In Aquinnah, the tiny, windswept town on the Island’s westernmost boot heel, most of the 300 or so homes are under 18 feet in height. Nearly all use cedar shingles. There are no cell towers, no wind turbines, no white paint and nary a weather vane that can go up without a special permit. There’s no siting on slopes, no topping of trees, no laying of large lawns. There are no trophy houses and no development that will be “starkly silhouetted against the sky.”

Since 2000, the name and the colors of the cliffs are pretty much the only thing that has changed in the town once known as Gay Head. And there’s a good reason for that.

“We began with the idea that the beauty of our landscape is our sole economic asset,” planning board chairman Camille Rose said at a nomination hearing for the DCPC 20 years ago this spring. — Mark Alan Lovewell

This spring marks the 20th anniversary of the unprecedented nomination of the entire town of Aquinnah as a district of critical planning concern (DCPC). For the past two decades, builders and homeowners in the smallest town on the Island have had to abide by a strict set of development guidelines created to preserve the town’s unique rural character. While voters will have the chance to amend and simplify some of those pioneering guidelines at Aquinnah’s annual town meeting Tuesday night, a look back at the first 20 years of the townwide DCPC reveals a success story of preservation on an Island that otherwise has experienced unparalleled development over its most recent decades.

“It wasn’t my idea, but it was a brilliant idea,” said Peter Temple, the longtime chairman of the Aquinnah planning board who was part of the DCPC nomination process 20 years ago and will be stepping down this year. “And overall, I think the impact has been noticeable and great.”

The notion of a townwide DCPC — a special overlay planning district with individually tailored regulations — originally came from Camille Rose, an Aquinnah resident, former selectman and planning board chairman who was dedicated to preserving the Island in general, and her town in particular. By the start of the 21st century, Aquinnah was in the process of a dramatic transformation, turning from a sleepy pastoral frontier into the fastest growing community in the commonwealth. A 2002 story in the Gazette spelled out the effects of the changes.

“Over the last decade, the community of 200 year round residents watched development stretch the seams of the town’s 4,056 acres, and they knew that the intensity and nature of new house construction threatened to devastate the rural character of Aquinnah,” the story read in part.

The town had added 150 new homes in 10 years, 50 of them year-round homes.

“The nineties were just wild with development here,” Mr. Temple said .“In 1998, a wealthy seasonal resident built this enormous trophy home up in East Pasture right above the town beach. And people were just outraged at this monstrosity, and we had to look at it. But we were powerless to do anything about it.”

While many Island towns, including Aquinnah, had smaller DCPCs that allowed them to regulate building along places like Moshup Trail or Tisbury Great Pond, none had the breadth to encompass the entirety of a town. And for a small tourist village like Aquinnah, with morainal geology that included little tree cover and vast expanses of open brambles, newfound development in the form of large houses proved particularly perilous for both aesthetic and economic reasons.

“We began with the idea that the beauty of our landscape is our sole economic asset,” Ms. Rose said at a nomination hearing for the DCPC.

After Aquinnah voters overwhelmingly approved the townwide DCPC during a three-hour special town meeting June of 1999, a “peacefully divided” Martha’s Vineyard Commission followed suit three days later, ratifying the nomination with an 8-7 vote. The decision marked the first time in the Island’s history that an entire town had been proposed as a DCPC.

When the town gave final approval for the designation a year later, in May 2000, town counsel Ron Rappaport helped sway voters, as reported by the Gazette.

The town, including the famed Gay Head Cliffs, is rich in archeological resources. — Mark Alan Lovewell

“As a general matter, do I think this is legal? Yes,” Mr. Rappaport said. “Do I think we are on the cutting edge with this? The answer is also yes.”

The decision wasn’t just unique to Martha’s Vineyard. It was unique to all of New England.

“Aquinnah’s history of Indian habitation and the ties of the aboriginal people to the sea make this town a focal point,” the eloquent nomination from Ms. Rose read in part. “This is the last truly rural outpost on Martha’s Vineyard; the magnificence of the ocean coupled with the human scale of the topography still evoke impressions of what the Island was a hundred years ago . . . We are in danger of losing the special character of the land, the gentleness of the community and the unique landscape unless we can guide appropriate development more effectively.”

In the 20 years since, the town has successfully fought off legal challenges from developers, cell phone companies and homeowners who wanted to build structures larger than the mandatory maximum 2,000-square-foot footprint. The town has also conducted 51 archaeological surveys, making Aquinnah one of the region’s hot spots for artifacts and discovery.

“In every part of Aquinnah there are known archaeological sites,” archaeologist Holly Herbster told the commission two weeks ago. “An incredible amount of new information and physical history has come out of the surveys, to complement the tribal oral history.”

Ms. Herbster said she has identified early Wampanoag arrowheads, axe heads, the first inland example of a Wetu structure, a wide variety of other stone tools and pottery features that possibly date back 10,000 years, as well as the original town boundary lines.

“There’s not another place where that would be the case. It’s truly remarkable,” Ms. Herbster said.

The bylaws in Aquinnah’s unique DCPC legislation are often discretionary. Rather than focusing on exact rules about siting, they provide guidelines for development that seek to preserve the town’s natural heritage through regulating “open/highly visible” locations. According to Mr. Temple, that was the plan from the beginning — as well as banning night lights, excessive use of glass, and non-winding roads, among other disturbances.

“The goal was to minimize the visibility of manmade structures,” Mr. Temple said. “What does “open/highly visible” mean? Well, it’s like that Supreme Court decision on pornography. It’s a case-by-case basis. We’ll know it when we see it.”

Throughout the years, the Aquinnah planning board has received minimal pushback according to Mr. Temple, who said the DCPC rules have shown that regulators can work with builders to construct homes that are great for both their owners and their communities.

On Tuesday, Aquinnah voters will have the chance to add a definition to the term “highly visible” as well as to simplify the review process, loosen regulations for special permits, allow solar panel construction on the town landfill, and amend maximum height definitions in favor of energy efficient design.

The changes are minor, but Mr. Temple believes they are necessary for ensuring the townwide DCPC lasts well into the future.

“The only real complaint from people was about the process,” he said. “I have to get a special permit for a shed? That’s silly. So the changes coming through now will reduce the number of things that have to come to the committee, and I think those will be well received.”

At a commission meeting last month, chairman Doug Sederholm praised Mr. Temple and the townwide DCPC, noting that it has influenced preservation in almost every community throughout the Cape and Islands two decades later. Twenty years is a long time for regulations. But it’s nothing in comparison to the thousands of years of history those regulations are meant to preserve.

“I have to observe that Aquinnah has made greater use of its DCPC than any other town,” Mr. Sederholm said. “In many ways, Aquinnah exemplifies what the DCPC has meant for the Island.”