Reading the Fine Print

As big as the ocean itself, the Massachusetts Oceans Act adopted six months ago by the state legislature is an ambitious but largely hollow piece of legislation that remains to be filled out in the months ahead, partly through the development of an accompanying ocean management plan. The plan, which will be written over the next twelve months with the assistance of a broad-based advisory commission, is a crucial first step in regulating development in ocean waters within three miles of the state coastline.

And since the two Islands which are situated off the southeastern coast of the commonwealth lie in the first line of defense, the Oceans Act is of potentially enormous importance to the Vineyard.

And there are all kinds of development that can take place on the ocean these days — some good, some bad. Future stakeholders who attended a listening session held Tuesday night at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission office included commercial and recreational fishermen and marine biologists who are leading innovative aquaculture ventures such as the deep water blue mussel project in Chilmark.

This is an example of good development in the ocean that may provide jobs and a stimulus for the local economy not tied to tourism.

But it is too soon to issue a blanket stamp of approval for the Oceans Act; there is a flaw in the legislation that can be found in the fine print, specifically in section seven which replaces section fifteen and speaks to the issue of building renewable energy facilities. Language in this section appears to strip the Martha’s Vineyard Commission of its power to review renewable energy facilities, instead ceding review powers to the state energy facilities siting board. It is all a matter of conditional verbs; the section reads in part: “In regions where regional planning agencies have regulatory authority, a regional planning agency may review the . . . offshore renewable energy facilities as developments of regional impact and the applicant may seek review pursuant to the authority of the energy facilities siting board . . .”

The Vineyard has worked hard and at considerable taxpayer expense over the decades to protect and defend the powers of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and the state’s highest courts have repeatedly upheld those powers. Indeed, the Cape Cod Commission’s case against Cape Wind is over precisely the point of who has final power of review over the land transmission portion of the project, the commission or the energy facilities siting board? The Vineyard commission and the town of Edgartown intervened in that case on the principle of protecting the unique and broad powers of both commissions.

To allow the Oceans Act to dilute the powers of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission would set a very bad precedent. Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O’Leary, who was heavily involved in writing the Oceans Act, must take steps to correct this flaw, post haste.