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'Not on Nantucket': A longstanding battle simmers

Email|Print| Text size + By Sally Horchow
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2005

NANTUCKET -- In 1881, Emma Folger, a Nantucket schoolteacher, wrote a letter complaining to a friend about the colors of her neighbor's Victorian home.

''The Johnsons have painted their house a deep red, and the window-sills and doors etc. yellow," she wrote, in a letter on file at the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library. ''The Nantucket people shake their heads and wonder what it all means, and what everything is going to."

When it comes to change on Nantucket, some things never change.

More than a century later, on an island that has fought hard to preserve the quaint charms of its historic past, worrying about ''what everything is going to" is once again a popular pastime. In recent years, ''It's Nice in Nantucket" bumper stickers have been replaced by the trendier ''It Used to Be Nice in Nantucket." Trophy houses and Hummers are today's harbingers of the island's doom.

Because of strict conservation measures (every exterior modification on Nantucket is subject to approval by the Historical District Commission, and the Nantucket Land Bank has helped protect 45 percent of the island's 50 square miles from development), Nantucket's 300-year-old architectural vernacular has been relatively well maintained. That, however, means every physical change seems significant, particularly to Nantucket's longtime summer residents.

''Everybody complains," said David Halberstam, author and journalist, who has owned a second home on Nantucket since 1969. ''The upside is that it gives people who would otherwise have to talk about real things something else to say. Now they can always talk about the changes and the new money."

While Nantucket long has been a popular vacation destination for the wealthy, recently skyrocketing real estate prices are increasingly making the island the summer domain of the super-rich. The average sale price for a single-family house in 2004 was $1.67 million, up from $522,000 in 1996, according to H. Flint Ranney, a veteran real estate agent.

For once, year-round residents and longtime summer people have something to agree about: a concern that this ''new money" has little respect for old Nantucket.

Every few years, a different house becomes the focus of criticism. Among the houses raising eyebrows these days are the mansion of Roger Penske, the race car team and track owner, in the Pocomo section, and the $12 million property of Louis V. Gerstner Jr., a former chairman of IBM, in the Monomoy area.

The scale of island businesses, growing to meet the influx of almost a million visitors annually, is another sore subject. Mary Bennett, a summer homeowner from Washington, said she was shocked by the new farmstand building under construction at Bartlett's Farm, which once sold produce from the back of a truck.

''It looks as big as the Whole Foods in my neighborhood at home," she said.

John Bartlett, chief executive of the farm, said, ''In order to keep up, we have to grow." When it opens in the fall, the stand's retail space will be only 300 square feet larger than the current store, Bartlett said, but he acknowledged that some people will complain.

''Those same people will tell you they want an alternative to the Stop & Shop," he said.

Even bigger changes are being planned. A proposed 3.28-acre Great Harbor Yacht Club would convert a working boatyard into a members-only club. A 29,000-square-foot terminal at the airport would upgrade it to meet post-9/11 standards.

Andrew Vorce, director of planning for the Nantucket Planning and Economic Development Commission, said he believed it is the accumulation of changes that affects summer residents.

''There's a deep emotional attachment to Nantucket," Vorce said. ''Now that things have picked up here, it has become less the sleepy community that it was 20 years ago, and it's very upsetting for them."

Concerns often abate after new projects are completed, he said.

''Sometimes, the impact of the change gets exaggerated, until you actually see what it is, and you realize, gee, it isn't so bad after all," he said. The Whaling Museum, for example, reopened last month after two years of renovation, with to few complaints.

Last year, the summer's big issue was the new Ralph Lauren store on Main Street, the first time a major national clothing chain opened on Nantucket. Although Nantucket Looms, a weaving studio and showcase for island artisans that had occupied the prime Main Street real estate since 1968, simply moved to nearby Federal Street, the building's $6.5 million sale seemed symbolic.

''It's the first crack in the windowpane," said Alvin Topham, a year-round resident and former member of the planning commission.

Last spring, Wendy Hudson, owner of Nantucket Bookworks on Broad Street, initiated a proposal that would have prohibited chain stores in the downtown historic district. It was tabled until the April 2006 Town Meeting after calls for more information and clearer language.

''One or two Ralph Laurens are not the end of the world," Hudson said. ''But it would be a real loss to the community if Main Street became an open-air mall."

When the Brotherhood of Thieves, a beloved 33-year-old restaurant, closed last winter for a major expansion, the owners posted the construction plans and photographs online (www.brotherhoodofthieves.com), along with explanations of what would change (the restrooms, for one thing) and what wouldn't (the hamburgers and curly fries).

Sandy Knox-Johnston, a part-time Nantucket resident and business owner, said the Brotherhood's owners had been cooperative and willing to listen to neighbors' concerns. Reactions to the new, improved restaurant, she said, have been positive.

Now, however, with crowds at their peak, everyone has moved on to complaining about the traffic, which has proven more than the island's narrow streets can handle. Legislation to limit the number of cars on the island has languished at the state level.

''There's so much traffic," said Sarah Stephenson of Greenwich, Conn., whose family has owned a house on Nantucket for four generations. ''It gets worse every year. We don't need any more people."

Still, would anything keep her from returning to Nantucket?

''Oh, no." she said. ''I love coming back. You learn to cope."

Sally Horchow is a freelance writer in California whose family has a home on Nantucket.

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