The Martha’s Vineyard Commission last Thursday heard emotional testimony from an Edgartown property owner opposed to new guidelines for the protection and maintenance of five ancient pathways in Edgartown, each of which dates back to colonial times.
Benjamin Hall Jr., an Island attorney whose family owns land off Ben Tom’s Road, one of the ways that would fall under the proposed guidelines, said they had been hastily drafted and would deny his family the right to develop their property.
“There was a rush to get this done . . . it’s like these regulations were written on back of a napkin before this hearing,” Mr. Hall said. “These regulations hold certain property owners who have yet to develop their property — namely my family — to a much higher standard then those who have already developed their land,” he added.
In August, the commission unanimously agreed to add portions of Ben Tom’s Road, Pennywise Path, Middle Line Path, Tar Kiln Road and Watcha Path to a special protection district which falls under the regulatory umbrella of the commission’s Island Roads DCPC, established in 1975. The Edgartown planning board had appointed a town byways committee and had been working on the path protection for some time prior to that. Mr. Hall was a member of the committee.
One month later the Hall family wound up in court with the town after the family did cutting on Middle Line and Watcha Paths in what the town believes was in violation of the law. A superior court judge granted a restraining order prohibiting any further cutting which remains in effect pending a ruling on a preliminary injunction request.
The five ancient ways date 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.
After the commission voted in August to include the five roadways in the special protection district, the Edgartown planning board and the town byways committee began drafting regulations for maintaining and managing the old byways. The regulations must eventually be approved by voters at the annual town meeting by a two-thirds vote.
From the time of the original nomination, according to a commission staff report dated Jan. 31, the planning board expressed concerns that the existing Island Road District regulations from 1975 were inadequate to properly regulate the newly proposed areas “where there are ways that are already routinely traveled by automobiles but nevertheless were in need of protection.”
Last month, the planning board asked the commission to consider amendments to the original Island Road District regulations so they would more easily conform with the new regulations for the five ancient pathways.
The commission on Thursday considered whether the amendments to the Islandwide guidelines were in line with the goals of the Island Road District created in 1975, and also considered the conformance of the proposed amended Edgartown regulations.
The commission considered three amendments to the road district. One would allow roads or special ways to be widened through a special permit granted by the town, but only if the commission approved that road as a development of regional impact. A second amendment would allow fencing or walls on smaller lots with town approval.
A third amendment, which drew the most criticism from Mr. Hall, stipulates that “maintenance and continued vehicular use may be permitted where specifically identified by the town as routinely traveled by motor vehicles prior to nomination.”
Mr. Hall said the term routinely traveled was vague and open to interpretation, and put an undue burden on homeowners to prove they have traditionally used the roadways to get to their property.
“These regulations are saying someone has to go to court to prove they have used these roads to drive to their homes; that’s absurd. Or anytime someone wants want to fix a pothole on their road they have to go to the town to provide that they routinely use the road,” he said.
At one point, commission chairman E. Douglas Sederholm chided Mr. Hall for making what he felt were unfounded and combative remarks. At another point, commissioner Christina Brown asked Mr. Hall to focus his comments on whether the new regulations met with the guidelines of the Island Road District.
Mr. Hall called for the commission to reject the regulations. “Send them back to [Edgartown town officials] for more clarity, make them more consistent and applicable for everyone in this district,” he said.
The public hearing was closed, and the commission is expected to vote on the amendments at an upcoming meeting.