Martha’s Vineyard

"Martha's Vineyard is an island of intriguing diversity, and there lies much of its fascination. Its geologic and human history, its weather and location combine to create many regions quite distinct from one another."

So begins Looking at the Vineyard, published by the Vineyard Open Land Foundation in 1972.   From the endless Atlantic beaches of the South shore, to the network of "great ponds", the hilly uplands of the North shore, the sandplains to the East, the heathlands of Aquinnah, and the rural woodlands and fields of the interiors, the Vineyard is a wonderful mosaic of sky, shore, and dense vegetation.

For years the Vineyard has attracted a collection of inhabitants and visitors as diverse as its landscape. For many of us at South Mountain Company (SMC), the Vineyard was just a stop along the way that grabbed us, held us, and here we are. And here we've stayed. Together, the Vineyard and neighboring island Cuttyhunk make up Dukes County. Approximately 15,000 people live here year-round; in the summer this can swell to over 100,000. There are two weekly newspapers (The Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette), two radio stations (WMVY and WVVY), and a cable TV station. Islands have distinct boundaries; this makes it easy to communicate and easy to develop a sense of limits. Our island is made up of six towns, three "down island" (East) and three "up-island" (West). Each has different character and qualities.

In these electronic times we are less and less bound by geography. Because we are less bound by geography, we long to live in nice places. Beautiful places. And therefore all those places are under pressure. People yearn today to live in real human settlements that remind us where we are.

The Vineyard is, above all, a diverse collection of communities - of people, of flora and fauna, of landscapes. The longer we're here, the better we know it, and the more there is to know. That sense has convinced us that we should concentrate our work here. 

We designate 10% of our profits for contributions to charitable organizations - mostly local. Many of us serve on town and regional boards and, as a company, we express ourselves about important local issues. We hire locally as much as we can and we create good jobs that help families to have good lives. And we devote ourselves, in many ways, to helping to solve the affordable housing crisis and spread the use of renewable energy. 

Our commitment to concentrate our work here includes a commitment to do what we can to make this the best place possible for our children and grandchildren.

Our commitment to concentrate our work here includes a commitment to do what we can to make this the best place possible for our children and grandchildren. The Vineyard is well known as a haven for celebrities and a center of wealth, but it is less well known as a diverse multicultural community full of rich social connections and people with many needs. Its rural roots and agriculture, the Wampanoag Tribe the growing Brazilian culture, the vibrant artistic and cultural community, the struggling fishing industry - all need our support to sustain the beauty and diversity of our island home.

The Vineyard maintains strong characteristics of community. It is safe, beautiful, and culturally rich. Many live here for its sense of community and some seasonal residents return year after year as much for the community as for the beauty. 

The profile of seasonal residents is changing. We have built a number of houses for people who originally imagined them as summer residences, only to see them transformed into primary homes because the island offers such an appealing way of life. Many have sold the suburban house where they raised their families, rented or bought an apartment in the city, and now spend a larger part of each year living on the Vineyard. Some have begun to vote here, because their vote may have greater impact in local elections, which have such a direct impact on their adopted community and therefore on their lives.

Islands are laboratories, and the Vineyard is a good one for recognizing, testing, and working to enhance the connections among small business, the built environment, and community, and for realizing the potential of commerce, local government, and non-profits to collaborate for the common good. The physical isolation may allow us to see things more clearly, because boundaries and limits are so well defined. Islands are semi-closed systems. When you get off the boat or the plane and set foot on the Vineyard, you know immediately that you are in a place with limitations. The social complexity combines in interesting ways with the fixed boundaries, creating conditions for innovative problem solving and community initiative.

Islanders have always been aware that our unique environmental qualities are strong suits, tied directly to the character of the community and our economic vitality. Some of our early seasonal residents were visionary conservationists. In the 1890s a Harvard geologist created Seven Gates Farm, putting seventeen hundred acres into a permanent trust that provided for just thirty homesites and no private landownership (those who have built houses there lease the land). It was carefully planned; each house had to touch a steel stake that he drove into the ground on its site. In those days Seven Gates was a long day's carriage ride from the ferry in Vineyard Haven. These properties (although you can't even own one) have become some of the most expensive on the island because they are in an uncommonly beautiful area with such well-protected surroundings. There are still a few unbuilt properties in the trust, and there, more than one hundred years later, you can still find the steel stakes; in fact you must, because your new house must touch that stake.

Private nonprofits have been buying and managing local land for decades. In 1986 island voters created the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, an unusual public body (there are still only half a dozen in the nation) that collects a 2 percent transfer fee on real estate purchases, except for some which are exempted, like the first $300,000 for first-time homebuyers. The funds are used to purchase, hold, and manage property for public access and environmentally appropriate use.

We are beginning to understand that "continuity of generations" ... is essential for keeping a place whole.

At the same time, people conservation has taken its place alongside land conservation as the community has united to solve the affordable housing crisis. We are beginning to understand that "continuity of generations" (as local ecologist Tom Chase calls it) is essential for keeping a place whole--it's what keeps stories and traditions alive, maintains a population with a good understanding of the land and the climate, and provides a window to the past and the door to the future.

Sprawl has not yet gotten out of hand. The villages still feel like villages. To keep it that way we must make good choices. In many cases we have; in others we haven't. For example, large-lot zoning initiatives adopted in the 1970s led to the unintended consequence of partial suburbanization of a rural landscape. Inadequate transportation planning and funding has led to serious traffic problems. But the Vineyard remains in fair condition. Restoration is conceivable.

In small communities people often wear many hats and work on several sides of the table simultaneously. This can lead to conflicts of interest, long-standing feuds, and small-mindedness, but it also can lead to wonderful synergies. Small towns where people know one another in different contexts have built-in safeguards--family connections, business associations, and the ever-active rumor mill--that help maintain balance. When you can't hide, there's more incentive to behave. People learn whom they trust, whom they can work with. The wearing of many hats creates a more informed citizenry and greater possibilities for shared cooperation among business, government, and nonprofits. The three sectors can weave together their different perspectives and abilities to energize positive change.

At SMC one year, we counted among our 30 employees the chair of the regional planning commission, the vice chair of the regional housing authority, two board members (including the chair) of the Island Affordable Housing Fund, one town conservation commission member, two members of town zoning boards of appeal, and many other civic and local government participants. These individuals bring the community into the company and the company into the community.

For the past five years, under the auspices of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, many islanders have been working on a 50 year plan for the Vineyard called, simply, the Island Plan.

To quote from the plan: "The purpose of the Island Plan is to chart a course to the kind of future the Vineyard community wants, and to outline a series of actions to help us navigate that course.  The Island Plan is both a blueprint and a call to action.”  When the Steering Committee first convened, the message was loud and clear, “Our shelves are full of well-meaning plans. We need to do something different – something bold and compelling that shakes up our current reality.  We need a 50 year plan. 

Four themes emerged:  economy, community, ecology, & land. The effort has not been an isolated one – it builds on the stellar long-time work of our conservation groups, our housing groups, the Vineyard Energy Project, the Island Grown Initiative, and countless other non-profit, for profit, and town-led efforts to build a strong future.  The intention was to paint a picture of a synchronized philosophy of durable community, a timeless and robust vision that cascades down to actionable goals and strategies that will benefit all of us who live on the Vineyard, full time and part, and all who visit.

Our CEO, John Abrams, served on the Steering Committee and chaired one of the nine work groups – Livelihood & Commerce (The others are Development & Growth, Natural Environment, the Built Environment, Energy & Waste, Affordable Housing, Transportation, Water Resources, and Social Environment). 

The nine work groups – each with at least one steering committee member and 5 – 10 others - worked concurrently.  Hundreds of others formed a Network of Planning Advisors who weighed in in a variety of ways.  There was a conscious effort to make a public process that was central - that had meaning for the whole population, not just an alternative faction.  It was an effort to gradually – over time – change the conversation and create new understandings.

About the process, John says, “I spent more time working on the plan than I wished to and less time than I should have.  The Plan is not what I hoped it would be when we first began work.  I hoped it would be so compelling it didn’t even seem like a plan but a great never-ending story.  A truly inspiring plan.  A mouth-watering five course meal.

I have to say that we failed to do that.  It was unrealistic, of course.  It’s not one person’s dream meal; it’s a stew, added to and stirred by many.  At times, during the process, I found myself somewhat heartbroken, because the opportunity was so great and I felt we were falling short, but toward the end it got better, and I felt better, and it’s not a bad stew.  And it’s an iterative plan, one that we can work on in the decades to come, always re-considering, always re-shaping.”

There are 207 promising strategies within the plan.  Together, they provide a wealth of possibilities that we can dig into over time, each as its time comes.   A great beginning.

And a great addition to this wonderful, always-changing place.