Thursday night meetings in the Olde Stone Building in Oak Bluffs have been well attended in recent weeks, perhaps a little reminiscent of 10 or 20 years ago when the Martha’s Vineyard Commission was reviewing development plans at a steady clip. But the crowds this time around, mainly made up of town officials and members of the building community, are there for a different reason as the commission conducts a biennial review of its checklist for developments of regional impact.
On the surface the discussion is about the hot-button issue of the day: whether large houses should come under some kind of commission review. But at the heart of the discussion is the very role of the commission. Some call it overbearing and say it should take a back seat to town regulations, while others view the commission as the gatekeeper of the Island’s landscape and character.
In an interview with the Gazette this week, commission executive director Mark London said, in fact, it’s a little of both. “If you’re in the process [of coming before the commission], it’s not necessarily pleasant,” Mr. London said. “But on balance we all benefit greatly from having a process, whether it’s the commission or in towns, having a process where we fuss a little, where all these things are reviewed carefully.
“We fuss a lot on Martha’s Vineyard. We probably have more committees per person than anywhere. That’s why Martha’s Vineyard is nice. It’s hard to build a Walmart here.”
With three new members set to join the commission in January, Mr. London sat down with the Gazette to discuss the commission’s role, upcoming projects, and, of course, big houses. Last week, the commission voted to eliminate a community character item on the DRI checklist. The item would have addressed developments that have a density more than 50 per cent greater than the median for the immediately surrounding area. The item was criticized by community members for being vague and subjective.
But Mr. London said discussions about character are central to the MVC mandate. “Even in the narrow sense, that’s what the commission was created to do, that’s what the commission has always done,” he said. “And if by character you mean the physical design of buildings and landscapes so they harmonize with the area, that’s always been something that the commission does and it’s an important part of what the commission does.”
Big houses are another issue, and he has his own distinct view. “I would say, what’s wrong with the big houses? Because I try to differentiate between real impacts and sort of, well — I just don’t like the idea of big houses . . . Generally [people who criticize large houses] were talking about energy, they were talking about water quality, but mostly they were talking about visual impact.
“I don’t think it’s a useful debate to discuss whether large houses are a good thing or a bad thing. I think it’s good to discuss what their impacts are and limit their negative impacts.”
Mr. London, who is also an architect and has been at the helm of the commission for 10 years, said he would like to work more on the issue of the physical description and character of Martha’s Vineyard. “In a positive, problem-solving kind of way,” he said. “Ideally work with the towns.”
One idea he said could be to divide the Island into character areas. “It could deal with building form and materials and where buildings are located on the site so new stuff fits with the old stuff . . . and it’s in everybody’s best interest. Nobody wants to be told what to do on their property, but they want to make
sure that the people all around them don’t mess up.” Beyond reviewing DRIs, which get the most attention, commissioners and a staff of 10 also work on long-range planning in response to the Island Plan, a comprehensive 50-year plan. Site design and landscape guidelines, which Mr. London said codify what the commission had been doing, were recently approved, as was a wind energy plan.
The commission has also been working on an initiative to promote arts and culture on the Island.
“Most of the stuff we do, you don’t hear about it,” he said. “You hear about the DRIs, you don’t hear about the planning work that we do. And often, we want to sort of stay a low profile.”
Looking ahead, Mr. London said water quality protection is “the big, big issue facing the Island.” Towns will likely have to take the lead in creating expensive wastewater plans, he said. Sewering may be a fix for high-density areas, while large parts of the Island are too rural for sewers. “Over the next five years, I think that’s going to be one of the biggest challenges, and a very expensive challenge,” he said.
The commission’s relationship with Island towns varies. “We work more closely with some towns than others in terms of technical assistance, we work where we’re asked,” he said. Some towns have plans and others don’t, he said, hence new thresholds for which projects come before the commission.
“One of the criteria will be, does the town have a plan, does the town have a special permit process? Because if the town has got it, the commission will say, well, someone will be looking at it,” he said.
Other plans include working on bike paths around the Island to connect missing links and examining problematic traffic intersections on the Island.
Returning to an earlier theme, he said: “It goes back to the character thing. There are some areas on the Island, if you go away and come back a generation from now, you want it to look pretty much the same. And there are others areas that if they transformed a lot, it would be fine. I think if you were walking on Circuit avenue, you’d want it to look pretty much the same. Upper State Road [in Vineyard Haven], it can be transformed.”
But when it comes to some Island issues, like the notorious Five Corners intersection, even Mr. London is baffled about what to do.
“You can quote me on this,” he said. “I have no idea.”