A Plan for the Future

Growth is unsustainable, character and scenic values are deteriorating, suburban sprawl is fragmenting globally rare habitats, waste disposal methods are inefficient and environmentally unsound, the cost of living is out of sight and the cost of housing out of reach for people of modest means. These are just a few of the conclusions in the draft Island Plan, completed last week by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Three years in the making, a first reading of the plan shows that what seemed like an endless, and at times tedious, series of forums and discussions, has now come together in a document that is compelling and required reading for all who care about the Vineyard of the future. Comments on the plan are due by the end of September. The Island Plan deserves careful scrutiny and also challenge in some places. After all, that is what drafts are for, and active discussion can only lead to a better plan. What follows is the introduction to the draft Island Plan. To read more, go to the commission Web site at mvcommission.org.

A combination of isolation and strong actions by the local community has kept the Island of Martha’s Vineyard as a very special and distinct place in the world. But significant additional effort will be needed to ensure that excessive or poorly managed growth don’t undermine the very qualities that make people want to live or visit here, and slowly destroy the Island that we love.

Insulated by four miles of ocean, Martha’s Vineyard was until the mid-20th century a community with its own manner of doing things. It was largely independent and self-reliant, with an economy based largely on fishing, farming and increasingly on tourism. Most people lived in villages where they could walk to school, the post office and shops. People supported each other in tough times. They could walk freely in the countryside, in woods, fields and on beaches most likely owned by relatives or friends. Change was slow; new residents and buildings fit into the existing community without causing disruption. It was in many ways the model of what we would now call “sustainable development” or “smart growth.”

Even today, visitors are amazed to find a place where the environment and lifestyle has been touched more lightly by modern life than most of America. Though the Island has changed in the past generation, strong and conscious community action has done a much better job of maintaining the Island’s distinct, high quality physical and social identity and character than most other places. We retain from the past many characteristics that other communities are now striving to create. Community life is still largely centered on main streets and rural general stores rather than suburban shopping malls. People know and take care of their neighbors. A drive out of town means passing through woods and fields along curving, tree-canopied, two-lane roads rather than through strip malls.

In many ways, we are so far behind that we are way out ahead.

However, in other ways, the Vineyard has gone off course. Ironically, the Vineyard’s success in preserving its natural beauty and its small-town, New England charm has attracted unprecedented growth and prosperity that undermines those very features. As the quality of the environment in much of the rest of America has deteriorated, the Vineyard has become an ever more rare and attractive tourist destination and place for seasonal homes. The result has been massive growth, far outpacing all other regions in Massachusetts except Nantucket.

While we have successfully managed this development to a large extent, we are not immune to what is happening on the mainland. Our economy and our way of living are increasingly part of national systems; we are almost completely dependent on imports of food, energy and manufactured goods. The costs of housing and living are soaring faster than off-Island. Rapid growth, channeled by off-Island-style zoning regulations, has led to a form of suburban sprawl, to pollution of coastal ponds, and to fragmentation and destruction of vast swaths of globally rare habitat.

These changes are making the Island more and more like everywhere else.

Our economy is directly or indirectly based almost exclusively on keeping the Vineyard as an attractive place to live or visit. But there is concern that we are allowing the Vineyard to be increasingly and negatively transformed, and that this will undermine our visitor-based economy and all our livelihoods.