Like a teenager who seems to grow a foot overnight, change has a way of coming slowly, then presenting itself all at once.

West Tisbury, the town that has been the symbol of the Vineyard’s agricultural heritage for hundreds of years, has been absorbing population steadily since the 1970s, but seems suddenly to have lost some of its rural character.

Much of this has happened naturally, and with only a little controversy. A large new public safety building in the North Tisbury section of town was completed eight years ago, and a long-running project to renovate and expand the town hall was finished two years ago. Beer and wine won easy approval this year for sale in qualifying restaurants. Brick sidewalks that look like they belong down-Island instead of up are being built in front of the Grange Hall. A major expansion of the town library is set to begin in the fall, and plans are in the works to build a new police station on the same campus as the public safety building.

And then there are the dogs.

A fractious squabble over how to regulate dogs at Lambert’s Cove Beach in the summer months has now taken up at least part of three town meetings. First, a bylaw was adopted to prohibit dogs at the beach from June to September. Then the bylaw was amended to allow dogs on the beach in the morning hours during those months. The most recent town meeting held this week centered on separate questions of whether to adopt a conventional leash law for the town and whether to spend the money to pay for two different types of enforcement for the new rules spelled out in the amended bylaw pertaining to dogs on the beach.

Following an emotional debate, voters said no to the leash law and yes and no to spending for enforcement.

In the old days, a dispute such as this might have been hashed out and resolved on the front porch of Alley’s.

Not anymore. Today this clash of interests seems less about dogs themselves and more about colliding values brought on in part by greater population density. It’s an enduring irony that what attracts people to a location in the first place can be inadvertently lost by their arrival.

Though still lightly populated by many standards, in the last twenty years West Tisbury has seen more rapid growth than any other town on the Vineyard except Oak Bluffs. Between 1990 and 2010 the year-round population in West Tisbury grew from 1,704 to 2,740, an increase of nearly 61 per cent, according to U.S. Census figures.

While the current debate is narrowly about walking dogs on Lambert’s Cove Beach, in fact there were several incidents this winter of dogs attacking livestock in West Tisbury, hinting at some bigger issues at play beneath the surface. When more people begin to occupy the same space, the status quo will be ultimately be disrupted.

It’s time to call a truce to the dog debate and see how the summer transpires with citizens on their honor to obey the rules. But it’s also time to begin looking at what’s really behind the friction that has pitted neighbor against neighbor.

It’s something much more complicated than dogs.