The Vineyard was a different place 25 years ago. The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank was barely two years old. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission, a unique regional planning agency founded by an act of the Massachusetts legislature with special powers to plan and regulate development, was a little more than a decade old. These were the late Reagan years and the national economy was booming, as the U.S. had entered one of the longest periods of sustained economic growth since World War II. Land on the Vineyard could still be bought for reasonable sums, certainly at least by today’s standards, and developers engaged in the business of building speculation were a visible presence on the Island. Large tracts were rapidly being carved into subdivisions. Weekly meetings of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission were freighted with public hearings that went late into the night as commission members weighed the benefits and detriments of development after development, no doubt feeling the weight of their own charter. The first affordable housing policies went into effect, and what were known as youth lots were made available at low cost to Islanders, many of them young and members of longtime Vineyard families.
The Steamship Authority was a lightning rod for controversy. Coveted car reservations to and from the Vineyard for July and August needed to be booked in January or you were out of luck and consigned to the standby line. Guaranteed standby, a system which promised travelers that the boat line would get them to the Island if they arrived in Woods Hole by 2 p.m., became a subject of growing concern and debate, especially after one hot July weekend when cars bound for the Vineyard caused virtual gridlock in Woods Hole and Falmouth.
Public transportation was little more than an idea. Mopeds were considered by many to be the new scourge of the Island, and the proof could be found in the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital emergency room. Treatments in the ER from moped accidents were at record numbers in 1987.
The Vineyard was in danger of choking on its own popularity, or so it appeared, when the Vineyard Gazette commissioned a poll by Louis Harris and Associates, a national public opinion firm, to conduct a survey on the key issues of the day. The poll was a scientific survey and the first of its kind in the region.
Results were made public in 1988. The poll found that a vast majority of residents believed the Island was being overrun by development, that its environment was threatened, that stricter controls were needed and that people were prepared to sacrifice, including by paying higher property taxes if needed, in order to put more controls in place. The poll found that residents, permanent and seasonal alike, had low confidence in Island government leadership. They mistrusted real estate professionals, whom they felt were contributing to rapid growth and a decline in quality of life. By contrast, they had high confidence in conservation and environmental groups.
“Island in Troubled Water,” declared the headline in a special section published by the Gazette with the results of the Harris Poll. “Public Believes Island Life Falters; Citizens Blame Reckless Growth.”
Mr. Harris had been a longtime summer resident and took a keen interest in the survey, directing it himself.
“Without a doubt, the people of Martha’s Vineyard are deeply disturbed about the recent rapid expansion of development on the Island,” he wrote in an analysis that accompanied the survey. “The chief criticisms are clearly unbridled building and construction for profit, which leave in their wake an imbalance of people to land.”
Interviewers surveyed a random sample of both permanent and seasonal residents of the Vineyard during late November and early December of 1987. A total of 406 year-round and 394 part-time were polled. The survey assessed levels of concern, with participants asked to gauge solutions to problems and confidence and trust in Island leadership. Other areas examined in the poll included patterns of shopping and travel among Islanders.
Among other things, the survey showed that almost without exception, seasonal and permanent residents agreed on the issues. “The poll puts to rest long-held arguments that the Vineyard is so divided,” wrote Richard Reston, then editor of the Gazette, in a news analysis when the results were released. “If anything, the survey confirmed the Vineyard is blessed with a public consensus, a single voice, about where the problems lie and the need for bold leadership among public officials to confront issues of grave concern.”
People who were polled were questioned in 16 specific areas about strain during the summer of 1987, including traffic control, the ability of infrastructure to handle the rapidly swelling summer population, a critical shortage of seasonal labor and pressure on natural, undeveloped areas including trails and beaches.
The poll found that a strong majority — 95 per cent — of Vineyard residents, both seasonal and permanent, felt that growth and development on the Vineyard were a serious problem. A significant majority favored a one-year moratorium on development.
“By any measure, there is deep and abiding mistrust of developers and their record over the past few years. It is patently apparent that the public on the Vineyard feels nearly every aspect of life is being overrun by too many people,” Mr. Harris wrote. “This, then, is a strong message of desperation emanating from the people themselves.”
Mr. Harris, who is 92, retired and living in Key West, Fla., spoke to the Gazette by telephone this week and recalled the survey. “I did it because it was close to home and it mattered to me,” the veteran pollster said. “Scotty Reston [the late, former New York Times columnist and owner of the Gazette] was my friend. I enjoyed doing it,” he added.
“I remember some of the issues, including the mopeds.”