For four years, in the 1970s, as he sought to preserve the Vineyard from overdevelopment, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was a frequent — and deeply involved — Island visitor. He would sail into Vineyard Haven harbor from Hyannisport to visit close friends, the late novelist William Styron and his wife, Rose. And there would be talks late into the night about what lay ahead for the Island — then in the throes of being discovered by developers.
The savvy among the developers were spending their mornings at the Dukes County Court House, leafing through fat volumes of deeds looking for “forgotten” acreage that faraway heirs, who knew nothing about Island land values, might be enticed into selling for low prices. They were scooping up hundreds of acres in this way and then planning enormous subdivisions. One, on the edge of Sengekontacket Pond in Oak Bluffs, would have created an 867-lot subdivision on 507 acres. Another, in the pine and oak woods above Lake Tashmoo, called for 150 houses on 107.2 acres. The Boston engineering firm of Metcalf and Eddy, studying what lay ahead for the Vineyard, called it “one of the last bastions of environmental splendor” on the eastern coastline, but warned that overpopulation, congestion on its roads in the summer season, damage to the dunes and up-Island heathlands, salt-water intrusion on Katama, noise and air pollution around the airport, dangerous coliform counts in some of its waters, were all concerns that must be addressed if the Island wanted to retain its environmental splendor. Senator Kennedy pondered what he might be able to do to help.
The plan he came up with was to create a national seashore on the Vineyard and Nantucket — another island he frequented as a sailor.
And so Ted Kennedy devised the Islands Trust Bill, frequently referred to simply as the Kennedy Bill, and considered by many at that time to have been the last hope for preservation of a rural, undeveloped Martha’s Vineyard. It would have conserved the Vineyard and Nantucket because of their unique scenic, ecological, scientific, historical and recreational values.
On one of those summer sails to the Styrons in 1971, Ted Kennedy and his host and hostess discussed what might be done to protect the greatly endangered natural resources and character of the Vineyard and Nantucket. The incident at Chappaquiddick had occurred in 1969 and he knew he would be facing “considerable heat” because of it if he took up the cause of the islands.
The Styrons suggested asking the opinion and support of Henry Beetle Hough, longtime editor and publisher of this paper and the founder, with his wife, Elizabeth Bowie Hough, of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, already designed to preserve Vineyard land on a small scale. Henry Hough listened to the senator, applauded his preservation dream and urged him to go ahead with it.
For the next four years, the Vineyard and Nantucket were battlegrounds. Wealthy landowners and members of the construction trades were the combatants against the bill, maintaining that what Senator Kennedy was proposing would give the federal government too much control over local affairs. On the other hand, bill supporters felt that federal oversight should be specified in the legislation.
What the Kennedy Bill proposed was that the land of the two islands be divided into categories. There would be Forever Wild Land that the federal government would buy and from which it would remove all existing structures. No new structures would be allowed.
Then there was Scenic Preservation Land on which existing buildings could remain, but no new structures were to be built. And there were Town-and County-Planned Lands that would remain under local jurisdiction. Meanwhile, until the bill was in place, there would be a moratorium on all new building. This, of course, was not popular with anyone in construction.
Two years after the Kennedy Bill’s introduction, leaders opposed to it, led by Bob Carroll, approached Gov. Francis W. Sargent and urged him to come up with a conservation bill of his own — one that would not be so stringent as the Kennedy Bill, but with enough teeth in it to satisfy the conservation-minded.
By the spring of 1974, such a bill had been developed and was being considered for a referendum. The Kennedy Bill, meanwhile, was poised for introduction in Congress. When the referendum was held, the state bill was endorsed by a two-to-one margin and the state legislature passed it. It was this bill that resulted in the formation of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
Senator Kennedy’s Islands Trust Bill failed on Capitol Hill. He did not reintroduce it. Instead, he threw his support behind Governor Sargent’s Land Use Control Bill that resulted in the formation of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
In the years since its creation in 1974, the 21-member commission has been guiding land use on the Vineyard, seeking, as Senator Kennedy so devoutly wished, to protect the Island from overdevelopment and preserve and enhance its rural quality. It has reviewed hundreds of projects, working in its decisions to protect views and natural habitat and water quality, and to limit traffic.
Among its successes was an agreement to allow the construction in Edgartown of the Vineyard Golf Course — provided it followed organic management practices. Its owners did, making it an outstanding example in the nation of a golf course following organic practices in its construction. It has also managed to protect the gingerbread houses edging Oak Bluffs’ Ocean Park and to preserve much of the wildness along the North Shore.
The commission several times denied plans for a golf course above the Lagoon in Oak Bluffs’ Southern Woodlands where nitrates from the course might have endangered the water quality of the Lagoon.
When 52 house lots were in prospect for a development at Herring Creek Farm on Katama, the commission managed to reduce the number of lots to 32. Eventually a group of private investors and the Nature Conservancy stepped in and further preserved the area by buying much of the property.
The 867-house lot development on Sengekontacket Pond in Oak Bluffs, was cut down to 200 house lots, thanks to the commission
On petition from town boards or groups of citizens, the commission can also designate Districts of Critical Planning Concern, such as roadsides, shorefront, or areas around ponds.
“We may not have done everything that we should have or might have done to preserve the Vineyard, or that the Kennedy Bill would have done, ” a member of the commission says.
“But it has enabled us to see that the inevitable development of the Island is done in a tactful, tasteful manner that has enhanced property values. And we wouldn’t have had the commission at all if Senator Kennedy hadn’t alerted us to the developmental dangers facing the Island that he saw when he introduced his Islands Trust Bill. We owe him a great deal.”