Local Hero: Brendan O’Neill

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Leading Vineyard Conservation Society for almost four decades.

The next time you stand by the railing wrapping the overlook of the pastel Gay Head Cliffs, try and consider all it took to preserve that stunning natural landmark. The next time you stroll along Mill Brook through the ecologically diverse landscape, stop for a moment to think about the village it took to protect our Island woodlands from unfettered development.

Among several conservation organizations that maintain the natural wonders of our Island, Vineyard Conservation Society has been a stalwart advocate in all realms of environmental protection. Brendan O’Neill has been at the helm of VCS for nearly 40 years and is now passing the torch to the next local leader, Samantha Look.

Over the decades, O’Neill has been an instrumental defender of natural spaces on-Island. O’Neill, who first visited the Vineyard with his family in 1971 and was struck by the rural character and unique landscapes here, has been involved in many high-profile land protection and designation matters during his time at VCS. His passion for preservation has guided the organization in helping create many of the open and wild spaces we enjoy today.

Brendan O’Neill has been at the helm of Vineyard Conservation Society for nearly 40 years. — Photo by Mya O'Neill
Brendan O’Neill has been at the helm of Vineyard Conservation Society for nearly 40 years. — Photo by Mya O'Neill

Bluedot Living: How did VCS begin? Who founded it?

Brendan O’Neill: Vineyard Conservation Society was founded in 1965 by a core of year-round and seasonal people who saw a need for a new kind of organization that would be local, with a board made up of local and seasonal people. Their charge was to work on environmentalism, broadly speaking. There was a strong need for a group on the Island that was not strictly in the business of land trusts — an organization to fight for all our natural spaces in different ways.

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BDL: What was one early battle that VCS was involved in after its inception? 

BO: Before my time, VCS was organized with an eye toward a particular land use controversy at the time — the development of West Basin Road in Aquinnah. This was a proposal to create a state highway so people could access the harbor there. VCS was opposed to that, because, at the time, there was very little in terms of local zoning in Island towns. A state highway there would have opened up the moors at Lobsterville and out to West Basin to intensive development. The way the organization managed that fight was a compromise, and that was a lesson for future years. The road was built because we realized the importance of access to West Basin by local fishermen and others, but it was declassified, and no longer a state highway. Instead, the road was classified as a limited access highway, which means no curb cuts opening that interior land to development. That was one of VCS’ very early wins. Then, within a year, VCS worked with many people involved in the West Basin matter, sometimes from the other side of the fence, to designate the Gay Head Cliffs a national natural landmark in 1966.

“Seeing Martha’s Vineyard was a huge eye opener — I saw what was possible in a place where people really care about the environment.”

BDL: Where did you grow up and how did you find Martha’s Vineyard?

BO: My family first visited the Island during the summer of 1971. Growing up in Yonkers, New York, and going to secondary school in the Bronx, I was always interested in protected lands near where I lived, and I gravitated toward those. Martha’s Vineyard was just such a different landscape; seeing the Island was a huge eye opener — I saw what was possible in a place where people really care about the environment. There were a couple different connections I had to the Island. Dana Gaines was my roommate in college, but I really credit my friend Thom Mayhew with alerting me to the job opportunity at VCS. During law school I worked on the Vineyard [in the summertime] driving cab for Hathaway’s and John’s Taxi, and I got a sense of the place and its physical and political landscape. 

BDL: What was it like taking the leadership role at VCS? 

BO: I took over at VCS at a time in the mid ‘80s when the emphasis was on farmland protection. Into the ‘90s, the focus shifted to defending open space and land use litigation. There were a number of high-profile matters that VCS was involved in where we wore our advocacy hat. We’re the Island’s local environmental group, and so we are tasked by the community to be that voice for the land and the waters and all habitats of Martha’s Vineyard. On into the 2000s and 2010s and up to today, our multidisciplinary mission shifts depending on the need. In recent years it’s been about education, sustainability issues, ecosystem health, and water quality. Having that unique mission attribute where we can focus on advocacy, land protection, education, and outreach, depending on the need, has made VCS quite versatile over the years and a real community asset.

O'Neill in 1985. — Photo by Carol Lundeen
O'Neill in 1985. — Photo by Carol Lundeen

BDL: What are some accomplishments VCS achieved during your tenure? 

BO: A lot of the indicators of achievement are rightly about land protection. We have a number of accomplishments in that category that we can point to — broadly speaking, the protection of the watersheds such as those of Mill Brook and Tiasquam River, along with properties like the Woods Preserve, Polly Hill Arboretum, and Waskosim’s Rock Reservation. There are also a number of private conservation restrictions on land like Brookside Farm, as well as the flagship project that we are in our twenty-seventh year working on — the rare habitat areas along Moshup Trail in Aquinnah.

BDL: How about some successes not related to land use? 

BO: While open space protection is critical, one of the things that has changed over the years is that we now have a Land Bank Commission. We have other very capable land trusts doing this important work. Having the identity at VCS as a broad environmental group has allowed us to take on this full sustainability agenda that the public may be more familiar with: the plastics reduction campaign, water bottle refill stations that reduce single use plastics, energy conservation, and the community events that we all love like the Earth Day Beach Cleanup and the High School Environmental Art Contest. All these efforts are aimed at one theme, and that’s to coordinate with our colleagues to try and create better environmental outcomes for the Vineyard.

BDL: How did your experience in environmental law help once you took over?

BO: Early on, VCS began moving in the direction of environmental legal defense, and that does happen to dovetail well with my own training. We saw some of the real milestone legal disputes on the Vineyard occur during that time. These were controversies like the Nobnocket bank and supermarket development in Vineyard Haven, and the many years of private golf course development land use disputes — at least five separate golf course proposals. We fought those in the local and regional regulatory venues, and it took a lot of commitment. The result is that we steered development in a slightly different direction. Instead of having five private golf clubs, we have the Vineyard Golf Club, which is managed organically in Edgartown on a property that was a defunct subdivision with quite a bit of development capacity. 

BDL: How does it feel to be retiring and passing the torch to Sam after so long? 

BO: I’m really excited about the good work continuing and welcoming the new executive director, Sam Look. We will see the next generation of environmentalists being given an opportunity to shine. I have high confidence that VCS is in good hands, and that the community can expect great things. All of our staff members at VCS have served for ten or more years. Sam comes from the unique perspective of starting with VCS as a board member, so she has experience from both the staff and the boardroom side. She is a local person from West Tisbury, she grew up here, went to school here, and knows the ropes better than most. In my retirement I will be throttling back some but will still be involved in the community. I’m looking forward to having some more time for my wish list, and I’ll certainly be enjoying some of these wonderful places protected by all our colleague groups over the years.

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Lucas Thors
Lucas Thors
Lucas Thors is an associate editor for Bluedot Living and program director for the Bluedot Institute. He lives on Martha's Vineyard with his English springer spaniel, Arlo, and enjoys writing about environmental initiatives in his community.
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2 COMMENTS

  1. Brendan O’Neill, as Lucas Thors’ interview, demonstrates has been the single-most inspiring, creative, hardworking, and professional leader to conserve the natural beauty of Martha’s Vineyard. His many years leading VCS has proved that his sterling work, with his dogged focus on the preservation of the Island natural and delicate environment proves that we can work together to achieve wonderful outcomes for residents and visitors alike. We will all deeply miss his wisdom, knowledge, and passion for the Island as the head of VCS.

  2. Congratulations from the Delaware O’Neill contingent Brendan! Job well done! Best of luck to Sam Look.

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