As a long public review of the Stop & Shop expansion winds down before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, opposition to the project has begun to heat up. With a final public hearing on the plan set for next week, an Island citizens group has formed and is circulating an online petition and organizing a letter-writing campaign to the MVC.
Vineyard Haven resident Ben Robinson, who is involved in the petition effort, said it is an attempt to “bring sunshine to the situation, inform the public and allow the MVC to feel somewhat backed up by the public. If the MVC is not going to stand up to this stuff we’re going to have to stand up to the MVC.”
Stop & Shop’s large expansion plan has been under review by the commission for the past nine months as a development of regional impact (DRI). The grocery chain wants to double the size of its Water street store into a two-story, 30,000-square-foot building with a 42-space parking garage.
The commission has held seven public hearings with an eighth hearing scheduled for next Thursday night at 6 p.m at the Tisbury senior center.
Commission chairman Fred Hancock said this week that he expects it to be the last hearing. “We are very much hoping that in the three to four hours that we have scheduled next week that we can bring all that to a close and get on with doing the deliberation and decision,” Mr. Hancock said by telephone. He said he does not expect deliberation or a vote on Thursday.
The Stop & Shop plan has been complicated by many factors, including concerns about size, traffic and environmental impacts in the location at the gateway to the Island, across the street from the main Steamship Authority terminal. In response, the plan has been revised along the way. Separate talks between the town of Tisbury and Stop & Shop over a $1.16 million mitigation package have added another layer to the public discussion around the project. The mitigation agreement has been approved by the town selectmen but not yet signed. Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande said this week that wording in the agreement is being finalized. Geoghan Coogan, a Tisbury attorney who is representing Stop & Shop, said in an email Thursday that a final proposal that will be before the commission next week includes specific offers relative to affordable housing and financial contributions toward traffic mitigation. He said a signed agreement with Tisbury is not imperative for Stop & Shop to move forward. “We have never asked nor expected a blanket vote of support from the town,” Mr. Coogan wrote.
Public opinion has been strong on both sides of the project, as seen through public comments and correspondence sent to the commission.
Last summer, Stop & Shop submitted a petition with more than 1,500 signatures in support of the project to the commission.
A petition against the project was posted online on Monday. As of Thursday at 5 p.m. it had 669 signatures.
The petition asks the commission to reject the proposal because of inappropriate scale and character, traffic, economic, and environmental impacts, and because it will set a dangerous precedent by raising “the benchmark for an acceptable scale and style of development in the rest of Vineyard Haven and elsewhere on the Island.”
Mr. Coogan said he could not comment specifically on the petition because he had not seen it. “From what I have heard, some of the facts stated in the petition are simply inaccurate and appear to be based on the very original proposal,” he said.
The Gazette received a flood of critical letters during the week. Late Thursday a packet of letters supporting the plan was dropped off at the Gazette. All letters appear online at mvgazette.com
Meanwhile, the commission is looking ahead to the post-public hearing review process with its land use planning committee (LUPC). At a meeting last week, the commission discussed concerns that the review would be too-well attended. The subcommittee is traditionally made up of voluntary membership and there is no set number for the subcommittee. But if all members of the commission attend the subcommittee meeting, it would violate the open meeting law.
“We haven’t really had this issue before,” Mr. Hancock said. The LUPC usually makes a recommendation to the full committee to approve or deny a project; Mr. Hancock said they are considering waiving the recommendation part of the subcommittee process. “Perhaps in that way we can tamp down the enthusiasm for everybody to show up,” he said.
The commission, a regional planning agency chartered by the state legislature with unique powers to plan and control development on the Vineyard, has come under fire at times from all sides during the Stop & Shop review.
Mr. Hancock acknowledged that the pressure is on. “I think it’s fairly obvious to me and probably to other people that this is an issue that has aroused feelings on both sides and I would expect that it’s probably not going to be a one-sided vote,” he said. “When that happens obviously it takes longer to come to a decision.”
He concluded: “When we come to a project like this, sometimes your mind says one thing and your heart says something else. Obviously commissioners have to be comfortable with their own decisions and I think one of the great strengths of the members that we have is that we can make a contentious decision and then come back the next week and nobody harbors a grudge.
“I have respect in the commissioners that they all have the best interest of the Island at heart. I mean that’s why they spend this much time doing this work. That’s why for this hearing process that’s lasted just about a year now, we have no attrition from the number of members that started hearing it, which is highly unusual. People have gone to great lengths to make sure they still have a seat at the table.”