Editorial: Heights headlines

Covering news of Shelter Islands Heights, a private homeowners organization that happens to run a vital ferry service to the North Fork and a community wastewater treatment facility, the proper function of which affects people well beyond the Heights enclave, is problematic. It’s a community of private homeowners and volunteers. They are not public employees, officials or appointees.

The Heights Property Owners Corporation, which runs the Heights, is a private entity that is not under the jurisdiction of the state’s Open Meetings or Freedom of Information laws. Legally its officers do not have to talk to the press.

This week’s story about donated oak and cherry trees being cut down by the Heights Landscaping Committee offered a rare exception to the rule: the Heights is not required to go public with its business. Its affairs are private matters, to be hashed out among board members, management and members — people who own property in the Heights.

This story opened up a window on the difficulties and challenges of operating a municipality with a small staff and a lot of volunteers who are needed to help get certain things done.

A lot of people these days don’t have a clue that the Heights is a private enclave. Don’t know the history? The Heights is the modern-day evolution of a 19th-century Methodist camp meeting. The charming little church called Union Chapel, an asset for all Islanders, is its centerpiece — a summer house of worship built by that community of believers. There are similar communities here and there, such as Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, all a reflection of the intense religiosity of the American experience from its beginnings in the 17th century. That aspect of the national character continued well into the 20th century and remains an elemental factor in 21st century politics.

Too bad history is so ignored today. It explains who and what we are, nationally and even locally.

How does a curious remnant of history operate in this frenzied, fractured, modern world? That probably depends on who’s in charge and who’s getting the work done. The Heights, in recent years, has been a very well run organization. But in the case of the oak and cherry saplings donated six years ago and cared for by Islander Mike Loriz, who is not a resident of the Heights, the answer is not so well: awkwardly, at best, and fatally in the end for some little trees.

Mr. Loriz had the best of intentions. The Heights board and management supported him. Some signals got crossed. It’s as if people did not talk, engage or debate. Somehow a volunteer or two with clippers didn’t get management’s message or ignored it. Such things happen, in public as well as private settings. They probably are less likely when the annoying, messy, imperfect mechanism of politics and public discussion are in place, keeping a lid on reckless or unilateral acts.