When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985 I was as ignorant about zoning and land-use planning as I was about refuse disposal. (See “Unsustainable” for more about that.)
My education started PDQ: In January of my first winter, I attended a meeting of the West Tisbury planning board where what eventually became the Deep Bottom Pond subdivision was on the agenda. The place was packed. This gave me an unexpected partial answer to the perennial question “What do you people do in the winter?” The civic-minded among us turn out en masse for board meetings on hot topics!
Before the end of that month, my “Sonnets on a Planning Board Meeting” were an op-ed in the Vineyard Gazette. At the moment I’m particularly struck by these lines (emphasis added):
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.
The rules are daunting, long and complex and written in legalese. It’s a rare annual town meeting that doesn’t at least tweak them in some way, sometimes after heated debate. Homeowners, builders, and, hey, just about everyone at some time or another complain about how picayune and restrictive they are, and how easily they can be amended or interpreted to suit particular needs. There’s plenty of truth in this, but the larger problem is the perception that while ordinary people must jump through hoop after hoop after hoop, anyone with enough money, time, and legal expertise can blow the hoops down and do whatever they want.
That perception is justified, even though deep pockets don’t always guarantee a win. During the fight against the roundabout in 2011–12, I attended enough Martha’s Vineyard Commission meetings to realize that deep pockets aren’t the only problem. Some of our elected officials seem all too ready to ignore both the letter and the spirit of the rules and regs when it suits them. (I blogged about the roundabout battle frequently. This blogsite’s search function — look over on the right — will return a bunch of hits. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.)
Zoning bylaws can have unintended and unforeseen effects. Suburban-style three-acre zoning has been disastrous in West Tisbury and other semi-rural and small-town places, contributing to the breakdown of community, inefficient land use, and the ever worsening housing crisis, but three or four decades ago it looked like a good idea, at least to those who stood to benefit from it in the short term.
And no, this is not confined to zoning, or to Martha’s Vineyard. “The law” is far more complex than West Tisbury zoning bylaws and just as easily manipulated by interests with deep pockets that have a lot at stake. It takes serious effort just to learn how it works, and far more to affect the process and influence the outcome. Small wonder that most people throw up their hands and swear they’ll have nothing to do with “politics.”
Trouble is, as things get worse and worse (as they almost certainly will if we don’t pay attention), we get either angrier and angrier or ever more depressed. Often we become patsies for knights in shining armor who turn out to be snake-oil salesmen, and the anger that could be channeled into constructive action gets directed at scapegoats (see “X is for Xenophobia”).
And this, dear readers, is what Martha’s Vineyard has given me over the years: endless opportunities to “chunk it down” and see how things work on the ground. This is a mixed blessing, to say the least. I’d love to blame everything that goes wrong on impersonal forces or identifiable enemies, but I can’t. I and my friends and neighbors, virtually all of us, are accomplices, willing or unwilling, witting or unwitting. The upside? This means there are things we can do about it.
Here ends the alphabet, and with it my contribution to the 2018 Blogging A to Z Challenge. I did it! Thanks to all who’ve encouraged me, especially all who’ve liked or commented on particular posts.
Blogging almost every day, combined with editing for a living and meeting other commitments, has left little time for following the A-to-Zs of my fellow bloggers. Now I’m going to catch up.