Cuttyhunk Island, MA

An Empathic Argument for Developing Cuttyhunk Island, and Video to Conserve it

Developing the West End of Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts?

Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts

Growing up in the summers on Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts, the undeveloped western end of the island has been a defining aspect of Poocuohhunkkunnah, its original Wampanoag name meaning ‘land’s end’ or ‘point of departure,’ making this island a lovely, green, quiet, sailing haven. One could walk freely to Cuttyhunk’s ‘West End’ to the Gosnold Monument (marking Bartholomew Gosnold’s landing in 1602) and its saltwater ponds, and also circumnavigate that part of the island, mostly on roads. Its remoteness for me made it ‘native’ Cuttyhunk, and a separate world. Having first come to Cuttyhunk when there were about 135 houses in the mid-1960s, there are now about 190 ‘kitchen dwelling units.’ An undeveloped half of the island means that population density on Cuttyhunk remains relatively low, even in the height of the summer season. For many decades, the owners, the Ss, especially the senior Allen S., a conservationist, kept it that way, for all of Cuttyhunk. And Cuttyhunk residents enjoyed visiting and using the West End in many ways.

When the elder S died, his children inherited the land. The western end of the island, not legally bound by a conservation Trust, became subject to the new intentions of the family. People couldn’t walk, for example, on the outer cliff road any more, as they had done for generations, because the family members saw the West End as their own exclusive, private property. Over time, old man S’s youngest son’s wife, who hadn’t spent much time on Cuttyhunk, saw an opportunity to develop it. Pristine, and within sight of Martha’s Vineyard, Cuttyhunk’s West End potentially is a very lucrative site for developing summer homes. But bound by the legal constraints of the Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Protection Agency, the obstacles to building were many.

The West End shelters perhaps a third of Cuttyhunk’s water table – particularly under the higher, central part of the island – and is a limited resource of vital importance to the island. Also, the DEP stipulated that homes be built at a distance from a) the West End’s 3 ponds – zoned for commercial shell fishing – and their wet lands, b) from the closed dump, as well as c) from the long serpentine coast line and its eroding cliffs. At some distance from one of the ponds, the West End’s inner, public-access road had historically provided legal right of way to town residents, since at least the 1930s when it was just a track. If the road were moved closer to one of the ponds, it would free up land on its other side on which to build legally, and still not endanger the wet lands.

Given the many Massachusett’s Department of Environmental Protection Agency’s restrictions, the S family saw that there was still much opportunity for development. Many of the Cuttyhunk families who had lived there for many generations believed that people should do what they want with their land – people always had – and that some of the summer people were too intrusive. The younger son’s wife pursued her plan to build, using as much land as she legally could. The S family decided to move the public access road about 20 meters closer toward a West End pond, from where it was, to create more land on which to build legally. They thought that people would forget the road moving, because island memories can be short. As this land and the road were distant from the town, and since people would still have legal road access to the West End ponds, she was respecting the law by avoiding building near wet lands. At first, the houses would be for the S’s personal use, anyway. The Ss moved the road, and increased their land for development.

But many on the island worried about the decline of Cuttyhunk, with the possible development of the West End. What could people on the island who loved a quiet Cuttyhunk, very different from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, for example, do? Cuttyhunkers set up a vision committee, and over years, meetings were held, plans drawn up, and individuals with varied interests were invited to talk together. (Attempting to plan for the future on Cuttyhunk, with zoning for example, is like herding cats, although limited zoning seems to be coming). And, as a practical matter, Cuttyhunk’s quiet remoteness, meant that the law played an insignificant role there for many years. People did what they wanted to do and no one cared; people on Cuttyhunk liked it this way.

Taking a proactive stance, I decided to make a video to record the road change. I asked a Cuttyhunk friend who knows the history of West End from his own long history there to help. AW first came to Cuttyhunk in 1939, and remembers many aspects of island life from that time vividly. For example, on the West End, he knows where numerous physical markers in the landscape are that shaped the placement of the road.

AW – with his broad New England island accent, overalls, straw brimmed hat, and engineering-oriented mind – and I went out to the West End, and over the noise of a loud golf cart, I asked him questions about the location and history of the old road. Going through the grasses and low trees, we identified landmarks relating to the road; back at our house, we videoed our discussion with a map of the old road. We determined exactly where the old road went, for the court of public opinion and posterity. I submitted this to the Cuttyhunk Historical Society. This video is an argument, a technological-medium containing a rhetorical position, for preserving Cuttyhunk and its West End, in a relatively undeveloped form. As a deterrent to development, this video could also be used as evidence in a court.

The house the Ss started to build near the moved-road remains unfinished some years later, and the youngest son and his wife, don’t come back to Cuttyhunk very much any more. But Cuttyhunkers still can not walk on the outer cliff road, as they used to. And the West End remains much the same as it’s always been.


  1. Sandy Earle

    November 7, 2006 @ 7:19 pm


    Hello –
    As Museum Director for the Cuttyhunk Historical Society, I am especially interested in this. I don’t recall getting the video. Maybe you can refresh my mind.
    Many thanks –

  2. helianth

    November 7, 2006 @ 7:48 pm



    It’s there.


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