Facing criticism from town officials and members of the building community, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission decided last Thursday to remove a controversial “community character” clause from its checklist for developments of regional impact.
Before the start of a third public hearing about proposed changes to the checklist, which is revised every two years, commissioner Brian Smith proposed removing the clause that could have referred any development with a density more than 50 per cent greater than the density of the surrounding neighborhood to the commission for review.
An explanatory note on the draft checklist that commissioners have been reviewing said the community character item was intended “to allow discussion with town boards and the public. The aim is to ensure or allow referral of buildings significantly larger than the surrounding area.” The note said it could have been a mandatory referral to the commission, or at a town’s discretion.
At a public hearing two weeks earlier, the community character clause was criticized for being vague and appearing to regulate house size, although the commission had said it decided not to expressly regulate the size of homes.
Mr. Smith said Thursday the section was “not ready for prime time” and was not well-defined.
Commissioner Doug Sederholm said that while there was clear commission consensus against the checklist item, he disagreed that it was not well-defined, noting that it was clearly about density, and there was a clear definition of the surrounding neighborhood.
Other commissioners, like Holly Stephenson, agreed that it was inappropriate as a mandatory item but said it could still be something to develop.
Thursday’s continued public hearing, reopened after recent requests from residents and the Edgartown selectmen, featured some new voices in the discussion, with debate about everything from specific checklist items to the very role of the commission on the Island.
Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, said he was there “to advocate for some version of heightened plan review for residential development,” saying that any development puts pressure on Vineyard land and water resources. “It seems to us to make sense to do everything we can now to make sure it’s done in a smart way; it seems to be the responsible thing to do,” he said, and to “make sure new development shares the attributes that allow it to fit better in an existing settlement.”
“I doubt there’s any disagreement in this room about the goal of actually protecting what we need to protect so we don’t wreck this place,” said Mr. O’Neill. “It just makes good economic sense and good ecological sense.”
Chilmark resident Frank Dunkl said when it comes to houses, quality and not quantity should be more important, adding that large house development also poses water and sewer issues.
“We have a vibrant economy, at least seasonally, and that economy is contingent upon our pleasing the tourists,” Mr. Dunkl said. “If we don’t please the tourists, that economy is gone.”
Discussion also continued about the role of the commission itself, with some arguing that towns should have more control.
“It’s nice to have you in our back corner, but we’d like you there when we need you, not when it’s told that you’re going to dictate how we as residents and the town are going to control our destiny,” said Norman Rankow, an Edgartown resident and contractor.
Builder Ted Rosbeck said “some of us feel that this just might not be the best place to deal with some items like zoning,” noting that when towns change zoning bylaws, it goes up for a vote.
“We’re all very concerned about the Island, and that what we’re doing might be wrecking the Island . . . wrecking the Island is a matter of personal opinion,” he said.
He noted, though, the importance of the commission — when people go off-Island, he said, quoting another Islander, people don’t say they are from Edgartown or Oak Bluffs. They say they’re from Martha’s Vineyard.
Edgartown selectman and former longtime commission member Michael Donaroma said he’d like to see the entire DRI checklist pared back. “It’s not getting smaller . . . It’s getting bigger and more restrictive,” Mr. Donaroma said, adding:
“We really need to get away from the commission perception of being the all-powerful torturer, for lack of a better word.”
Oak Bluffs selectman Michael Santoro suggested that the commission should in the future limit discussion to the specific item that spurs a project’s referral to the commission — like traffic, for example — and not get into other items. He cited the Cape Cod Commission as a model.
Tom Wallace, a realtor, called for town planning boards to have more visionary dialogues about regulations to preserve the diversity of the Island.
“I think there’s a great goal here of preserving what we all love about the place, and also doing it in a manner that celebrates the diversity of the community,” Mr. Wallace said.
As the debate was winding down, commission chairman Chris Murphy, who is stepping down in the new year, gave an impassioned statement about the role of the MVC.
“I know you guys live here and stay here because you like this place,” he said, addressing some of those in the audience. “It feeds you. As much as you give it, it gives something back to you.”
He quoted the enabling legislation for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, noting that it stands between the state house and town government in trying to preserve the character of the Island.
“I listen to Norman Rankow and Mr. Rosbeck. I’ve been listening all my life to people that were in the development business complaining about any kind of shackles that they feel are put on them to slow them down, that development is the dog that wags the tail of the Vineyard economy,” Mr. Murphy said. “I don’t really buy that. I think that building is important, the building trades are important. They’re not the only thing that’s important on Martha’s Vineyard. Quality of life for the builders, for us, for everybody here, is more important.”
He continued: “The economy of the Vineyard is something we all pay attention to here all the time. It’s not like it’s us against them. Several people here have tried to build this theme of it’s Edgartown against the commission or Oak Bluffs against the commission. . . . it is not . . . this is an elected board. It does represent each town, and it tries to take a little bit bigger picture.”
The charge of the commission as stated in the enabling legislation “doesn’t preclude people making a living. It does make it harder, and I think that’s a good thing that it makes it harder to build something,” Mr. Murphy said. “I want you to stop and I want everybody to take a good look before you do something that we all have to live with.” The commission closed the public hearing. Commissioners were scheduled to deliberate and decide on the checklist at their meeting last night.