The Problem Is Us... Unable To Find Common Ground

Joseph Topham •

Ohhhhh... it's us. Right! Got it.

Amy Eldridge nailed it when she said, "The problem is us," but how did we get here?

The New York Times called Walter Beinecke Jr. "A Savior of Old Nantucket." He, along with some business associates and friends, had simple and effective goals: to revive a seriously deteriorating Nantucket by appealing to tourists, the wealthy, the middle class, and prospering. The plan was to purchase as much of the town's waterfront as possible, with the intention of rehabilitating both dwellings and structures and restoring them to their former glory. Beinecke accomplished this by painstakingly restoring each building, dock plank by dock plank, brick by brick, and cobblestone by cobblestone. He poured millions of dollars into restoring churches, houses, and landmarks, and his efforts attracted the support of his friends and associates. Today, the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) helps fund Nantucket historic structure restorations.

Over time, the group succeeded in rebuilding Nantucket from the ashes of a bleak economy into a thriving tourist destination. The days of closing Nantucket on Labor Day were gone, and house designs shifted from purely seasonal dwellings to year-round planning, allowing homeowners and part-time islanders to return for December Stroll or spend Christmas on Nantucket. Small businesses began to emerge, and existing businesses were revitalized by the extended tourist season. This also provided island tradespeople with the opportunity to earn a good living and support their families. In short, we all benefited from Mr. Beinecke's vision.

Naturally, the growing "monopoly" created by Beinecke and his associates unsettled some islanders and even some non-islanders. In 1968, residents, both summer and year-round, wore pins that said, "No Man Is An Island" and "Ban the B." Yes, rents and daily costs increased, but so did our quality of living. We have benefited from Mr. Beinecke's vision. Without it, we might have ended up with tacky beachfront resort motels, an abundance of miniature golf courses, kitschy eateries, and an elevated boardwalk from town to Monomoy over the marshes, or a massive restaurant placed in the middle of the marshland, all things one could find on the mainland. Thankfully, we didn't want that. We wanted the development to be done thoughtfully with style and proper planning.

To that end, the Nantucket Historical Trust, Historic District Commission, Nantucket Conservation Foundation, The Artists’ Association, and The Island Chamber of Commerce were established. They began running advertisements to attract tourists to come see and stay on our beautiful island, with its rich history. One of Beinecke's quotes was "Watch it, or influence it." Perhaps that saying was the catalyst for the creation of the Historic District Commission (HDC), although I'm not certain. But Beinecke certainly was the driving force.

The restoration, rebuilding, and rebranding of Nantucket by Beinecke had unforeseen consequences or intentionally overlooked consequences that have benefited the vast majority of us. Formerly quiet inns and the few hotels were fully booked throughout the entire summer, and very busy during the shoulder seasons. Restaurant tables were constantly being reserved, and small coffee shops, bike rentals, and t-shirt shops flourished. Petticoat Row is again owned mostly by female small business owners.

Today, most, if not all, of his work is still in place, but it has been reinvented and refined. With the disappointing exception of 800 to 1,000 people living below poverty levels, we can all say that we have a good life on Nantucket. But have we all done enough to adapt to these changes? I have heard about the housing crisis since the 1970s, but finally, progress is being made. We now have the Affordable Housing Trust - and due to their hard work, we are now in Safe Harbor - along with Housing Nantucket, Habitat for Humanity, the Nantucket Rental Assistance Program (NRAP), as well as the Covenant Program and eight housing facilities for the elderly on Nantucket. But, we still have a housing shortage and overcrowding of renters in a dwelling.

As voters, we wisely removed the ability to create or build new hotels in all but Residential Commercial (RC) and CMI zoning. However, the rise of short-term rentals (STRs) has become a fat loud elephant in the room because of this decision. We need to come together for the benefit of the community, not just ourselves. The problem is us unable to find common ground.

Nantucket's Planning Board, created in 1955, operated without the benefit of any plan until 1970. Planning documents intended to serve as master plans created between 1970 and 2001 were not consistent with the state statute. Goals and objectives documents in 1983 and 1990 were submitted as warrant articles by the Nantucket Planning & Economic Development Commission (NP&EDC) and received strong support from Town Meeting. We need to be proactive and adjust those warrant articles now and going forward.

The job of the Planning Board is to apply the Massachusetts subdivision regulations which govern some of the rights of the property owners. The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) is the other board, but our goal is to guide the arc of development and growth with a thoughtful and well-laid-out plan. While some people may believe that we have failed on certain articles, I see it as multiple meetings with robust discussions leading to presenting the community with valuable insights and comments, improving the outcome. That is our job, simply put, to prepare articles for your approval or rejection. In the last town meeting, we approved more articles than were defeated.

Your invaluable perspective on an article at Town Meeting is taken back each time to the Planning Board members and staff, with the intent to craft an article based on your input or outright kill an article. Thank you. That being said, we would like more community members to be engaged and attend our meetings or call a Planning Board member to discuss an alternative perspective that we might have overlooked. We believe that discussion on a topic will bring the best results for the community. While I/we would love to have as many conversations as possible, whenever and wherever, we can't because of the constraints of Open Meeting Laws (OML).

All 13 neighborhood village workgroups have completed neighborhood input surveys, and that information has been delivered to the Barrett Planning Group. Just last month, Ms. Judi Barrett informed the Planning Board that they will have the DRAFT Master Plan ready for review by the end of the year, just about the time our 2009 Master Plan is at its end of usefulness. (FYI - Master Plans set the stage for the public and private sectors to create a community's desired vision for the next 15-20 years.) Sadly, this is contrary to misinformation provided by some members of the community and organizations on the island. The new Master Plan will become a living document to stay current with Nantucket's needs.

My last two years have been great serving on the Planning Board, and I have enjoyed every moment, including Town Meeting. I am not saying we are perfect by any means, but we are working hard as volunteers for the town. I personally invest a minimum of 20-30 hours per month of my own time to help work towards the greater good of Nantucket.

Each member of the current board brings their own skill set of invaluable life experiences that help us bring the best discussions for Nantucket. One member we desperately need going forward is Dave Iverson. His knowledge of housing, zoning, sub-division bylaws, etc. is needed so we can implement the policies and changes necessary. He has an amazing gift for opening dialogue between all town boards and probably with 99 percent of community members. He and I, as chair and vice chair, have had discussions on ways to move the needle even more in a positive direction. The removal of a board member of this caliber would stall the hard work we've started.

The Inquirer & Mirror has wisely endorsed him, so please help me and the majority of other Nantucketers to reelect Dave to the Planning Board.


Joseph Topham
Planning Board Vice-Chair

P.S. HDC vote Joe Paul

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