Scenic Martha's Vineyard grapples with growth crisis
By Carol K. Dumas, Globe Correspondent, 8/05/2000
Flodstrom was one of the lucky people who bought property in the 1970s, before Martha's Vineyard real estate skyrocketed and squeezed many islanders out of the real estate market.
"I bought my house for $5,000 back in 1974," said Flodstrom, 70, who retired here from Walpole. Today, it's hard to find anything for under $200,000. Most real estate listings begin around $300,000 and go into the multimillion-dollar range. Unprecedented growth on the island, home to only 15,000 in summer, has made total build-out a chilling reality. The Martha's Vineyard Commission estimates build-out could occur as soon as 2005.
Current houses for sale include a 4,000-square-foot house in Edgartown with five bedrooms and a studio apartment for $1.4 million; an 1800s Greek Revival with five bedrooms for $925,000; a four-bedroom contemporary within walking distance to South Beach for $729,000; and a three-bedroom saltbox on a two-thirds wooded acre for $275,000.
Growth is the burning issue for year-rounders who live in the Vineyard's six small towns, all with their own boards of selectmen, police and fire chiefs.
To control residential building, five out of six towns established building caps last year (Tisbury was the exception), according to Ron Rappaport, an attorney who serves as counsel to most of the Vineyard towns.
Some towns have restrictions to prevent what real estate agents wryly call "starter castles," the huge houses going up on small lots, and others have increased minimum lot sizes (five acres in Chilmark). The Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust has acquired and preserved many of the key endangered landmarks.
Two percent of all real estate sales ($352 million last year) fund the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, which buys up large tracts of land for conservation. Other groups, including the Vineyard Preservation Society and The Nature Conservancy, actively buy open space or convince owners to put perpetual conservation restrictions on their property.
Without question, this summer resort is an exclusive second-home buyers' market. "If you can find something that's under $200,000, well, it's amazing," said Barbara Nevin of Harborside Realty in Edgartown, who has sold real estate here for more than 20 years.
"We sold a house for $9.5 million and another for $12.5 million," she said. A buildable lot can go as high as $350,000.
But Nevin has seen signs of the market slowing. "I noticed one $12.5 [million] property was marked down to $10.5 [million] last week," she said. Sales are slightly off from last year, she said.
The cost of living is 30 percent higher than the mainland because most goods must be shipped by boat. This summer, for example, a gallon of regular gasoline was $1.99.
The island is overrun in summer with more than 100,000 people, drawn by the Vineyard's pristine beaches, scenic vistas, and its arts and entertainment.
Tourists stream in on ferries that dock at Tisbury, also called Vineyard Haven, and at Oak Bluffs, where turn-of-the-century gingerbread cottages painted salmon, lavender, blue and other surprising colors present a unique architectural character.
Rappaport, who lives in Chilmark, grew up on the Vineyard and after being away for 20 years, returned with his wife to raise their daughter. "It's a wonderful place to bring up children; it's a nuturing place," he said.
"As a kid, it was my whole world. When I went out into the real world and had something to compare it with, I knew that's what I wanted for my child."
Despite all the development, a small-town feeling prevails. There are no traffic lights (with the exception of one set noting the opening and closing of a drawbridge), no fast-food chains, and only a few main roads. Businesses are mostly privately owned. Edgartown's Main Street is lined with stately white Greek Revival homes, many dating back to the whaling era. There are six lighthouses on the island.
Farms still dot West Tisbury and Chilmark. Rural Aquinnah (known as Gay Head until 1998) was settled 5,000 years ago by the Wampanoag Indians, and their descendents still control 485 acres.
This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 8/05/2000.
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