A second public hearing was set for last night before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission on expansion plans for the Stop & Shop grocery store in Vineyard Haven. And as the commission begins what is expected to be an exhaustive review of one of the largest and most complicated commercial development projects in recent memory on the Island, a Harris-Interactive Poll commissioned by the Gazette this year shows that public opinion and institutional knowledge about the commission is mixed. Some Islanders know little about the history and role of the commission as the Island’s sole regional planning agency that was vested with unique powers by the Massachusetts legislature nearly 40 years ago, the poll found.
And Islanders who are educated about the commission feel strongly that its primary role is preservation and protection of the character of the Vineyard. Of those polled who said they were at least somewhat familiar with the commission, 80 per cent said preserving the character of the Island and providing extra protection for natural resources like water and open space are very important.
Of the 521 respondents, which included both seasonal and year-round residents, 63 per cent said they were very or somewhat familiar with the commission. On the other end of the spectrum, 22 per cent of respondents said they were not very familiar with the commission, and 15 per cent said they were not at all familiar.
Those polled rated the commission in the middle of the pack when it comes to Island organizations and government; nearly half, or 47 per cent, said they have some confidence in the organization. Another 23 per cent said they have a great deal of confidence in the commission, and 17 per cent said they have hardly any confidence.
The commission is made up of 21 members, nine of whom are elected to two-year terms during Islandwide elections. Six are appointed by town selectmen, one is appointed by the county commissioners, and five members — four of whom do not vote — are appointed by the governor.
The commission is also responsible for planning, and employs a staff of planners who focus on transportation, affordable housing, water quality and economic development, among other things. Over meetings in the next month, the commission will review several developments of regional impact (DRIs). Besides the Stop & Shop hearing, the commission will also review new utility poles that some towns have protested are too big and mar the landscape, a proposal for a church expansion, and a proposed subdivision in Katama. These and other projects, “are all different balancing acts,” said commission executive director Mark London. “On the one hand, people have concerns about the visual impact of taller utility poles. On the other hand people want electricity. People might have the desire to replace the existing Stop & Shop with a larger new store, but how is that balanced with fitting into the character of the town, to say nothing of traffic?” he said.
“That’s what the commission does,” Mr. London continued. “It’s more often a matter of balancing the desires of the applicant and mitigating the original application with improvements that fit into the Island character and deal with other issues,” he said. Mr. London said this is true of the Stop & Shop plan, which has already evolved in response to commission concerns.
“To a large extent the job of the commission is to dig down into the specifics. There needs to be some entity that sort of pushes back,” he said.
Commissioners largely echoed Mr. London’s thoughts about balance. The role of the commission is to “facilitate reasonable development on the Island,” said Joshua Goldstein of Tisbury, who was elected to the commission last year. “To help develop the Island in a way that people and businesses feel good about — everybody wins,” he said, adding: “I think as someone who grew up here and lives here now, that it’s important the Island doesn’t become a place of strip malls and stuff you can find off-Island.”
Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, the longest-serving member of the commission, has a T-shirt printed with the preamble to the commission’s 1974 enabling legislation. “The Vineyard is different and special even when compared to some of the other places in Massachusetts because it is an Island, it is such a closed system,” Mrs. Sibley said.
As for Island character, she said: “It becomes a very difficult thing to try to define.” But she said the commission offers some pushback against development and uncoordinated use of land. “They could just go nuts and probably would if there was no mechanism to push back, to ask, does that make sense in that location?
“The visual character of the Island is central to who we are, and really central to our economy,” she added.
“A body as large as the commission gets some reflection of the community’s response to things,” Mrs. Sibley said. She said character changes over time, but the commission makes sure the ideas of the preamble are represented, development is coordinated and well thought out, and the benefits and the detriments of a project are weighed and discussed. “I think that most of the projects that go through the commission and get approved are better projects in all ways,” she said.
Richard Toole, a former longtime member of the commission from Oak Bluffs who served as chairman, described the MVC as regional clearinghouse of sorts. “The general public feels safer speaking what’s on their mind to the commission than they ever would to their own selectmen,” he said. “Sort of a neutral ground. I think people feel safe there.” “Nothing’s perfect,” Mr. Toole added. “The overall piece of legislation is a really powerful piece of legislation. They have a lot of power to do things and they don’t even scratch the surface of their power.” Joan Malkin, a new member of the commission from Chilmark, spoke, too about Island character. “It most obviously means visually, in terms of the look and feel of the commercial districts and the residential neighborhoods, but I suspect it means a lot more than that,” she said.
Opposing points of view were clear when Ms. Malkin was joining the commission, she said. Some thought she was crazy and the commission was outdated, she said, while others thought the commission has an important role.
Two months into her term, Mrs. Malkin said she is taking the time to learn and listen to other commissioners, and it’s clear there is a special role. “It’s difficult in individual towns to say no, it’s somehow easier when a regional board vested with this region has to make a tough decision,” she said. “They have an eye over the whole Island and most towns don’t.”
Madeline Fisher of Edgartown, who was elected in 2012, agreed. “It’s not always popular and not always making the decisions everybody wants, but at least it’s a place to go,” she said.
“Fortunately we do have a body like the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. It’s a very important role that we have,” she said.