In her summation of the Martha’s Vineyard economy, presented to an audience of Island businesswomen in November, Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce executive director Nancy Gardella labeled herself an optimist. For certain sectors, she said, things were going well. Very well.
For some Island hotels, the spring and summer season of 2010 had been the best ever. The majority of accommodation properties had shown an uptick in business, she said. In dining, too, there had been a significant improvement, and for other businesses which catered to what she called “the higher end.”
The higher end. Anyone who keeps even a vague eye on the American economy knows what those words refer to – the happy minority of people tapped into the money pipeline which is once again gushing. Big corporations are making record profits. Not long after Ms. Gardella gave her speech, Bloomberg News reported that Wall Street’s biggest banks – Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, the very people who precipitated the Great Recession – were set to record their best two years ever in 2009 and 2010, after being bailed out by the government. The markets are going great. For some the recession is not just over, things are booming.
And where do a lot of those people spend their summers? Here. Ms. Gardella enumerated the main points of origin, such as New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Boston. Visitor numbers were on the up, Ms. Gardella said, and the Vineyard was uniquely poised to take advantage of the high-end market, where money was again flowing.
Which is all great, as far as it goes. But any number of other meetings held on the Island over the past year, of selectmen, school boards, nonprofits trying to handle unprecedented need in our community, told a very different story, of falling revenues, deficits, services which could no longer be provided, insolvency.
If 2010 showed anything it is that Martha’s Vineyard is not just a microcosm of the two-speed American economy, it is a magnified example of it. Surely there are few places where the contrast between the ascendant plutocrats and the people whose livelihood depends on them is as sharp. The up-market hotels going gangbusters, the affordable housing fund going broke. Real estate among the most expensive in the nation, but 65 per cent of it, according to census figures, unoccupied most of the year. Meanwhile the majority of year-round residents, mortgage holders and renters alike, spend more than 30 per cent of their income keeping modest roofs over their heads. If they can afford to go on living here at all.
For most people on the Island, the recession was a continuing reality, manifest in less available work, higher property taxes as towns struggled to balance budgets, falling property values, unaffordable health insurance, decreased educational opportunity and reduced social services. For the unluckiest, it was dire.
David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, put the situation starkly a couple of months back.
“This will be the bloodiest of the last three winters,” he said. “This isn’t a difference of degree, it’s of type. Those who always managed to patch it together aren’t able to patch it now. Two, three years into a recession, there are no more margins. They can’t find new ways.”
You didn’t have to be at the bottom to feel the pinch. Even the relatively well off – by Vineyard standards – felt the bite of the two-speed economy. And the ambiguity of it. Take the brouhaha over Crow Hollow Farm as an example. The most public manifestation of it was a dispute with neighbors who did not like what the property’s new owner was doing to their views. But it tapped so many deeper issues. Here was the Island-born inheritor of a family farm unable to make ends meet, even after negotiating an agricultural protection agreement with the land bank. Here was the New York financier, Steven Rattner (fresh from his run-in with the Securities and Exchange Commission), picking it up at the bargain price of $2.3 million and turning the bucolic farm into an equestrian McMansion. Here were the Island kids, who used to learn to ride there at reasonable prices, frozen out. But here too was a boon to the landscape contractors, the stone masons, the builders, the caterers and others whose livelihoods were enhanced, or will be.
Such contrasts are inevitable in a place like this, but they are getting sharper all the time, as you’ll see when we get back to more of that census data, later. For now, let’s get into the chronology of 2010. The economy was the story of the year, but plenty else happened as well. A President visited, there was a big destructive fire. Big rains. Major ongoing environmental issues. Welcome new infrastructure projects – a hospital, a YMCA, a bridge, a ferry terminal. There were human tragedies and triumphs, and a smattering of those “only on the Vineyard” stories. So, here we go.
In January, the news was largely about wind, literally and metaphorically. The first week of the year saw the release of the state’s Ocean Management Plan, which brought gales of opposition. Two areas adjacent to the Vineyard, near Noman’s Land and Cuttyhunk, were earmarked as sites for wind farms. Collectively, they could accommodate as many as 166 turbines, a total 50 per cent larger in potential output than Cape Wind. Most contentiously, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission was specifically excluded from any role in deciding whether or not commercial-scale wind power could be developed in waters near the Elizabeth Islands. The town of Cuttyhunk, apparently enjoying its designated independence from commission control, quickly indicated a willingness to consider proposals. So far, though, nothing firm has been agreed.
But the state proposal was tiny compared with what emerged a couple of weeks later from the federal Minerals Management Authority, opening up almost 4,000 square miles of water extending in an arc from the southwest corner of the Vineyard right round to the east of Nantucket, an area some 160 times larger Cape Wind.
Meanwhile, Cape Wind was encountering more resistance. The Massachusetts Historic Preservation officer, Brona Simon, determined the wind farm site on Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service concurred that the development would interfere with Wampanoag rituals welcoming the rising sun, and potentially desecrate archaeological and historic sites, dating back 5,000 years to when Horseshoe Shoal was dry land. The federal government flew into damage-control mode, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar hastily arranging a round of meetings with the tribes and others.
And in politics, the chill winds of change began to blow for the Democrats, when the special election to replace the late Senator Edward Kennedy saw an upset. Former male model, one-time Cosmopolitan nude centerfold Scott Brown won it for the Republicans. Even on this overwhelmingly liberal Island, Democratic support was down about 10 per cent. The party blamed their candidate, Martha Coakley, for a lackluster campaign. But there was more to it than that, as later events would show.
On the Gazette commentary page on Jan. 15, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School professor, summed up President Obama’s first year with these imagined Tweets: “Health Care – It’s Not Dead Yet. Green Is Still a Dream. Nobel Prize: Make War to Get Peace. Jobs, Won’t You Come Home?”
Merchants, traders and bankers concurred that the Vineyard economy was still getting worse.
West Tisbury police chief Beth A Toomey announced her resignation after more than three decades as a police officer and 16 years as chief. The same week Edgartown’s chief, Paul V. Condlin, announced he was leaving the force after 33 years, 15 of them as chief. Both were replaced from within the ranks, Mr. Condlin by Antone (Tony) Bettencourt, a 27-year veteran, and Ms. Toomey by Dan Rossi, a 20-year member of the force.
And after some six years and $9 million, the temporary new Lagoon Pond drawbridge was finally finished. The permanent bridge was still three years off. Total project cost, $30 million.
February kicked off with Secretary Salazar’s promised visit to consult the Wampanoags here and on the mainland over their objections to Cape Wind. After a whirlwind round of meetings, he held a shipboard press conference at the wind farm site on Horseshoe Shoal to say his view of the project’s desirability had not changed. The Wampanoag tribe’s claims that Cape Wind would interfere with traditional sunrise ceremonies were subsequently undermined when a prominent member of the tribe, Jeffrey Madison, wrote to Mr. Salazar, saying he had never “participated in, witnessed or even heard of a sacred spot on the horizon that is relevant to any Aquinnah Wampanoag culture, history or ceremony,” and suggested the whole thing was a fabrication. Mr. Madison, notably, is a lawyer for a firm hired by Cape Wind.
The month saw the first meeting of Vineyard Power, an energy cooperative and offshoot of the Vineyard Energy Project, which plans to harvest power from its own small array of 17 turbines in the ocean three to 15 miles off the Island’s south shore, for distribution to co-op members.
On the economic front, the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce lamented deep cuts to the state’s funding for tourism marketing. Funding was down 66 per cent, resulting in a drop of roughly $200,000 for the Vineyard chamber. A lack of money also cast a pall over plans for a new Edgartown library. State funds were getting tighter, private donations were drying up and the project cost had spiked to around $15 million. The proponents went back to the drawing board to get new architectural and engineering plans, and look for new sources of funds. They were to do this repeatedly through the rest of the year.
The Gazette won 12 awards, including seven firsts, in the annual newspaper competition sponsored by the New England Newspaper and Press Association.
And the Massachusetts Highway Department revealed plans to replace distinctive directional signposts on the Island, featuring the totemic bunch of grapes, with new ones which met higher safety standards. This angered Island traditionalists. Call it the wrath of grapes.
March was a bleak month, and not just because it was the wettest on the Vineyard since records began in 1946.
It was also the month which emphasized the magnitude of the financial problems of the Island Affordable Housing Fund. The fund’s executive director, T. Ewell Hopkins, confirmed they had been forced to lay off all the staff except one – himself – as he struggled to keep up payments for subsidized rental housing. There also was major turnover on the board of the fund, and a change in fund-raising tactics. Mr. Hopkins said the big summer events of previous years would be abandoned in favor of smaller, targeted appeals to potential donors.
During a visit to the Island, state senator Rob O’Leary bluntly told locals seeking money for affordable housing, homeless shelters, fuel subsidies and other assistance to the needy that the state could offer no help. Not coincidentally the Island Food Pantry said it was helping to feed a record number of Islanders.
The month also brought further confirmation that nothing comes cheap on this Island. The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital was named in a survey of costs as the fifth most expensive in the state. The report by the Attorney General’s office found price differences between hospitals were not explained by the quality of care, but by “market leverage.”
On the brighter side, an inspired group of do-it-yourselfers on Cuttyhunk took on the corporate might of the communications giant Comcast, and won. When the company would not provide them with Internet service, they rigged up their own, piggybacking on Comcast’s service to the Vineyard, beaming by radio link from Aquinnah, and distributing it through their own local network. But Comcast found out about it, accused them of theft – even though they were paying for two multi-user business connections – and cut them off. A week after the Gazette reported the company’s action, Comcast reversed itself.
Meanwhile, no fewer than three competing companies advanced plans to bring fiber optic cable to the Vineyard to improve our woeful broadband service. Alas, it is yet to happen.
The tribe confirmed it had been offered $1 million by the developers of Cape Wind, to drop its objections to the project. The offer was rejected.
And the state Division of Marine Fisheries served up a reminder of why it was so important to develop sources of renewable energy. It attributed the steep decline in lobster numbers in southern Massachusetts to warmer water, resulting from climate change.
April began with a story confirming – or all but confirming – the long-held suspicion that there was at least one coyote living on the Vineyard. Test results of some scat collected on a north shore property gave a 97 per cent probability that it came from a coyote.
The same April 2 Gazette contained one of most joyful pictures you could hope to see, of Chrissy Kinsman and George Drew, two of the winners when seven homes were allocated in the lottery of the 250 State Road affordable housing project. But the unmet demand remained huge. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s Island Plan advocated 20 per cent of the Island’s year-round housing stock should be affordable. The current percentage is 5.9 per cent.
A week later it emerged that for the second time in six months, the affordable housing fund was unable to make its monthly rental subsidy payment of $20,000.
April 9, and workers were putting the last finishing touches to the new 90,000 square foot, $48 million Martha’s Vineyard Hospital building, before its grand opening on the weekend.
The month also saw the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation in the final stages of building a new access road to 150 acres of conservation land, ironically flattening a swath of vegetation in the process. But there was no alternative, because the leadership of the exclusive Quansoo Beach Association denied use of an existing road. This was to be but the start of a significant conservation battle, involving legal action.
Speaking of legal battles, Ken Salazar announced his formal decision to approve Cape Wind, effectively shifting the focus of the nine-year controversy from the bureaucracy to the courts.
April 13 was the Island’s “Super Tuesday,” the day on which the four big towns all held their annual town meetings. And things went pretty much according to the tradition of recent years. Edgartown sped through its warrant in just two hours. Tisbury got through a free-spending warrant of 80 articles and subarticles in one night, a record. West Tisbury did its meeting in three hours flat. Oak Bluffs argued for two nights about the town’s finances, as it looked at its third successive budget deficit. Selectmen hoped to fill the hole with a new meals tax and an increased hotel tax. Voters blew a $100,000 hole in that plan by rejecting the hotel tax hike. Eventually the tumult ended with a balanced budget, due to no pay rises for the fire department, a $200,000 cut in road maintenance and no lifeguards on the beaches for the second consecutive summer. Then they recessed for a three week break to gather strength for the last 10 warrant articles. When they reconvened on May 4, things went quickly and smoothly.
Also in April the new $9 million drawbridge acted just like its ancient predecessor and stuck in the up position. A huge pod of some 95 endangered right whales swam past the Island, unusually close inshore. One sighting was reported only a mile or so off Oak Bluffs harbor. Chilmark’s town meeting rejected a proposed one-year moratorium on new wind turbines and Tisbury approved beer and wine sales in restaurants, concluding a five-year argument.
And so to May, the month when Islanders are living off the last of the previous season’s financial reserves and hoping for a good season ahead. Hardly anyone has any money in May, with a few exceptions. Like the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the biggest, most vocal, best-funded of the groups opposing Cape Wind. At a meeting with Island fishermen to discuss potential legal action, the president and chief executive of the Alliance, Audra Parker, let slip that the organization already had raised more than $20 million for the fight. The strategy was to get as many parties as possible to sue on as many grounds as possible, to hold up development. She reckoned 10 or 15 groups would join in. One group on board early was the Wampanoag tribe. Said Buddy Vanderhoop after the tribe’s meeting with Ms. Parker, “We’re suing everyone. We’re on the bandwagon, big time.”
Others could only wish for so much money. The town of Oak Bluffs for example. After nearly 18 months of setbacks, the town got Army Corps of Engineers approval to dredge Sengekontacket Pond, a move considered vital to restoring the health of the pond, frequently closed to shellfishing over recent years due to high bacteria levels. But the cost increased with the delay, from $500,000 to $750,000. And the pond, undredged, was once again closed to shellfishing, June 1 to Oct. 1.
Funding cuts were being felt everywhere. May also saw Family Planning of Martha’s Vineyard announce that it would have to close two days a month.
Meanwhile, Cape Wind was hit with new costs. The Federal Aviation Administration approved the development, but with expensive strings. The developers would have to upgrade the radar at Otis Air Force Base, to counter interference from the turbine blades, at a cost of at least $1.5 million and maybe as much as $15 million if the first remediation plan didn’t work.
The Steamship Authority was another organization with some money to spend, thanks to the federal Government’s stimulus package, and in May it opened a new terminal in Oak Bluffs.
In a sad sequel to the 2009 car crash in which her friend Jena Pothier died, Kelly McCarron was sentenced to a year in prison. Ms. McCarron, under the influence of alcohol and speeding, lost control and hit a tree on the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road near Martha’s Vineyard Airport on June 11 last year, just three days before she was due to graduate from high school.
This year’s graduation in June brought controversy at the regional high school. Ten Brazilian-American students sought permission to wear scarves in the colors of the Brazilian flag and were denied by principal Stephen Nixon, despite such precedents as African American students allowed to wear west African kente cloths. Mr. Nixon threatened to withhold the students’ diplomas if they defied the ban, and he was backed by Island schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss, who argued that it opened the way for kids to wear Nazi armbands. The edict was overruled by the school committee and graduation took place without incident or evidence of Nazism.
The looming threat of global warming, and the responses to it, continued to make news in various and sundry ways. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission warned that “overwhelming environmental and biological changes” coupled with continued fishing, was reducing the likelihood of lobster stocks in southern New England ever recovering. A moratorium was recommended for 2011. Lobstermen protested.
Wesley Edens, a wealthy Wall Street financier, protested too, when his plan to build a massive stone retaining wall to hold back the encroachments of the Tisbury Great Pond on his shorefront property was refused by the town’s conservation commission. He began legal proceedings. And while all the controversy continued about wind turbines in the sea around the Island, one popped up on land with little notice or objection. The Island’s largest to date, it was a 50 kW machine atop a 120 foot tower at Morning Glory Farm.
There was legal action, too, in the dispute over access to that Sheriff’s Meadow land at Quansoo. Sheriff’s Meadow sued the Quansoo Beach Association, accusing it of trespass and intimidation, over its continued frustration of access to the property. The beach association maintained a locked gate, sometimes with a guard on the access road to the property, even though the land on which the gate stood belonged to Sheriff’s Meadow. The legal tactic worked and the QBA eventually moved the gate. But the matter was not yet over, as we shall see.
In Tisbury, a new police chief was appointed more than a year after the previous chief, John Cashin, left having publicly denounced his own department as dysfunctional and members of it as disloyal, insubordinate and out to get him. The new man, Dan Hanavan, had acted in the job in the interim. A consultant’s report into the force said things were working better under Chief Hanavan, but also recommended a merger of the Tisbury and Oak Bluffs departments. The towns began what are ongoing talks on the subject.
It was a bright Saturday in mid-June when the new Island YMCA was opened. The high school Minnesingers serenaded guests with their version of the Village People hit of the same name. And, gee, the new facility was a wonderful addition to the Island, although it will be most appreciated not during the beach days of summer but during the dark days of winter, when we really need somewhere indoors to be active.
There was even some good news in June. The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, whose funding depends on a small cut of property sales, reported a significant tick up in revenue for the fiscal year. Takings increased 30 per cent, to about $7.5 million, although transaction numbers were up only three per cent. And in what was an otherwise abysmal year for fund-raising, the Preservation Trust had a very good result, largely due to a single item at its auction, a Ray Ellis painting that went for $250,000. Both were indicators of what Nancy Gardella would call “higher end” spending.
June also brought the story of the Oak Bluffs dumpsters. The town, tired of people using its harbor front dumpsters for household garbage, removed them. And people just left the garbage where the dumpsters used to be.
Shark is a word no one in an ocean-based economy like the Vineyard likes to hear bandied about. So Island tourism people were pretty unimpressed at the beginning of July when the Coast Guard decided to issue a first-ever warning to swimmers, kayakers and boaters about the threat of great white sharks. It was a very colorfully-worded statement, too, featuring quotes about how inviting a dangling hand would look to a great white and how easily a big one could tip over your little boat. The Coast Guard later withdrew the statement.
In any event, it appeared not to have any deterrent effect. The summer had started early – it was warm from April, in stark contrast to 2009. The July Fourth weekend saw lots of sun and lots of people, more coming over on the ferries than had arrived in any of the previous six years. Island businesses were sending positive reports back to the chamber of commerce.
July 12 and a huge fire broke out at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Menemsha, destroying its 68-year-old boathouse and a long wooden pier to West Dock, a truck and several boats at the dock. There was only one minor injury, but all of Menemsha was evacuated as firemen and EMTs from all six Island towns converged on the scene. They had a bit of luck; the wind blew the flames away from town. But still it was a disaster. Initial estimates placed the damage at $1 million, but it was a ridiculously low figure. The Coast Guard later revised its estimate for the reconstruction of the boathouse and pier up to at least $5 million. And the investigation of the cause dragged on and on. It was mid-September before all the evidence was collected and the demolition could begin. Even then the investigation, led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco, continued; the report is not yet out. Chilmark selectmen were told by Coast Guard officials it would be at least two years before reconstruction could begin. At their September special town meeting, Chilmarkers approved a plan to spend almost $1.6 million for fire repairs.
In Vineyard Haven at another old boathouse there were celebrations. It was 30 years since two itinerant sailors, Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin, set up business building wooden boats. Thirty years since a defining point in Vineyard history. Originally the McDonald’s burger chain planned to set up a franchise there, but they were run off the Island by local opposition. Instead of fast food, we got sleek boats.
In the Island ponds, there were wonderful developments. July brought news of the biggest spawning of oysters in the Edgartown and Tisbury Great Ponds in decades. It was all the better because apart from being delicious, oysters pull nitrogen out of the water. Later, biologists reported Cape Pogue Bay was “teeming” with juvenile scallops, promising a bumper season in 2011. And in August, the first offshore, farm-raised blue mussels were distributed around the Island.
Toward the end of the month came official confirmation that President Obama and his family would again vacation on the Island. Again they would stay at Blue Heron Farm. Again it was no surprise to locals who had noticed the preparations weeks beforehand.
Lobstermen were relieved when the proposed moratorium on their activity was abandoned in favor of more study.
August is the month when worthy causes appeal to those well-heeled visitors to open their wallets wide. But this year, the wallets did not open much. The Possible Dreams auction in support of Community Services, long the central event of the summer fund-raising season, was held August 2, and the take was $300,000. In 2006, before the crash, it was $850,000.
Wind power was becoming a political issue. Republican candidate for governor, Charlie Baker, attended a meeting of wind opponents at the Chilmark Community Center, where all had a fine time trashing the Patrick administration over its enthusiasm for wind power.
A vehicle owned by The Trustees of Reservations drove into an area which was cordoned off to protect endangered nesting least terns. The nest of unfledged chicks survived, but the Trustees’ Chappaquiddick superintendent David Babson resigned.
Oak Bluffs residents grew angry about the lack of sand on Inkwell Beach, famed as one of the first beaches opened to African Americans. The town promised 17,000 cubic feet of sand dredged from Sengekontacket. But the bigger picture is that sand is now a tradeable and increasingly valuable commodity. As private beaches erode, towns are looking at millions in revenue.
And the unfortunate dispute between Sheriff’s Meadow and the Quansoo Beach Association had its sequel at the QBA annual meeting. Members staged a coup, dumping chairman James B. White for his confrontationist approach to the conservation organization. Another victory for Vineyard conservation came the same week, when the Massachusetts Land Court denied access to a 30-acre piece of landlocked coastal heathland off Moshup Trail in Aquinnah, thus protecting it from development.
On August 19, the Obamas arrived for their 10 day vacation. It was very much a repeat of their 2009 visit. The first family ate out a few times, the President played a lot of golf, and the weather turned bad. Fishermen sailed in to protest fish management rules. Gov. Deval Patrick organized a fund-raiser with Obama friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett, but the President did not turn up.
September began with the biggest non-event of the year, Hurricane Earl. Town storm shelters were readied, boats pulled out of the water, windows taped or boarded up, outside furnishings lashed down, tubs and fridges filled with water, candles bought, gas bottles filled. All prudent precautions. But authorities then became, it later was generally agreed, way over-reactive. A state of emergency was declared late Thursday and an announcement made early Friday that Island roads and businesses should be closed by 2 p.m. But at 2 p.m. Friday, the storm was nowhere close to the Island, there was no wind, just a few spits of rain. Many people ignored the instructions. And after it was over, business owners voiced their displeasure about the lost trade. Earl turned out to be nothing worse than a normal, if very wet, northeaster.
Cape Wind won another round in the battle to get its wind farm up and running. By a 4-2 margin, the state Supreme Judicial Court upheld the power of the state Energy Facilities Siting Board to issue the so-called super permit, which allowed developers to end-run around local government and Cape Cod Commission objections
With the high season over, merchants took stock and reported a better season than they had for a couple of years. Steamship traffic was up 2.2 per cent over the previous year; airport traffic also was up.
However, things were no better for the embattled Island Affordable Housing Fund. It was again unable to pay its $40,000 rental housing subsidy for May and June. T. Ewell Hopkins announced that the fund would cut its losses on its ambitious Bradley Square redevelopment plan in Oak Bluffs, and try to sell the property. The chances of recouping what the fund had paid seemed remote. As of year’s end, they still were asking $975,000 and struggling to find a buyer. In November, the fund applied for permission to raze the historic centerpiece of the property, the Denniston House, the site of the first African American Church on the Island, a sad turn of events, given that the preservation of the Denniston House was the main reason the fund bought the property in the first place. The Oak Bluffs historical commission unanimously voted to designate the house for preferable preservation, blocking demolition for six months at least.
Coming into election season, the Vineyard assumed unusual political prominence. The 10th Congressional District, encompassing the Cape and Islands, was tagged by both Democrats and Republicans as a potential Republican win, with the long-serving and well-liked Democrat incumbent William Delahunt retiring. The primaries on Sept. 14 saw William R. Keating chosen for the Democrats over state senator Robert O’Leary. Jeffrey D. Perry was selected as the Republican candidate. It was to become a very negative campaign.
The boss of Cape Air, Dan Wolf, became the state senate candidate for the Democrats.
The Steamship Authority announced minor fare hikes for 2011.
And over on Chappaquiddick, there was perhaps the oddest story of the year. An Indian tent-pegging team was in training, in preparation for the world equestrian games in Atlanta. Men in turbans and military garb waved lances and swords and yelled war cries as they thundered around on horseback, trying to uproot little targets stuck in the sand. They were there because Chappy seasonal resident Francesca Kelly happens to own most of the small number of Indian Marwari horses – the preferred mounts for the sport, which dates back some 2,300 years – living outside the subcontinent. Only on the Vineyard.
By October Vineyard fishermen appeared to be becoming as expert in political and legal maneuvers as in boating maneuvers, getting involved in legal action yet again. This time it was a challenge to federal authorities over the fishing practices of large offshore boats, which are believed to be behind the precipitous drop in river herring and shad.
Jessie Little Doe Baird of Aquinnah won a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” in recognition of her 17 years’ work to restore the native language of her people, the Wampanoag. With the award came half a million dollars to use at her discretion. A week later her Wôpanâak Reclamation Project was awarded a second, $530,000 grant from the Administration for Native Americans
You could not go a year on the Vineyard without some new action plan on Lyme disease. An October meeting proposed a five-year comprehensive study to examine, among other things, the benefits of a drastic culling of deer populations.
As the elections neared, the hot local race was for County Sheriff. The incumbent, Michael McCormack, backed by the Democratic machine, was challenged by former state police sergeant Neal Maciel, who campaigned for tougher discipline at the county jail. The Island had never seen such an intense contest, but when the votes were tallied on Nov. 5, it was McCormack over Maciel by a comfortable 4,509 votes to 3,251. A third candidate, Warren Gosson, garnered just 405. It was probably lucky for Sheriff McCormack that the election was not a week later, for on Nov. 7, one of his inmates went AWOL. Quincy A. Young, serving 30 months for drug and firearms offences, was allowed out to catch a bus to a work release program. Instead he took another bus to visit a friend and a girlfriend. The sheriff promised to tighten security.
Elsewhere in America, large numbers of voters stayed home or voted Republican. On the Vineyard they turned out in large numbers and went heavily Democrat. They backed winners. Deval Patrick was back as governor, Keating beat Perry for the 10th and Dan Wolf romped home as state senator.
The major local environmental problem, nitrogen loading in the ponds, was brought into sharp focus in October, with the release of two reports from the Massachusetts Estuaries Project. Both Farm Pond and Sengekontacket were overloaded with nitrogen, most of it sourced to septic systems leaching into groundwater. Nitrogen has the same effect on aquatic plant life as it does when applied as fertilizer to lawns – it encourages growth. Overloading encourages algal growth, which can choke out other life. In the case of Sengekontacket, the report noted the once-widespread beds of eelgrass were gone, and those that remained was festooned with “epiphytes” (slime and weed to us). In the case of both ponds, the reports said, better flushing to the sea and sewering of homes would help.
In Edgartown, selectman Michael Donaroma reviewed the latest plans for the Edgartown library and pronounced them still too grand. In Oak Bluffs those living close to a proposed new fishing pier, beside the SSA terminal, complained the 317-foot-long structure would bring noise and garbage into their lives. It eventually was approved by local bodies anyway and now awaits only federal permits.
And in October the Gazette was selected Newspaper of the Year in its circulation category by the New England Newspaper and Press Association, its eighth win since 1990.
November came in with a threat by the Edgartown selectmen to withdraw from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, saying the town was being levied more than its fair share towards the MVC budget under the funding formula, which requires towns to contribute according to their property values. The selectmen also objected to a proposed 4.5 per cent pay rise for MVC staff. They put an article on special town meeting warrant, proposing the town withdraw. Edgartown voters decided not to quit the MVC, a decision made easier by the commission’s decision to increase pay only 2.5 per cent, and to hold discussions with the town.
However, the commission is still under pressure. Selectmen from both Tisbury and Oak Bluffs voiced concern about its Development of Regional Impact process, and foreshadowed a push for change to DRI guidelines.
Meanwhile, Dukes County also was coming under pressure. A report by the state Department of Revenue recommended the county be scrapped, or at least remodeled in a way which gave the Island’s towns more direct influence.
And the battles over wind power continued. The MVC voted to force any proposed erection of a wind turbine more than 150 feet high to come before it for consideration as a Development of Regional Impact. Two landowners in Chilmark promptly proposed turbines six and three inches, respectively, under the height limit.
The week of Nov. 26 was a big one for news, and news about news. It was announced that the Vineyard Gazette had been sold to new owners, Jerome and Nancy Kohlberg for $3.5 million. Details also were revealed of a plan for Edgartown and Tisbury to install solar arrays to provide all the municipal needs for their towns. And it emerged in a meeting in Oak Bluffs that the federal Bureau of Ocean Management is reviewing two proposals for wind farms southwest of the Vineyard.
That week’s paper also carried the story of a tragedy at sea. On a sailing trip to the Virgin islands, Captain Dennis White, his friend William Thorns and Mr. Thorns’ daughter, Amanda, encountered a major storm near the Bahamas. The boat rolled over and was dismasted. After 12 days adrift, Captain White and Amanda Thorns were picked up by a passing ship. Mr. Thorns was washed overboard when the boat rolled, and died.
On a happier note, the Vineyarders defeated their arch rivals, the Nantucket Whalers, in the Island Cup. The score was 33-25.
As we entered the last month of the year, the travails of the Edgartown library plan continued. Edgartown’s historic district commission vetoed the latest iteration of the new library plan, which involved flattening the Warren House to make way for a parking lot for the latest plan for the new library. So it was back to the drawing board, as so many times before. The library committee decided to abandon the North Water street site, in favor of demolishing the old Edgartown school and starting from scratch.
The regional high school budget was pruned for the third year in a row, the cuts now totalling $1.2 million. The coming year’s $16.6 million budget was kept balanced by staffing cuts, the deferral of some maintenance, and the elimination of the home economics program.
Oak Bluffs ended the year looking at a projected budget shortfall for 2012 of between $500,000 and $1 million. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Two weeks before Christmas we got the largest single data release in census history, covering the years 2005 to 2009, and it revealed more about the strains on the social fabric. Per capita income here was $33,500, only slightly above the national average, and about the same as the rest of Massachusetts. Yet real estate was among the most costly in the nation. In two towns, Chilmark and Aquinnah, the median house value was over $1 million. Fifty-six per cent of mortgage holders shelled out more than 30 per cent of their income on housing, as did 57 per cent of renters. Even among those who own their homes outright, one in three pays 30 per cent or more of their income on housing costs. But perhaps the most telling indicators of the difficulty of making ends meet were those recording the number of households with children under six, where both parents worked. In 2000, it was 57 per cent. In the most recent data, it was 87 per cent.
On the upside, only about eight per cent of people here lived in poverty compared with 14 per cent for the nation as a whole, and 40 per cent had college degrees, compared with 27.5 per cent nationally.
Finally, the Christmas Eve paper brought yet another example of a nonprofit in peril. The Yard, the Chilmark dance colony founded 36 years ago by Patricia Nanon, announced a $230,000 deficit and the departure of artistic director Wendy Taucher. Another victim of the fund-raising drought.
But let’s end on a positive note. Jet Blue announced a daily – and maybe more frequent, depending on demand – nonstop service to the Vineyard from New York this summer. May many come, with heavy wallets.