Sonnets on a Planning Board Meeting

In “Small-Town Journalism in the ’80s,” guest blogger Eileen Maley recalled covering “West Tisbury’s planning board meetings, where much of the action took place. Overflow crowds showed up to hear proposals to chop up large plots of land for housing and to hear tough-minded responses from the elected board members.”

Strange but true, I wrote a sonnet sequence about one of those meetings. According to my manuscript copy, the meeting took place on January 13, 1986. It was my first winter on Martha’s Vineyard. I was trying to understand how things worked. (I’m still working on it.) The sonnets appeared on the op-ed page of the Vineyard Gazette a few weeks later. This might have been my first island publication.

Sonnets on a Planning Board Meeting

He tries to sit at eye to eye with all
the people in the room. His shirt is red,
his sweater brown, his manner folksy: “call
me one of you.” I think it’s just pretend.
Not one of us has come to be his friend;
we’ve come to hear him talk before we fall
upon his plan and tear it into shreds.
Gut grief for it, and him, unnerves us all.
Should I be in this room myself? I’m new
in town. What could I say to undermine
the plots this man is laying? Just a few
of those here gathered speak, but they do fine.
These mostly strangers speak my fears, they do
what I cannot — not yet, but give me time.

His name can be dispensed with — not his plan.
He means to clear two hundred acres, build
his houses, eighty-six, upon this land
he does not own. The agent’s role he fills
for one who was astute enough some years
ago to put his money into earth,
a man who stays in Washington, appears
by hireling proxy here (for what that’s worth).
His job is to develop land, which means
to bring to greater, better state: improve.
Who chooses to be undeveloped deems
herself anachronistic, out of groove.
Tonight the moon’s in Pisces; till it moves,
remember things are more than what they seem.

He never says, but still he makes it clear,
he’s doing us a favor. See? His map
shows forty acres common land. “Now clap
for me,” he thinks, “or else. Or never fear,
the next guy will be worse.” How nice that land
will look to tourists driving by, a hint
of what was here before the houses, glint
of sun on glass, electric wires, the grand
parade of cars along new roads. How nice.
On my walk through two days ago I found
surveyors’ marks: red ribbons tied to pegs.
New gouges in the old dirt road suffice
to give me warning, mute but full of sound:
This earth must suffer silent, will not beg.

This crowded room gives license for her friends
to speak in her behalf. The Health Board warns
how nitrites leach through sandy soil, then end
polluting nearby coves. A young man mourns
his loss of income when the pond is closed
for oysters; toxin levels are too high
already. Crisis hits who crisis sows?
We know who tells it that way tells a lie.
Upon the wall the owner’s man has hung
his plan. The pond does not appear, nor do
the beach plums, deer, raccoons, or branches slung
above the leaves. The map provides no clue
to what is there. Instead it shows thin lines
across the paper, earth reduced to signs.

This dextrous wizardry cannot be stopped,
it seems that right is on his side. This plan
is like a demon called when no one can
inspire the strength to bind it. Who would opt
for rules finds rules are less than ribbons when
this monster must be bound. We play for keeps
yet stay between the lines as faint hope seeps
away. Polite we are to all these men,
pretending what they say is not insane,
short-sighted, greedy, shocking, and inane.
Myself, I speak in mannered sonnet form
when outraged pain and ire should be the norm;
where legal arguments uphold the wrong,
our magic must be dark, earth-deep, and strong.

January 24–26, 1986

Reflections almost 30 years later: Wow. The plan being discussed eventually became Deep Bottom Pond, a suburban country club subdivision without the country club. “How nice that land / will look to tourists driving by, a hint / of what was here before the houses”: I was a clueless newbie, but I sure nailed that part. What strikes me now is the undercurrent of tragedy: “where legal arguments uphold the wrong / our magic must be dark, earth-deep, and strong.” Our magic wasn’t strong enough. At almost every turn the people with money and lawyers have won.


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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4 Responses to Sonnets on a Planning Board Meeting

  1. Susanna:

    The sonnets are as timely now as they were then. You’re so right -– money and lawyers win every time. Nicely done.
    Jonathan Revere called that development “Dallas East.”




    Liked by 1 person

  2. nick23mosey says:

    “The map provides no clue / to what is there. Instead it shows thin lines / across the paper, earth reduced to signs.” is exactly right — takes me back to to some 4 yrs on the Mansfield CT Planning & Zoning Commission (early ’90’s). We went out on site visits & were somewhat fervent on preservation, but the power of money & lawyers, the limits of statute & case law & the Town’s anxiety about expensive lawsuits meant in practice most of the time we were nibbling around the edges. The most power for conservation lay in the Wetlands legislation – the Zoning was based on an implicit assumption of the Landowner’s entitlement to exploit his/her land. “Or never fear, / the next guy will be worse.” is a familiar theme. The CT process did not involve the public (unless they were abutters) except as spectators. On the other hand we were in general intent on preserving what was there, and working in concert to do so sometimes got results – on occasion by a process of attrition.
    Thanks very much for these — a reminder of past on a cloudy day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Nibbling around the edges” is right. Or trying to bargain with a whirlwind. Finally the island towns are catching on to how their zoning regs not only don’t protect against overdevelopment, they make it harder to deal with the affordable housing crisis. Three-acre zoning in West Tisbury has contributed to the breakdown in “community,” which everyone says they want but not (of course) if it seems to threaten their property values.


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