Some four decades ago, the Massachusetts legislature recognized Martha’s Vineyard as one of the state’s crown jewels by creating an agency with special powers to protect the Island’s unique ecological, archeological, historical and human resources. That body, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, has distinguished itself over nearly forty years as the Vineyard’s sole regional planning agency, sitting in the often-uncomfortable role of arbiter of Island values. Through times of harmony and political unsteadiness, on the battlegrounds of environmental protection and development, the commission’s profile has risen and fallen, at least in part a reflection of broader economic conditions.
The commission has been a relatively quiet presence in the last few years; its narrow endorsement of the once-controversial roundabout stands out among a few noteworthy decisions. To be sure, the commission has continued to do research and planning. Under the direction of executive director Mark London, the commission completed the Island Plan, a comprehensive community effort to create a blueprint for the future.
Today the Vineyard economy, in the doldrums during the recent economic recession, is beginning to show signs of life. What form the recovery will take remains unknown. But if this summer’s crush of tourists and heightened activity in the real estate market are any indication, the Island may well be poised for a new period of growth. Development pressures combined with public concerns about coastal erosion could very well thrust the commission back into the spotlight.
Already there are new projects on deck that will require the commission’s full attention in the months ahead. Topping the agenda is a large expansion planned by the Stop & Shop grocery chain for its Vineyard Haven store, which sits at the gateway to the Island’s only year-round port. A public hearing on the project began early this month and had a second session last night.
There are many complicated issues for the commission to consider as it begins the long process of weighing benefits and detriments of the project. They include the impact of traffic in one of the most congested areas of the Vineyard, the status of a town parking lot that the Stop & Shop has eyed for its own use, and the possible historic preservation of a pre-Colonial building in the shadow of the store. And then there is the key but far more subjective question of whether the project fits the needs and character of the Island.
It is without question the commission’s job, spelled out clearly in a charter long upheld by the state’s highest courts, to make those kinds of subjective judgments. But it is also more than that. Anyone who has sat through commission meetings knows they can be long and even tedious. But however messy, thorough discussion and the expression of many opinions has often led to good decision-making. Commission votes are rarely unanimous and often a decision hinges on a single vote. This was true with the contentious vote to deny a luxury golf course for the Southern Woodlands in Oak Bluffs some ten years ago, and it was true in the testy (and later contested) decision to approve the roundabout last year. Meanwhile, the outcome of past commission decisions are visible all over the Island. The bulk of the Southern Woodlands is a beautiful land bank property. And even the staunchest critics of the roundabout now agree that it is working.
In a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by the Gazette this spring, Vineyard residents — both seasonal and permanent — affirmed the importance of the commission in safeguarding the Island way of life. And they overwhelmingly cited preservation of the Vineyard’s character as the commission’s top responsibility.
Islanders are counting on the commission to make decisions with the broader interests of the Vineyard in mind. That is a weight of responsibility for commission members, both elected and appointed, to carry, and they deserve gratitude for their willingness to take on an often-thankless task. To fulfill their mission, commissioners need vision, strength of purpose and a tough hide.
The Vineyard would be a very different place today without the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. And when commissioners are called upon again to make more hard decisions, we hope they are ready.