Z is for Zoning #AtoZChallenge

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.

Martha’s Vineyard Commission hearing on the roundabout proposal, September 2011.

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.

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.
This entry was posted in Martha's Vineyard, public life, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Z is for Zoning #AtoZChallenge

  1. Ahhh…Zoning… where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few….Just vote like Spock from now on…


  2. First of all, congrats for finishing the challenge. That’s never an easy task to blog every day, especially when embarking on a complex challenge. Yay, you did it!
    Then, it’s cool to end on “zoning,” if I can say, since zoning is always an issue because it can become rezoning and transforms residential neighborhoods into business areas.
    Again, bravo for blogging around each and every letter of the alphabet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I’m proud of myself for meeting the challenge — and grateful to the challenge for giving me many (26!) new angles to approach my favorite subject with. So true about zoning: it’s one of those background influences you often don’t notice until it starts having undesirable effects. Sort of like air and water that you take for granted until they get polluted!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Congratulations — you did it! Plus everything else you’ve got on your plate.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wendy says:

    Excellent list of essays, should be a book

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.