The Martha’s Vineyard Commission has voted to accept without change an innovative set of regulations developed by the people of Aquinnah to protect their town from the effects of runaway growth.
“This is about preserving a modesty of scale and a lifestyle,” declared Marcia Cini, member of the commission from Tisbury.
The remark came just before the commission voted last Thursday to approve the regulations for the Aquinnah District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC), a special overlay planning district for the entire town. The DCPC was nominated by the town a year ago, marking the first time in the history of the commission that an entire town had been named a DCPC.
A building moratorium has been in effect in Aquinnah since the nomination of the DCPC last year. The moratorium will end on May 23, if the town votes to adopt the DCPC regulations at a special town meeting.
Last week the commission held two public hearings on the Aquinnah DCPC in the same night. One was to address a proposal to modify the guidelines to include a set of building impact fees, and the second hearing was for discussion and a vote on the entire package of regulations. The modification came about after the town was encouraged by the commission to drop the impact fees from a limited building cap DCPC and include the fees in the townwide DCPC. The building cap was approved by both the commission and the town last month.
Last week town officials from Aquinnah recalled the town meeting vote on the building cap, which was nearly unanimous.
“It was a mandate. People were really supportive of what the resident homesite committee and the town of Aquinnah are doing,” said planning board member JoAnn Eccher.
The regulations include lower height limits for buildings, and detailed guidelines for siting, design and landscaping around buildings. For the most part, the regulations target highly visible areas in the tiny town. The regulations also include a graduated set of building permit impact fees. The impact fees range from $100 for a house up to 2,000 square feet to $25,000 for a house over 5,000 square feet.
The current fees were revised downward from an earlier proposal. The impact fees are intended for use by the town resident homesite committee, which is actively developing an affordable housing program for town residents.
“We have no affordable housing and we are seeing the same crisis that everyone is seeing seasonally. This year we have 12 people with no place to live in the summer, so they cannot continue living in our town,” said planning board chairwoman Camille Rose.
Commission member John Early questioned whether the impact fee will generate enough income to assist the resident homesite committee in buying lots.
“I just think maybe the impact fee isn’t going to have a whole lot of impact,” he said.
But Derrill Bazzy, who is chairman of the homesite committee, said the impact fee has a two-pronged goal: To encourage people to build smaller houses, and to encourage people who are building very large houses to help solve the affordable housing problem. Mr. Bazzy said a 4,500-square-foot house is under construction right now in Aquinnah; he said the impact fees from even two houses of that size would be enough to give the homesite committee a jump-start toward buying some property in town. “We’ve got two pieces of property sitting there right now that we can move on,” he said.
Ms. Eccher reminded the commission members that they had encouraged Aquinnah officials to remove the impact fees from the building cap and put them in the townwide DCPC regulations.
“We ask you to revise the guidelines and let the people of Aquinnah make the decision about the impact fee themselves,” she said.
A building impact fee has been adopted by the Cape Cod town of Barnstable and is now the subject of a court challenge. Mr. Bazzy said Aquinnah town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport is following the Barnstable case and also is working closely with the town on all the legal issues surrounding the DCPC regulations.
Asked if Mr. Rappaport had endorsed the impact fees, Mr. Bazzy said the legal issues are still under discussion.
“We still need to do more research, and he feels at this point that it’s proper for us to keep moving forward. But the town is not going to intentionally go into a situation where it is going to get sued,” Mr. Bazzy said. “It is cutting-edge, and we have Barnstable ahead of us,” he added.
The discussion of the DCPC regulations included a thorough scrutiny of the details, from language clarifications to questions about the wisdom of regulating such things as the trim color on houses in highly visible areas. Commission member Michael Donaroma, who owns a large nursery and landscape business in Edgartown, had his own critique for the regulations governing plant materials. The regulations encourage landowners to avoid large expanses of lawns and use native and indigenous plant materials, such as bayberry and high bush blueberry. Mr. Donaroma suggested that the list of indigenous materials be expanded to include native grasses, but he also questioned the limits. “No roses, no English holly, no primroses, no lilac, no forsythia?” he said.
The only vocal opponent was Benjamin Hall, a commission member from Edgartown. At the outset, Mr. Hall complimented the people of Aquinnah on their work.
“It’s a very comprehensive and well-developed and thoughtful bylaw,” he said.
But Mr. Hall said the regulations go beyond the scope of what was originally outlined when the town first nominated the DCPC.
“Now we’re being asked to promote and maintain rural character and culture, and I’m not sure what that means,” said Mr. Hall.
James Vercruysse, a member of the commission from Aquinnah, countered Mr. Hall. “I think what we’re trying to protect isn’t a look or a building; I think what we’re trying to protect is the people who live there. It would help to maintain the character of the town by helping to keep its people there,” he said.
Others agreed.
“We created this district because the town of Aquinnah is trying to get a grip on its future,” said Leonard Jason Jr., a commission member from Chilmark. “It’s not up to us to decide what is rural — it’s up to the community to decide what rural is. I think the town has spoken and it’s up to us to adopt these guidelines,” he added. 
“Let the people of Aquinnah make the decision,” Ms. Eccher said.
In the end, the commission voted 13 to 2 to accept the regulations. Mr. Hall and Mr. Donaroma cast the two nay votes. There was one more possible no vote. Michael Colaneri, a member of the commission from West Tisbury, was out of the room during the vote, but when he returned he told commission chairman Richard Toole that he would have voted against the regulations.
In other business last week, the commission also voted unanimously to rescind the Tisbury building cap district of critical planning concern (DCPC). The Tisbury building cap was turned down by voters at a special town meeting last month.
Tisbury is now the only town on the Island which has not adopted a building cap.