not grant additional rights of public access that don’t already exist, it simply allows for the creation of regulations to protect them . . . . if people say this is a violation of their property rights, it ain’t true, it’s a scare tactic," she said.
Commissioners Chris Murphy of Chilmark and Richard Toole of Oak Bluffs had some reservations about the plan, but acknowledged the need to protect the old paths.
"I worry sometimes we are too heavy handed in our approach," Mr. Murphy said. "But I think about the problem and it is hard for to think of another way to solve it."
After the meeting, several residents and town officials called the vote a first step in a larger effort to protect as many as 25 ancient ways in Edgartown.
"We’ve already lost a lot of these paths to development," said William (Boo) Bassett, chairman of the Edgartown byways committee. "People talk about these paths and how they are hundreds of years old — when many of them were probably used by the Wampanoag tribe and are actually thousands of years old. They were here before the [colonial] settlers, and they should be here forever."
But Mr. Hall, who arrived at the meeting just after the vote, said the commission had rushed to judgment and had opened itself to legal challenge. "This was not a well thought-out plan. It was a product of political pressures and personal agendas, and I think the commission has really stepped in it," he said.