Since its creation over 30 years ago, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission has served as one the most unusual political bodies in the nation — a regional planning agency vested with exceptional powers and charged with protecting the Island’s unique environment and character.
The commission in many instances has the power to supersede local laws. But it often lacks the power to enforce the conditions crafted for each project it reviews as a development of regional impact (DRI). The commission has no enforcement officer to ensure the conditions of all the DRIs approved over the years — now totaling over 600 — are followed as intended.
This was glaringly evident during the MVC meeting last Thursday night, when the Boston development company that built the Morgan Woods affordable housing project in Edgartown asked for permission to modify a list of conditions set out by the commission in August of 2004 when it approved the project.
A 60-unit rental housing complex situated on 12 acres in the Ocean Heights section of Edgartown, Morgan Woods was completed this fall. The town of Edgartown contracted with The Community Builders (TCB) in Boston — the country’s largest nonprofit urban housing developer — to build and manage the affordable housing project.
Attorney Peter Freeman told the commission last week that TCB needed to confirm that all conditions of the permitting process had been satisfied in order to satisfy their financial backers.
But Mr. Freeman opened the discussion by admitting that several changes had already been made to the project that violated the approved conditions.
A three-unit building was relocated from a southeastern corner near the edge of the Vineyard Golf Club, at the request of golf club officials, Mr. Freeman said. Three common areas had been clear cut to provide additional storage space for the modular housing units during construction, he said.
In addition, several buildings had been enlarged to meet requirements for access for people with handicaps, while other buildings are encroaching on a 100-foot setback on Pennywise Path.
Commission members asked project engineer Dick Barbini why nobody went to the commission before making the changes.
“How should I put this,” Mr. Barbini answered. “Time is money . . . and if this had to go through a review by both the [commission’s] land use planning committee and the full commission, it would have taken at least two weeks or a month.”
His remarks drew the ire of several commissioners who said they often fast-track a new application or a request for modifications if there is a pressing need.
“I resent the suggestion we aren’t capable of addressing something post haste . . . we often act quickly when there is an urgent need,” commissioner Linda Sibley said.
Other commissioners agreed.
“I think this is a flagrant violation of what was approved . . . the word on the street that this is the way to get around the commission,” said commissioner Andrew Woodruff.
“It seems this was a case of it being easier to ask for forgiveness then to get permission,” added commissioner Mimi Davisson.
Mr. Freeman said he had not been apprised of the changes, and he said TCB was sorry for causing any problems. He said the company had gone through several project managers, and he speculated the company may not have been familiar with the commission and its regulations.
“They’re not used to dealing with an agency like the commission . . . I think [TCB] is more accustomed to dealing with the town,” he said.
Several commissioners also questioned why Edgartown building inspector Leonard Jason Jr. had not informed the commission of the changes to the plan.
Mr. Barbini said it was common for a contractor to make minor changes without going to the commission, although commissioners retorted that moving a building and clear cutting three common areas are hardly minor changes.
Several commissioners were further upset to learn that an irrigation system had been installed in the areas cleared of trees.
“These changes are not minor . . . in the future I say we need some conditions with some teeth in them,” commissioner James Athearn said.
Commissioners discussed several ideas to ensure conditions are met in the future, including requiring an applicant to post a bond, a post-project review, regular compliance reviews and sending a letter to applicants informing them of the consequences of violating any conditions of approval.
Following the meeting, DRI coordinator Paul Foley said the commission may return to a policy of issuing certificates of occupancy for projects as part of the application process. Mr. Foley said the certificates would be issued either by him or commission executive director Mark London, and only when all conditions are met.
With much reluctance, commissioners on Thursday eventually agreed the changes did not warrant a public hearing and voted to accept them. But a new condition was added requiring that a landscape plan be submitted to the commission land use planning committee by the end of the year.
Commissioners said they accepted the changes because of the inherent value of the Morgan Woods affordable housing project.
“It’s a great project and it is a credit to the town and the people behind it, and I don’t think anyone can say otherwise,” chairman Douglas Sederholm said.