Cases in Point

The recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision in an esoteric Norwell case — a case that relied heavily on an earlier Edgartown ruling — offers a reminder that the Vineyard has generated a good deal of solid case law over the last thirty years, especially in the area of land use.

There are a number of striking examples. The Island Properties case, known commonly as the Strock case, challenged the powers of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to supersede grandfathering with its district of critical planning concern rules. Argued in the nineteen seventies, Island Properties was a landmark decision and the first judicial test to uphold commission’s unique regulatory powers.

Some twenty years later the three-acre zoning case was a central chapter in Edgartown’s epic battle against the former owners of Herring Creek Farm and another landmark decision. In that case both the state land court and the commonwealth’s highest court agreed that three-acre zoning was essential to protect the fragile environment in the rural coastal perimeters of Edgartown.

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s right to review housing developments under Chapter 40B, the state law that allows affordable housing developments to skirt most local zoning laws, was argued during a period five years ago when an unscrupulous golf course developer tried without success to make an end run around the commission and undermine its powers.

The case turned on an arcane point — the definition of a local board — and here again, the courts sided with the Vineyard commission, finding that its unique powers trumped state law.

Most recently there was the high-profile sovereignty case between the town of Aquinnah and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) that tested and upheld the historic land use agreement signed by the town and the tribe more than twenty years ago.

These are the benchmark cases; there have been numerous other, smaller cases through the years.

Together they make a strong statement about the Island’s land use laws, which have been subjected to the most rigorous judicial scrutiny — and emerged whole.