Whose Island Paradise?

President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton riding bicycles on Martha's Vineyard, August 1994. AP

A lovely house on a secluded island would probably meet most people's definition of a personal paradise. But, as 60 Minutes Correspondent Mike Wallace reported, attract too many people to the very same island and you get trouble in paradise.




There is something about an island that calms the soul.

It slows people down a little bit. It makes people feel like they're safe or they're special.

Allen Whiting's family helped settle Martha's Vineyard, in the Atlantic off the Massachusetts coast. He and his wife live on the family farm, taking care of horses and sheep. But most days you will find him on a beach, or in a pasture with his friend Bill McLane – painting.

"I think, within a very short distance of this spot, I have all that anyone who wants to paint could paint," says Whiting. "There are wonderful boats, there are land-locked farms, and there is the ocean. Landscapes without people is a safety zone for me.

Fifteen thousand islanders live in six towns year round. That's about the same as the total summertime population a generation or so ago. Now in the summer, the population balloons to 150,000.

New Yorker Nancy Ellison and her husband built a house on the Vineyard a decade ago. A photographer, her book "Vineyard Days, Vineyard Nights" is a love letter to her summer island.

"The mood of the island has a feeling of desirability; you want to touch it," says Ellison. "I think everybody feels like the moment they go to the Vineyard, it's like 'Oh, it's perfect. Now let's keep everybody else out.'"

But recently, everybody seems to want in. Million-dollar homes keep popping up. Even the smallest starter home costs over $300,000, a stiff price for year-round-residents who earn about $45,000 a year.

"A working guy really has a hard time. There's not much affordable housing," says local carpenter Andrew Bradshaw of Edgartown. "The island's already pretty much ruined. It's not anything close to what it was, which is solitude and quiet and peacefulness of the little towns, and how everyone used to get along with each other. They think they're coming to paradise. But, really, if they could have seen what it was like when I was a kid, they'd realize that paradise is long gone."

Chris Murphy has fished the coastal waters off of Martha's Vineyard all his life.

"When I look around at the people buying in, the only people they need around here any more are somebody to mow the lawn and do the dishes," says Murphy. "They sure don't need somebody digging clams."

Murphy says wealthy people have always lived on the island -- contributing millions to social services. But he says the newcomers are not as welcoming.

Murphy recalls, "One day, they look out their windows and they see a guy taking fish in their front yard. And the next thing, there is a confrontation between the fisherman, me, and this very irate property owner, who just spent $3 million building a house. What am I doing in his front yard taking his fish?'"

Some at the Vineyard believe it was a shark, not a fish, that focused attention on Martha's Vineyard. Much of the 1975 movie "Jaws" was filmed there. People feared the shark, but they loved the beaches. And then land prices leapt again after President Bill Clinton vacationed there.

Many islanders sold their land, reaping huge profits, and left. Many year-round workers leave - or have to commute- because they can't afford to live there.

"They're tired of burning the candles at both ends to make ends meet. They're tired of paying 50 cents more a gallon for the gas or the high prices in the grocery store," says Lori Fingst, who moved to the island 14 years ago.

Fingst has made ends meet by holding down four or five part-time jobs. Her first six summers there, Fingst had to leave her winter rental and sleep on a sailboat because she couldn't afford the summer rent increases.

A lot of people have to do the Vineyard shuffle because they cannot afford a year-round rental or they do it to help pay the mortgage as well. So, they move out at the beginning of summer into a garage apartment or into a tepee or into a campsite.

Island towns have tried to create affordable housing. They sell small lots to year-round residents to build on. And, the houses were donated by their owners to the Town of Edgartown. The owners got a tax break, then the town moved them to publicly owned land and sold them to year-round residents.

"Those houses are probably worth half a million dollars. They were purchased from $150,000 to $180,000," says John Abrams, a local home builder, who also heads the island's affordable housing fund.

Abrams' company built 16 moderately priced houses on the island.

"You can call it people conservation," says Abrams. "Right now, we need a thousand units of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people. We've got a long way to go."

Everyone who buys property at the Vineyard pays a 2 percent tax on the purchase price. The money has been used to buy and conserve 1,500-acres, so far. But on the other hand, Chris Murphy says many on the island welcome development.

"The person selling T-shirts, opening a store, selling real estate is pushing just as hard in the other direction saying, 'No, no. We need more, more, more. More cars, more people, more busses because that's where my money's coming from,'" says Murphy.

A dramatic example of this struggle played out over the past four years. An off-island developer wanted to construct two golf courses on 300 wooded acres in the Town of Oak Bluffs. When the local permitting agency narrowly rejected the proposal, the developer cleared part of the property, suggesting he would build a pig farm there.

"It really tore the Town of Oak Bluffs apart and it came close to tearing the island apart," says Richard Toole, a carpenter and member of the commission that rejected the proposal.

Jim Athern, a local farmer and chairman of the commission, says "What would happen if more golf courses came in? And what does that change about the social structure and the sense of a real place with real people doing real work as opposed to people in fancy clothes knocking a golf ball around. It seemed like a conflict of cultures."

The battle ended when the local land bank purchased 200 acres, and the developer was allowed to build 26 homes on the rest.

As summer approaches, the year-rounders and the summer people are all searching for a balance on the Vineyard. As one resident told CBS News Sunday Morning, beautiful places aren't ruined because people hate them. They are ruined because people love them too much.

This story originally aired May 16, 2004
  • Rome Neal

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