The Southern Woodlands

Long recognized as an important interior woodland – habitat harboring a variety of species that depend on large, contiguous swaths of forest to survive – the Oak Bluffs Southern Woodlands is also a testament to the unique role of VCS in land use advocacy on Martha’s Vineyard.

Over twenty-five years ago, VCS raised concerns with the town about title problems on parcels within the Southern Woodlands that were long thought to be town conservation land. Mapping and other research suggested that some parcels were vulnerable.

Indeed, within a few years, a resourceful developer began to exploit the bad title opportunities. With storm clouds gathering, VCS led a campaign at the level of the town and MV Commission to nominate and pass special planning regulations – to create the Southern Woodlands District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC). Shortly thereafter, a plan to develop a private golf course on nearly 300 acres of the Woodlands was unveiled – a plan that included portions of the purportedly conserved town lands.

In a formative chapter of what would come to be known as that era's "Golf Wars," VCS teamed up with a new citizen's group named Coalition for the Preservation of Island Resources (CPIR) and fought a long battle to defeat the development proposal. We testified at the MV Commission about the serious impacts on habitat and water quality that would result from building a golf course on land encompassing both the Lagoon Pond and Sengekontacket watersheds.

For this, we incurred the wrath of the developer in the form of subpoenas for depositions, excessive document demands, and attacks on our board members. These tactics – typically employed to chill the exercise of free speech and wear down an opponent – were rebuffed, but they did achieve the intended effect of draining time and resources over a several year period.

During that time, the MV Commission denied three different versions of the developer’s proposal. In reaction, supporters of the development attempted to use legislative means to withdraw the town from the jurisdiction of the Commission. CPIR and the voters of Oak Bluffs rose up, defeating those efforts at town meeting.

With their efforts at pulling Oak Bluffs out of the MVC rebuffed, the developers tried one more retaliatory tactic: ignore the legal decisions and just do it. A public announcement was made that the entire property was to be clear-cut immediately, and the work began. That act triggered the first-ever cease and desist order from the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program – delivered by certified mail, and nailed to a tree at the woodlands for good measure.

Finally, after a five year battle (and over ten years after we first raised concerns about the potential for development), nearly 200 acres of the Southern Woodlands was acquired by the MV Land Bank for conservation purposes at a cost of $18,620,000.

The battle for the future of the Southern Woodlands was pivotal in the history of land use on Martha’s Vineyard. Defeat of the golf course proposal (and resulting permanent protection of the land) marked the end to that particular wave of private golf course development plans – four proposals on different properties within a five year period. During that time, VCS consistently went on record opposing golf course proliferation. Our rationale was twofold: golf courses destroy habitat and impair water quality in our ponds, but they also send an unmistakable “green light” – signaling a type of land use that is inconsistent with the character of the Island. So far, that view has prevailed. 

One new golf course was eventually approved in Edgartown, at a location that many argued was a suitably “degraded” site because the alternative was dense housing. VCS fought hard for one particular condition of approval — that the course be managed using organic methods only — a practice the managers of the Vineyard Golf Club have subsequently followed, setting a positive example not only for golf courses, but also demonstrating the broader potential for organic turf management.