Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Changeover, Turnover: Which Side AM I On?

July 31, 2005

I don't remember what day I arrived on Martha's Vineyard, a refugee from the big city, intending to stay for a year or till whenever, but it was around Changeover Weekend in 1985. Traditionally the changeover is when the July people leave and the August people arrive. These days, so many vacationers come for one week or two that the July-to-August changeover is submerged in weekly and biweekly comings and goings. Year-round islanders make ends meet by renting out their houses part of the summer. Off-islanders can only hold on to their second homes by renting them out ditto.

My family came to the Vineyard for the first time in 1965. I was 14. My father rented a place on Tisbury Great Pond that belonged to a college classmate of his. Sooner or later, we all (with the possible exception of my mother) fell in love with the place. In the early 1970s my father bought four acres further out on Thumb Point and built a summer camp there. My recollection is that the land cost $20,000 and construction cost $25,000. For many years we lived quite happily with propane and a gas-powered pump. In the last decade electricity came to our side of the pond, but we didn't buy in; the camp now has a jury-rigged off-the-grid electrical system that involves solar collection and that old gas pump. Last I looked, the town of West Tisbury had assessed this modest property at more than $2 million. My two brothers, my sister, and I, beneficiaries of the Sturgis Family Trust, now the official owner of the camp, rent the place out most of the summer in order to pay the taxes.

All this by way of prologue to My Day: today, the 20th approximate anniversary of my immigration to Martha's Vineyard, I spent several hours doing the turnover, which is to say cleaning up after departing tenants so their successors could move in without hassle. The departing tenants left the place in great shape. The biggest deal was laundering many sheets and a few towels at the Airport Laundromat. No biggie, as they say, but my insides are churning, challenging my mind to make sense of it all.

#1. How could hand-to-mouth I be the co-owner of a property valued at more than $2 million? How could a seasonal off-the-grid camp with salt intrusion in the well (meaning the tenants have to use bottled water for drinking) be worth $2 million? Easy: Comparable nearby properties have changed hands for well over a million dollars. Property valuations depend on what you could sell it for, not what you built it for with a modest yearly appreciation. They depend on what you could sell it for -- even if you don't want to sell it. The result is that plenty of people who don't want to sell wind up selling because they can't afford the taxes, whereupon all the neighbors' assessments go up and the situation gets worse. I'm not big on "traditional family values," but I do think that "value" means more than "potential selling price."

#2. How could feminist off-the-charts radical I feel such sympathy for the conservative, curmudgeonly local taxpayers' association? How could I grumble when a main beneficiary of these outlandish assessments is the West Tisbury School? Is it curmudgeonly and anti-education to ask how per-pupil expenditure correlates with real learning -- that is, not learning measured by the MCAS (state assessment tests -- hmm . . . is it weird or not that both properties and students are assessed?)?

#3. Why am I, also grudgingly, secretly even, wishing well to William Graham, son of the late Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post? Mr. Graham has sued the town of West Tisbury over the valuation of the gorgeous Lambert's Cove estate he inherited from his mother. Word on the street is that he's gonna win. Part of me hopes the town gets creamed in court, even though there's no way a Graham victory could benefit my penny-ante family, and even though I have several friends who work for the town.

I tell you, it's gut-churning complicated. On one hand, I'd love to have my quarter share of the hypothetical proceeds from the sale of this property -- which does me no good, because I'm a year-rounder, but the money could make a huge make-or-break difference in my life. On the other, I don't want any asshole with that kind of money to spend to get anywhere near the place.

Have I got this straight? Public schools are supported by property taxes; the higher the valuations, the more money the schools get; the higher the valuations, the more people -- both second-home owners and year-round residents -- can't afford to live here; the more people move away, the fewer students in the schools. And the best stewards of any piece of land are the ones who can pay the most for it. Sounds like through-the-looking-glass economics to me.


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