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Vero snowbirds summer on Nantucket
BY MICHELLE GENZ - STAFF WRITER (Week of August 13, 2009)

NANTUCKET — As the southern sun grows stronger and the days longer, an annual migration takes place each spring and summer among a subset of Vero Beach snowbirds: those who value natural beauty, put a premium on privacy and do not abide pomposity.

Affluent enough to own or rent multiple homes in two of the nation’s priciest regions, yet understated enough to not want it known, they move easily from the gated enclaves of Vero’s barrier island to the quintessentially New England no-nonsense island of Nantucket.

Leaving behind the lush tropical foliage of Vero’s diverse beachside enclaves, the Vero Nantucketers settle in for summer in the strictly similar shingled houses of the Grey Lady – as the foggy island of Nantucket is known.

There, the weather-worn, utilitarian houses of centuries-old design are covered with ancient climbing roses, and edged by cottage gardens of speckled foxglove, dainty delphinium and domes of leathery hostas, dark in their spots of shade.

Hedges of pink and blue hydrangeas are ubiquitous, the clusters of their blossoms making rumpled rows around picket fences and front steps, like baby blankets cast off from a too-warm midday nap.

It is as if the flowers meet with less resistance here than in Florida. Though the sea is never far away – the island is 12 miles long and three miles wide – the Nantucket air is lighter than the hot and humid shroud that weighs on what’s left of Vero’s weary impatiens, re-ordered every winter to circle our lumbering live oaks.

Such is summer for a swelling number of Vero Beach winter residents. At minimum, the flock from Vero numbers in the hundreds, and as residents reach out by word of mouth to more friends, the population of what many call Vero North grows steadily.

“We think it’s closer to a thousand, if you count everybody who rents or owns or vacations here and has a connection,” says Carol Coffin from her Nantucket real estate office. Coffin, a one-time yearround resident of Vero for 17-years, still keeps a condo at The Racquet Club but now lives most of the year in Nantucket; she and husband Bernie Coffin, a former teacher and administrator at St. Edward’s School, are broker/owners of Coffin ‘Sconset Real Estate.

Some, like the Coffins, divide their professional lives between the two islands, bringing insights and sharing clients based on similar interests and concerns. There are those still working full-throttle, like restaurant manager Bob Moulder, whose congeniality is unchecked in either venue; handshakes and half-hugs are de rigueur from patrons of both islands, and any class-conscious hesitation marks a visitor as “off-island” and outré.

Others, who are retired, divide their volunteerism between the islands, like the late Richard L. Matthews, a pharmacological executive whose philanthropy benefited both communities. It was Matthews, whose widow Sue Matthews lives in Oak Harbor, who was inspired by the Boston Pops concerts in Nantucket to bring the group to Vero; he was intensely involved in fund-raising for hospitals here as well as Vero.

Other names, like Bob Larsen’s, come up in conservation discussions on both islands — a key issue not only for nature’s sake, but for the tourism and real estate industries on which both islands’ economies depend.

Some keep a low profile, enjoying the personal privacy in one or both communities. Ken Beaugrand, a real estate broker in Nantucket, comes to Vero with his wife Gussie and four couples from Nantucket, and is perfectly content to rarely exit the Sea Oaks complex.

Longtime Nantucket band leader Don Russell ensconces himself with equal ease in the Moorings Club and the Nantucket Yacht Club, where he played drums with his orchestra at balls and cocktail parties for 24 years.

In the case of Bernie Coffin, Nantucket is not a vacation destination; it is a home town. A 17-year educator and administrator at St. Ed’s, he returned to his roots as a 12th generation Nantucketer when he moved back to take the helm of his family’s real estate business.

The Coffin family was one of two founding families of Nantucket; the red brick Jared Coffin House is a landmark in town. The Coffin real estate office is right around the corner. Bernie and Carol Coffin keep a condo at Vero’s Racquet Club.

Wife Carol Coffin keeps a Florida broker’s license current, and handles many Vero referrals. Their Nantucket firm advertises regularly in Vero publications.

Likewise, for the first time, a characteristically discreet ad for Windsor was placed in the Nantucket daily in July. Understated and elegant, it showed a treelined allée with the single word: Windsor, and a contact--Betsy Hanley.

The reasons for the linkage between the two communities are not obvious from afar. But from the moment you book the journey, it begins to become clear. Both Vero and Nantucket are hard to get to. They are known in tourism trade as destinations: the inconvenience of the location limits visitors mostly to those who want to stay a while.

Unless you’re choppered in, or arrive at Nantucket’s tiny airport in a private jet, getting to the island involves multiple connections, or a rental car from Boston and a ferry ride over from Cape Cod. The legendary Nantucket fog tends to settle directly over the airport and often socks it in entirely, adding a dimension of luck to getting there at all.

But once “on island,” as they say, life seems to simplify and worries fall away like a line uncoiling off a dock; one drifts off to a simpler time, to find simple sustenance in essential pleasures. A polka-dot sky of high clouds. A clarity of light rivaling Provence. A smile and a hello from a stranger making room on the narrow sidewalks.

Childhood pleasures like ice cream and hot dogs take on astonishing powers of adult satiation: walking down the cobblestone street, a man perched on the back of a bench audibly yummed as he polished off a waffle cone; the late Tim Russert was known to revel in a hot dog and a couple of Heinekens.

There are no traffic lights – not even a blinking yellow – on the entire island of Nantucket. There is no fast food – kids notoriously beg to stop at McDonald’s once they get off the ferry on Cape Cod.

Cars crawl along deferring to an endless parade of meandering pedestrians, and cyclists pedaling on hundreds of rented bicycles, backpacks stuffed with picnics and balancing beach chairs on their handlebars, teetering through traffic.

Children are unleashed on arrival. With summering in Nantucket built into generations of family vacations, so many children and grandchildren come to visit that adults complain they have no time for friends – everyone is consumed with family.

To a population coming from Vero, their presence is endlessly entertaining – sadly, there is no commensurate school vacation during Vero’s season that would deliver Vero’s sidewalks and parks the bounty of babies and school kids for two months or more.

The kids by their very essence enliven all the downtown institutions, from the whale museum to the restaurants, fending for themselves more than any city or suburb would allow – except of course for Vero, if only they would come. The younger ones safely pass from hand to hand, generation to generation: grandparent to parent to sibling, or in a pinch, in a fit of pique or fatigue, they go a block or two on piggyback.

Pre-teen girls show off an apparent shopping spree, all matched up in tie dye scarves and pink sunglasses, in contrast to the understated grown-ups’ Nantucket Reds, the faded tomato-red shorts and Jack Rogers sandals (cloned from Vero’s handmade Steven Bonnanos.)

Shopping is a ritual on Nantucket’s Main Street and on Petticoat Row – the nickname for the Centre Street businesses traditionally owned by women since whaling days when men were gone for four years at a time. Flower vendors and vegetable stands sell their wares to the locals, and now and then an artist from his or her own gallery sets up an easel to paint en plein air.

In Vero, they would first have to apply for a permit. One Nantucket businessman who used to own in Vero says Nantucket’s town hall-style government is far more merchant-friendly.

And the shops stay open late, unlike the limited hours of Vero’s Ocean Drive shops, which typically close at 5 with few open on Sundays. One Vero Nantucketer remembers a few years ago, when the Disney Resort proposed busing its guests to Ocean Drive in the evening, the response from shopkeepers was negative, that “90 percent didn’t want to stay open at night.”

She wonders if the difference between the two districts is that many Vero beachside shops are second-income businesses, while owners in Nantucket are dependent on their stores to survive. With a season limited to essentially July and August, they will do anything to attract every possible customers, even if means working until 9 at night, seven days a week.

To stir up a scene in the off- and shoulder- seasons, the very pro-active Nantucket Chamber of Commerce has successfully created, or helps to promote, an amazing number of festivals ranging from spring’s Daffodil Festival to the Cranberry Harvest Festival in the Fall and December’s Christmas Walk, which attracts people back year after year now for a new holiday tradition once reserved for locals.

Vero’s beach has a similar off-season tradition on our Fourth of July — when thousands pour in to John’s Island for an off-season reunion — but the visitors rarely trickle out beyond the gate to mingle at Cravings or Bobby’s or Waldo’s, not to mention crossing the bridge to the old downtown.

In contrast, in Nantucket, mingling with the locals is a badge of belonging.

Off-season, Nantucket’s population shrinks from 65,000 to 11,000 – a bigger swing than the contraction of Vero’s island population from twenty-some thousand in the winter to a guesstimated 15,000 in the summer.

People visit both Nantucket and Vero for their unique natural beauty and peaceful pace of life. To a large extent, those qualities are the product of forward- thinking conservationists and planners who have implored philanthropists and government entities on both islands to control growth and preserve land.

In Nantucket, the effort expanded exponentially when a town hall meeting – held in winter when only year-round visitors were present – voted nearly unanimously to mandate a 2 percent transfer tax imposed on the buyer at the closing of every real estate transaction.

Collected by the Nantucket Islands Land Bank, the fees go into a fund to buy land for public benefit, including recreation.

“There was only one dissenting vote,” says a grinning Jim Lentowski, executive director of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, which does not benefit directly from the tax, but shares in the preservation effort.

“We’re imposing a tax on people we don’t know, somebody new to the community who is attracted to Nantucket because of its beauty. To them, another 2 percent probably doesn’t make a heck of a lot of difference. The people who are going to be most impacted are not the taxpayers — as long as they don’t sell their property.”

At the peak of the Nantucket real estate market a few years ago, that tax raised a stunning $12 million a year. Those funds allow conservationists to compete for land coming on the market, or to buy property from owners with a conservation mindset but who can’t afford to donate their land outright.

Rooted in inclusiveness since its days as an artist’s colony, Nantucket has always had an unusually open policy toward land use, Lentowski says.

“Coming from Florida, you may not understand that the northeast beaches are private beaches. They’re not owned by the state like they are in Florida,” says Lentowski. “Going to a place like Martha’s Vineyard, you would have a very difficult time finding a beach to get onto. Whereas, there has been a longstanding understanding for generations in Nantucket that virtually every beach can be used by the public – if you behave yourself.”

More than half of the land in Nantucket is now protected from development, held by one conservation group or another.

“I’d like to see Vero promoted as trying to grab some of the land for conservation,” says Barbara Sutphen, a Vero Nantucketer and passionate conservationist, who has worked with McKee Botanical Garden as well as a committee in the Moorings’ South Passage committed to restoring vegetation destroyed in the 2004 hurricanes.

Sutphen hesitates to publicly laud Nantucket’s beauty for fear of attracting too many more visitors.

“We had a friend who wanted to visit who writes for the New York Times, and I told her she could come as long as she didn’t write about us,” she says, only partly in jest.

“Nantucket is a hidden jewel the same way Vero is,” says Sutphen.

“We’ve gotten a cease and desist as far as development, because of the recession.

“But I’m very, very leary that when things come back again, Vero’s going to be on the front page of everything. It would be great to get that 2 percent real estate tax in Vero.”

Lentowski speaks of the “boutique-ification” of Nantucket, a relatively recent phenomenon of the last quarter century or so, whereby those relocating from other areas bring their expectations along with them.

“There are things these people are not willing to give up – a wine shop, a bagel shop, a delicatessen, or sports club,” says Lentowski, a landscape architect from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, who moved to Nantucket for the conservation post in 1971.

“They come to a town that has eked out an existence in a very simple way. You get these backwater places and then all of a sudden, it’s got the bagel shop and the deli and the locals are looking at it, going, ‘How much more are you going to change this place, and are people going to adapt to the change?”

As Vero’s beach wraps up a summer like no other, with the dramatic influx in off-season tourism from south Florida, Nantucket may offer a cautionary tale. It is the old Vero – friendly, quiet, beautiful – that new visitors are coming here to see.