So last night I attended the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s public hearing on the discretionary referral of the roundabout project as a DRI (development of regional impact). Got that?

Let me chunk it down a bit. A roundabout has been proposed for what may be the island’s busiest intersection, where Barnes Road crosses the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road. Many, many Vineyarders pass through that intersection several times a week; for quite a few, it may be several times a day. Currently there’s a four-way stop at this intersection. It replaced a light that blinked yellow in the most traveled (east–west) direction and red in the less-traveled (north–south) direction. This was terrible at peak traffic hours: east–west traffic cruised through at 40 mph and north–south traffic had to wait and wait and wait for a break. Most of us think the four-way stop is working great.

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) is a regional agency. Martha’s Vineyard comprises six towns, and this is one mechanism for dealing with matters that affect more than one town. Nine members are elected at large, one member is appointed by each town’s board of selectmen, and five (I think) are appointed by the governor.

When a proposed project is likely to affect more than one town, it can be considered a DRI (development of regional impact). The proposed roundabout affects pretty much the whole island. DRI for sure, right? No. The MVC cannot review any project unless the project is referred to it by the county (Martha’s Vineyard makes up most of the County of Dukes County) or a town government. Several of us did not realize this until last night. The applicant in this case was the town of Oak Bluffs, within whose borders the key intersection lies. Oak Bluffs did not refer the project. Why? That Oak Bluffs has arguably the most dysfunctional town government on the island may have had something to do with it.

This project has been flying under the radar for several years now. Many of us thought it had gone away for good. This past spring it woke from hibernation and we were bombarded with roundabout simulations and other cute graphics. The board of selectmen in my town, West Tisbury, were astonished that the project hadn’t been reviewed as a DRI, so they made a discretionary referral to the MVC, asking the MVC to consider the project as a DRI. This is what last night’s hearing was about. All caught up now?

So I get to the meeting room and take a seat. The commissioners are sitting at tables that make up three sides of a square. To my eye they look gray, not gray in the sense of old but gray in the sense of cobweb-and-dusty. We are sternly admonished by D. Sederholm, vice chairman, that this hearing is about the DRI referral, it is emphatically not about the merits of the roundabout. He then yields the floor to a nice fellow from the contractor, who proceeds to give a one-sided presentation on the merits of the project that goes on for about half an hour. This is followed by maybe 15 minutes of discussion among the commissioners, also about the merits of the project. I get the distinct impression that we are doomed.

Finally Richard Knabel and Cindy Mitchell, of the West Tisbury board of selectmen, take their places in the “hot seats,” on the fourth side of the square, facing the commissioners, directly across from the MVC executive director, Mark London, whose pet project the roundabout is said to be. They present the case for the discretionary referral.

Several of us from the audience speak, starting with Sandra Lippens, who runs Tilton Rentall, at one of the four corners that will be wrecked by the roundabout. Among other things, she has a front-row seat at the intersection and probably knows more about what goes on there than anyone. Her perception is that accidents have been greatly reduced since the institution of the four-way stop, and that those that do happen are minor fender-benders. Trip Barnes, who runs a trucking company (and for whose family Barnes Road is named), speaks; and Madeline Fisher, who along with Sandra and Trip have been trying to follow the project from its first emergence around 2004. This has not been easy. I speak as one of the faces the commissioners haven’t seen before. My last line is something like “I’d like to remind everyone that if the four-way stop remains just the way it is, the world will not come to an end.”

State money for the project is in place, and this spring the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, specifically the state Department of Transportation, took over management of the project. The commissioners seem to view the DRI referral as a big pothole that has suddenly appeared in a heretofore smooth road. They wish it would go away. Maybe they can drive over it? They do ask the state people what effect a possible delay might have on the funding. The answer seems to be that the project would be delayed, but the funding wouldn’t disappear.

I walked into the meeting thinking that the DRI was a no-brainer. I walk out sure that they’re going to weasel out of it somehow. The questions about delay, however, seem to have been a good sign. When I talk to Richard in the morning, he tells me that the MVC has accepted the project as a DRI.

We won this round.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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6 Responses to Roundabout

  1. Hal Davis says:

    That last sentence should have read:

    That’s a different fight, but this project’s re-emergence seems to be a prime example of the second problem.


  2. Hal Davis says:

    i was hoping someone would jump in and save my bacon.

    I’ve driven through roundabouts recently, and they seem to be effective solutions to intersections where, for various reasons, there are a lot of crashes. As I zipped through my second on the same highway, I thought, “This is useful. No one waits at a red light, no one jumps the light, we all get through the same intersection unscathed.” On the ones I drove through. there were guidelines, slight Jersey-barrier type separators of lanes as we approached.

    It might not be right for the corner Susanna is discussing.

    But the way this project is moving forward suggests the the community’s voice is not being heard. That’s a failure of governance. As Susanna pointed out, a regional issue should be referred to a regional council.

    “The applicant in this case was the town of Oak Bluffs, within whose borders the key intersection lies. Oak Bluffs did not refer the project. Why? That Oak Bluffs has arguably the most dysfunctional town government on the island may have had something to do with it.”

    So this project took on a stealth trajectory. And suddenly popped up again. Transparent government is best. That’s a different fight, but this project’s re-emergence seems to ne p[rome example of the second problem.


    • When I first heard about the proposed roundabout, I thought to myself, “If it looks like this is going to happen, I will commit civil disobedience to stop it.” It was that stupid. I hadn’t thought that in at least 20 years. (For the record I got busted on May 5, 1971, on the Capitol steps.) For a long time I thought it had gone away. This spring it came back. Madeline and a tiny band of others have been working on this for years. I’m a newcomer to the cause, but how Martha’s Vineyard works (or doesn’t work) has been my #1 fascination for almost half my life now (scary, huh) and this project embodies so many of the most frustrating and infuriating aspects of island governance. All of which is by way of saying that it’d take a book with lots of footnotes and hypertext links to explain the whole thing. 😉

      We have six town governments, a county government, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (also other regional bodies that aren’t in play here). The “R word” here means not “racism” but “regionalization.” As incendiary issues go, town autonomy vs. regionalization is like states’ rights vs. the federal government. Not kidding. So Oak Bluffs proceeds as if this project is only about Oak Bluffs, and other towns don’t want to step on OB’s toes. Even though OB town government is dysfunctional. The courage of the West Tisbury board of selectmen in making the discretionary referral cannot be understated. Neither Tisbury nor Edgartown would join WT. One WT selectman (the only island native of the three) voted against the referral because “it’s OB’s business.”

      One reason the community’s voice wasn’t heard is that the community wasn’t saying much. The Vineyard is a collection of overlapping small towns and family networks. If you’ve been here any length of time, you’re connected six or eight ways to almost everyone else, and some of those connections are probably tight — family, work, etc. Take a public stand on a hot issue and you’re almost certainly going to piss off someone close to you. Is it worth it? Usually not. One of my assets is that I know my way around but I don’t have family here, most of my income comes from off-island, and most of my friends are writers, artists, and people generally assumed to be flaky, i.e., politically inconsequential. IOW, I have nothing to lose. The flip side is that very few people are going to be influenced by anything I do.

      As far as I can tell, this mess involves a generous dollop of dysfunction, the fact that a few highly placed individuals just *love* roundabouts, the reluctance to mess with another town’s affairs, and a widespread reluctance among the working population to say anything out loud. Which tends to lead to general feelings of hopelessness and (occasionally) barely suppressed rage because if you won’t organize and speak out, it’s pretty hard to change anything. (Not unlike the kind of fury you see in the Tea Party, IMO.) I think there’s a lot more at stake here than traffic patterns at the blinker intersection.

      At this particular intersection the four-way stop works very well most of the year. There are peak times in the summer and also around 7 in the a.m. when traffic is flowing toward the nearby regional high school when the backups do get frustrating. Mostly we do really well with eye contact. We’ve got a couple of horrendous intersections, also with no traffic lights, and plenty of single-lane minor roads. Not to mention some hairy parking lots where vehicles are coming at you from five or six directions.


  3. Hal Davis says:

    You’re suggesting this roundabout is an unneeded solution, but it’s momentum as a stealth project has kept it alive.

    Might be two different issues.


  4. susan robinson says:

    good job, speaking up,and writing us about it


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