Chris Perry Column: They Left It Better Than They Found It

Chris Perry •

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What’s going to happen next?

With Daffodil Weekend in the rearview mirror, most of the island’s attention will now shift to next week’s Town Meeting. There will be the inevitable final push of (mis) information, lawn signs erected, and handouts prepared as sponsors rally their supporters.

But as reported by Nantucket Current, ACK Now’s part in next week’s Town Meeting is up in the air. After developing into a highly influential yet controversial organization over the last few years including its well-publicized stance against investor-owned short-term rentals, the role AC KNow will play moving forward is as much of a mystery as locating Gravelly Island.

Most of the questions surrounding ACK Now’s next move have been directed to its founder and financial backbone, Peter McCausland. When you send out a newsletter and announce that you and your wife have personally donated over $2 million dollars to ACK Now causes and you are stepping away in the hopes other local organizations such as Put Nantucket Neighborhoods First (PNNF) will pick up the ball and run with it, you are going to get a few phone calls.

In anticipation of Town Meeting, McCausland doesn’t mince words, especially when it comes to his position on short-term rentals (STRs).

“I don’t presume to tell people how to vote but I am concerned that this debate may never end despite Judge Vhay’s recent ruling. Articles that would allow unlimited commercial, short-term rentals have been defeated three times already at Town Meeting. If article 59 goes down this year, that will be four in a row. How many more times do we need to defeat this?” asked a frustrated McCausland when I spoke with him last week.

Lately, both sides have ratcheted up the rhetoric, oftentimes crossing the line of civility. Much like Thunderdome, desperation is setting in and someone better blow the whistle. But no matter which side of the debate you stand on, McCausland and ACK Now certainly deserve their share of the credit for bringing the STR topic to the forefront for debate.

To be fair, ACK Now has shown that it is more than just a willing participant in the short-term rental debate. In fact, after a bumpy start a few years ago in which I referred to their initial Town Meeting performance as one that was “below the Mendoza Line,” their recent success can be summed up best by Mark Twain who said “Behind every successful man, there is a woman…”

In this case, there are two.

Enter Julia Lindner.

Linder came to Nantucket in 2005 with her husband, Chuck, with a background in finance via Queen’s University in Ontario.

“We lived in Madaket and I started getting involved in neighborhood groups such as the Madaket Conservation Association and the Madaket Resident Association,” said Linder.

“I wanted to get familiar with the landscape and island policies and that led me to two years on the FinCom. I wasn’t able to reapply, but soon thereafter, the town of Nantucket was looking for a financial analyst and I jumped at it. I was known as ‘The Budget Lady’ and worked closely with Brian Turbitt and Lynell Vollans,” summed up the former Fin Com member.

It was during this period that Lindner recognized the island was “growing at an unsustainable level resulting in a demand on tax dollars….”

“I could see how growth - while positive in some respects - was straining the island including town government,” offered Lindner.

After three years, "Chuck and I decided it was best for the kids if we moved off-island. We ended up in Sherborn, Mass., which was the closest thing to Madaket without the ocean. I just couldn’t cut all ties to the island so I took a job with Alan Worden and his Community Data Platform company and started commuting back and forth to Nantucket,” she continued.

It wasn’t long before the phone rang and McCausland was on the other end.

“I had no idea who Peter McCausland was - never meet him before - but he explained that he represented a group of people on Nantucket who were concerned about growth on the island. He wanted to hire me as the executive director. It was truly a grassroots effort from scratch. I shared the same passion so I decided to take the job even though it meant an increase in travel.”

ACK Now was born.

A board was created, focus groups started, and, as Lindner offered up, “We threw a little spaghetti against the wall but we also stepped in a few potholes early on.”

An unsuccessful attempt to address some of the island’s transportation issues was the first of a few initial disappointments.

“We should have done a better job. We made some early mistakes. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we learned from it. For example, we did our homework and got a lot of community members involved in the short-term rental issue,” said Lindner.

In 2021, Article 90 brought the topic to Town Meeting. Despite the fact it did not go smoothly, the town-wide debate eventually led to Articles 42 & 43 in 2022 and ultimately into the hands of the Short-Term Rental Work Group. This proved to be a defining moment for Lindner and ACK Now as she steadfastly remained in the 7-2 minority only to be proven correct as the STRWG’s compromise was shot down at Town Meeting in 2023.

Along the way, one of the successful moves by ACK Now was acknowledging the critical importance of fundraising.

Enter Susan Coffin.

Coffin, hailing from the north shore of Boston, had a successful track record in fund development including a position at Lahey Medical Center as a senior gift coordinator.

“My husband and I had been on-island for a couple of years and Peter and Julia reached out to me. I was impressed with the passion of their organization. I felt there was tremendous opportunity to expand their fundraising efforts. Before I knew it, I was working hand-in-hand with Julia,” said Coffin.

The Lindner-Coffin combo proved to be a winning formula. And when it comes to STRs, the recent Land Court decision and Judge Vhay’s written opinion only reconfirms that: “We were on the right track...” summarized Lindner.

But with every beginning, there is an end.

As reported by Nantucket Current, Lindner recently announced her resignation and is moving back off-island with her family. Toby and Susan Coffin moved back to the north shore last week to pursue consulting opportunities and to be closer to their family.

“Basically, we did what we could do,” offered up Coffin.

It’s been a wild ride for these two. An unlikely partnership coming together under the strangest of circumstances and ultimately being thrust into the middle of a heavy-weight fight. There are still a few rounds to go; but regardless of what happens at Town Meeting, part of their legacy left behind to Nantucket is a successful Lease to Locals program.

“Provincetown has followed our lead. It is an immensely popular program and I still plan on staying involved as long as I am needed because my goal is to make sure the program survives,” Lindner said.

“If my math is correct, the taxpayers of Nantucket have authorized roughly $80 million over the last five years including a $6.5 million override for affordable housing. It should be a no-brainer for some of that financial support to help local housing through Lease to Locals,” opined Lindner.

Lindner’s and Coffin’s departure seems to be part of a “soft exit” for ACK Now as no one has been hired to take the reins. Over the past few years, I have routinely sparred with the former executive director and the former director of development over many topics including the makeup of ACK Now’s Board of Directors, ACK Now’s criteria for their topic du jour, and their uncanny ability to pick a fight but not necessarily win. Along the way, they did not always make friends, and man, did Lindner give Short-Term Rental Work Group moderator Stacie Smith of Consensus Building Institute a beat down with kid gloves. But more often than not, she was the smartest in the room.

But in a relatively short amount of time, they bounced back from a couple of whiffs and a handful of early defeats to be a “player” in more than just the short-term rental debate. Where ACK Now goes from here is anyone's guess; but for Lindner and Coffin, whether you liked their politics or not, you’d have to say that they left Nantucket in better shape than they found it.

To me, that’s the ultimate compliment and far better than any Hall of Fame batting average.

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