The Golf Wars
"THE EUPHEMISM I’ll use,” Brian Lafferty told the Martha’s Vineyard Times in February, “is I am going to beat them about the head with a lead pipe, and I am going to keep beating them with the lead pipe until they give up.”
If this is the euphemistic Lafferty, imagine him in attack mode against his nemesis, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC). Vineyarders created the commission in 1977 during a fit of wisdom they occasionally regret. The MVC’s purpose is “the protection of the land and waters” of the Vineyard as well as its “values,” against “development and uses which would impair them.” Though the commission was conceived as a defense against outside invaders, islanders have learned that it also protects them from their own worst qualities—insularity, parochialism, and the defiant Yankee conviction that no one can by-God tell me what to do with my property or how to run my town.
But the MVC can do exactly that. It has exceptional powers to overrule local zoning and local wishes for the greater good of the island. This can infuriate Vineyarders as well as “wash-ashores” such as developers.
Brian Lafferty, for instance. By early 2004 he had been fighting the MVC for several years as field general for Corey Kupersmith, a Connecticut multimillionaire who wanted to build a private golf club in the “southern woodlands,” the last large tract of undeveloped land in Oak Bluffs. Most Oak Bluffs officials and many citizens wanted the golf course, which they perceived as an “economic engine” that would generate tax revenue from otherwise useless forest. Kupersmith sweetened the deal with promises of large donations for the town’s library, ice arena, high school, and elderly housing. But another large group from Oak Bluffs and elsewhere fought the proposal tooth-and-nail.
Many towns are trying to balance the need for new tax revenue with the desire to limit sprawl and preserve dwindling open space. The pressure is acute on Martha’s Vineyard, where land is expensive and precious. In the Golf Wars, the two sides fought over definitions of crucial terms: beauty, preservation, open space, property rights, smart growth, self-rule. At bottom, it was a battle about the definition of Martha’s Vineyard. Like all wars, it was fought for control of the future.
IN THE 1990s, a strong economy and Bill Clinton’s visits sparked a real estate frenzy on Martha’s Vineyard. Where wealth goes, golf follows. In October 1999, Corey Kupersmith submitted his plan for the Down Island Golf Club in Oak Bluffs’ southern woodlands. The town had once considered building a municipal course there, but had dropped the idea because the property titles were so snarled. Kupersmith had been untangling them and accumulating land. He expected quick approval. “It was already zoned for a golf course,” he said recently. “I thought it would be a no-brainer.”
A boyish-looking 44-year-old who sold his medical communications company in 1998 for $110 million, Kupersmith lives in the exclusive Conyers Farms section of Greenwich, Connecticut. He belongs to five golf clubs, including two in Europe. His mansion’s walls are decorated with large photos of golf holes and, near the grand piano, an aerial view of the southern woodlands—his blank canvas. He had hired Rees Jones, a prominent golf architect, and told him to design a course that would rank among the world’s top 20. Down Island was Kupersmith’s dream and was to be his legacy. “When you build a company,” he said, “six months later no one knows who started it. But when you build a golf course, you’re known forever.”
As Kupersmith was preparing his first proposal, James Athearn was considering a run for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. An Edgartown farmer whose family has lived on the island for generations, Athearn also had a dream for the Vineyard, interrupted by nightmares.
“All my adult life I’ve been disturbed by the pace of development,” he said. “It grieves me.” The words, though full of emotion, were delivered in Athearn’s characteristic matter-of-fact tone. He was sitting in his modest living room in front of a wood stove lit against a chilly spring morning. Paintings of landscapes decorated the walls.
“We once had woods with real depth, where you could hike and camp,” he said, “and fields with woods in back of them instead of a row of trophy houses. Now, people who don’t know and don’t care come in and plop a house down and then go back to North Carolina, but you’ve got to live with it. That has left me unhappy for a good part of every day for the last 30 years—this constant nagging about what you’re going to lose next. You drive down the road and see a great gash through the woods, or a hilltop with big piles of sand on it, and you know it’s another hilltop gone.” He paused. “We can’t sit back and let people do things to us. It’s been done for three decades, and we have to stop it.”
IN APRIL 2000, the MVC held the first public hearing on Kupersmith’s golf course in the packed cafeteria of the Oak Bluffs School. Those opposed to the plan urged the MVC to reject the golf course because it would further damage the island’s rural character as well as the watershed for both the Lagoon and Sengekontacket Ponds. Those in favor insisted the development was good for Oak Bluffs. Kupersmith’s spokesman warned that the alternative to a golf course might be a dense housing project that would raise town taxes and strain services, especially the schools.
The vote was 8-6 against. Kupersmith responded a week later with the first of many lawsuits and threatened to stuff his 219 acres with several hundred houses. Then he filed complaints with the state ethics commission, charging various MVC members with conflicts of interest because they or their spouses sat on the boards of island conservation groups that opposed the golf course. He also filed a lawsuit that charged these conservation groups with conspiring to defeat him in order to buy his land cheaply. The conservation groups accused Kupersmith of attempting to intimidate and bankrupt them.
But while swinging a club with one hand, Kupersmith dispensed candy with the other: high school stadium lights, a dialysis machine for the hospital, a promise to upgrade town septic systems, $10,000 for the Oak Bluffs ice arena. He also kept buying property in the southern woodlands. “Every time they pissed me off,” he said later, “I bought more land.” He ended up with a lot of land.
ISLAND-WIDE ELECTIONS for the MVC were usually sleepy affairs. Since 1988, anyone who ran automatically won. But Kupersmith had riled people, and in November 2000, 14 candidates competed for nine spots. The top vote-getter was newcomer James Athearn, whose campaign consisted of a single 3-by-4-inch newspaper ad containing this statement: “The next few years may decide whether our Island community will survive as a rural, small-town natural environment with unique attributes for the enjoyment of residents and visitors, or be developed into an upscale suburban playground devoid of respect for our history and traditions.”
The second highest total went to Andrew Woodruff, another newcomer and farmer who favored preservation. Of the seven re-elected incumbents, five had opposed Kupersmith’s proposal. The message seemed clear. Kupersmith bought more land.
In spring of 2001 he filed a modified golf plan with the MVC and asked for a quick decision. He also applied for a permit to build 366 houses at “maximum density” in the woodlands under a Massachusetts law called Chapter 40B. This well-intentioned “anti-snobbery” statute allows developers to bypass local zoning regulations if they include affordable housing in their projects, but 40B also can be used as a threat to win concessions from towns frightened by the effects of high-density housing on their schools, services, and taxes.
Martha’s Vineyard, where the median price of a single-family home was nearly $662,000, desperately needed affordable housing. Oak Bluffs, the Vineyard’s blue-collar enclave, was already the poorest town on the island. Everyone, including Kupersmith, knew that his “Homes at Southern Woodlands” would devastate Oak Bluffs. To lead the project, he brought in a swaggering cowboy from Bolton, Massachusetts named Brian Lafferty, who had done other 40B developments.
The new round of hearings on the golf course began in mid-October 2001 and stretched into February 2002. The issues, positions, and threats hadn’t changed. The MVC narrowly rejected the revised plan, 9-7.
Kupersmith filed another lawsuit, this one challenging the MVC’s power to approve or deny 40B housing projects. His threat to build a dense subdivision frightened the people of Oak Bluffs. At a special town meeting in March 2002, they voted to ask the state for permission to hold a referendum on withdrawing from the MVC so they could approve the golf course and avoid the housing development. But a couple of months later Kupersmith’s threat was punctured when a judge affirmed the MVC’s authority over 40B projects.
Nevertheless, four of the town’s five selectmen, led by chairman Todd Rebello and his uncle, Richard Combra, signed a deal with Kupersmith, warning that if the MVC didn’t approve the deal, they would push for withdrawal from the commission.
More public hearings began in fall of 2002. On the night of the vote, the commissioners rehashed familiar disagreements: the golf course would preserve open space, or destroy it; the golf course represented suburban entertainment for a few wealthy off-islanders, or an economic engine for everyone; it would be a good deal for Oak Bluffs, or a bad deal for the Vineyard. The arguments went back and forth for five hours.
The roll call vote finally began. Commissioner Kate Warner seemed undecided, and passed. When the roll call returned to her, the vote was deadlocked 8-8. She turned toward the audience, looked down at the proposal, and softly said, “No.”
Richard Combra, the Oak Bluffs selectman, began shouting, bringing Warner to tears. Brian Lafferty angrily told a reporter from the New York Times that Kupersmith was “not going to roll over and play dead for these tinhorn dictators.” Kupersmith, furious, added, “There is going to be retribution. They toyed with us. . . . I am going to sue them.” He did, on the same grounds as before—unfairness, excessive authority, and conflicts of interest.
Meanwhile the island held its MVC elections. Athearn and Woodruff, the two conservationist farmers, again received the most votes. It looked like another clear message.
But in Oak Bluffs the picture remained fuzzy. If the town left the MVC, Kupersmith could still get his dream, so he hired a lobbyist who successfully pushed the state legislature to let the town hold a vote on withdrawal. The campaign heated up instantly on both sides, with flyers, bumper stickers, media ads, and front-yard placards. One night after an anti-MVC rally at the Portuguese-American club, most of the town’s pro-MVC placards disappeared. The victims put up new hand-made ones reading, “Who Stole Our Signs?”
The debate cleaved the town in two. “It became an issue some husbands and wives couldn’t discuss around the dinner table,” said Todd Rebello, chairman of the selectmen at the time. Rebello and other town officials were irked that the MVC had ignored their wishes. They and their supporters believed that the commission had become a conservation group catering to people from up-island (code for “wealthy” and “seasonal”). They resented that the commission had given Edgartown a golf course but was depriving Oak Bluffs. Their campaign ran on two strong emotions: fear that Kupersmith would build a dense subdivision, and anger that the MVC was meddling with the town’s independence and future.
Kerry Scott, who worked hard to oppose withdrawal, often reminded people what had happened to Edgartown between 1978-84 after leaving the MVC in a huff over land-use regulations: developers had pounced, thick subdivisions sprang up, residents were aghast.
“Withdrawal would leave the town so vulnerable,” said Scott. “If I knew that, developers knew it. I was thunderstruck that the selectmen would put our whole town at risk. And it was all for the benefit of a Connecticut developer.”
On May 13, 2003, a record number of citizens came to the school for the special vote. The tally reflected a town split nearly in half: 1,031-933 in favor of staying in the commission.
Kupersmith, his dream smashed, moved to Plan B, the massive housing project, and he let Lafferty off the leash. “I wasn’t going to let them win,” he said later. “They totally underestimated me.”
AT THE FIRST HEARING, when the commissioners asked Lafferty for an environmental impact statement for the subdivision, he said, “Your impact statement is that there’s going to be a whole lot of impact.” Lafferty told the MVC that the woodlands’ old cart trails, which Vineyarders treasure as “ancient ways,” were “history,” by which he meant doomed. He achieved the impossible, uniting the commissioners. They unanimously rejected the housing proposal in October 2003. “We’ll be back,” said Lafferty.
He hired a logging crew who cut 250 pitch pines, the largest trees in the woodlands. The stumps were waist-high, sheared quickly to send a message. An island newspaper ran a photo of Lafferty grinning as he rested a chainsaw on a stump. “This land has always been known as the southern woodlands,” he said, “so we figured we might as well get some wood out of it.” His crew also clear-cut a wide swath heading uphill from a main thoroughfare called Barnes Road, and another six acres next to the popular Featherstone Center for the Arts.
“When we are done,” Lafferty told the MVC in December, “the property will be returned to its 1938 post-hurricane condition when there wasn’t a single tree on the site.” He said he’d put a piggery alongside the arts center, install a rifle range, and lease the property for paramilitary training. He added that Kupersmith was budgeting $1.5 million in 2004 for legal bills. When the commission ruled that the cutting must stop, Lafferty defied it. He did the same thing in January 2004 when the state issued a cease-and-desist order. It was all-out war.
AS THE NEW YEAR turned, two Oak Bluffs selectmen on opposite sides of the MVC battle, Todd Rebello and Greg Coogan, began working to broker a truce. They brought Lafferty together with James Lengyel, the executive director of another unusual Vineyard commission, the Land Bank. The bank levies a two percent tax on most island real estate transactions and uses the money to buy and conserve land for the public.
“Knowing what I knew about Brian,” said Lengyel, “I thought it would be all thrust-and-parry. Thrust-and-parry is very athletic, and Brian made it athletic for me. But he also made it creative and fair.”
Their swordplay ended in a deal. The Land Bank would pay Kupersmith $18.63 million for 190 acres, leaving him 90 acres for 26 expensive homes. Lafferty and Kupersmith generously gave the Land Bank the best property and devised an innovative plan to collect a levy for affordable housing whenever one of the homes changed hands. Oak Bluffs would have to swap 24 acres of town land in the center of Kupersmith’s property for other land. If the deal went through, Kupersmith would drop his eight pending lawsuits. In an apt metaphor, if all the stipulations worked out and the MVC approved the plan, most of the “ancient ways” would be preserved.
The deal seemed so fair and mutually beneficial that people were stunned and a bit suspicious. What was the catch? Where were the losers?
The MVC set a public hearing for April 8, 2004. At breakfast that morning, Lafferty reviewed his recent Golf Wars campaign. “The perception was, ‘The commission is going to protect us and keep this land pristine,’” he said. “But they couldn’t stop me from cutting trees. I wanted to show them for a toothless tiger. Clearing those six acres had two effects: ‘Maybe the commission can’t protect us,’ and also ‘Lafferty is a nut—he’s liable to do anything.’”
Did he think his offensive tactic had helped his cause? He smiled. “If I get approved tonight,” he said, “then it did, didn’t it?”
He showed up at the hearing sporting a symbolic white hat (with a golf logo). James Lengyel, from the Land Bank, told the commission that the agreement would preserve most of the woodlands for hiking, hunting, and perhaps camping—traditional Vineyard values. He dryly referred to the expanse of stumps left by Lafferty’s clear-cutting as “the Barnes Road Field Creation Program.”
Recent antagonists Richard Combra and Kerry Scott spoke in favor of the deal. James Athearn, the MVC’s chairman, called it “a remarkable compromise.” After the commission’s unanimous approval, the fragments of applause signified relief more than celebration. Athearn and Lafferty shook hands and grinned at each other. “This meeting is adjourned,” said Athearn. And so the Golf Wars ended, for the moment.
THE FOLLOWING WEEK, the citizens of Oak Bluffs went to the polls to choose a selectman. It was essentially a two-way race between incumbent Todd Rebello, who had tied his star to Kupersmith and fought to leave the commission, and challenger Kerry Scott, who had fought to reject the golf course and keep the town in the MVC. Scott won handily, or perhaps the people ousted Rebello.
“We’re suffering over what we’ve already lost,” said Scott, “but there’s plenty left to save and all of it is worth fighting for. It’s a way of life that’s hard to describe, but it keeps us here. People like Brian Lafferty are never going to get it. There will always be people who want to rape, pillage, and plunder.”
“It shocks me to say that I’m happy with this plan,” said Athearn. “Five years ago it would have angered me to have any houses. I’m getting more used to the idea of modification.” Athearn felt proud of the MVC for standing its ground “despite personal threats, political threats, and environmental threats. That should send the signal,” he added, “that if you’re going to try anything here, you’ve got to go through us, and it’s not going to be easy.”
Kupersmith won’t try again. “I’m moving on,” he said, though clearly still angry. He views himself as a generous, reasonable man treated horribly by the MVC. “I really wanted my pound of flesh from the courts,” he said, though up to that point he had lost every case. Todd Rebello had persuaded him to settle, for the sake of Oak Bluffs. Besides, he added, “After five years, you want your money back.” One of the new houses in the southern woodlands will be Kupersmith’s. “I’m going to build the biggest mother house there on the bluff, and paint it purple,” he said, failing to sound facetious.
Lafferty, by contrast, relished the combat. Would he consider spearheading another large project on the island? “Absolutely!”
A few Vineyarders grumbled that the Land Bank had spent too much for the woodlands, but the bank’s James Lengyel is certain that in the long run the public will be glad the land is preserved. Informed that Lafferty was taking credit for inspiring the “Barnes Road Field Creation Program”—Lafferty’s exact words were, “I made it nice because I cut the trees”—Lengyel smiled.
“We won’t cut anymore,” he said. “We’ll clean up what’s there. We’ll get rid of the stumps and the slash. In five years when you drive by, you’ll see a beautiful loping meadow and you’ll think, ‘Somebody had a great idea for that land.’”
©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.