The following was sent to the Edgartown selectmen:

As your appointed representative to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, it is my duty to respond to the statements made by Mr. Smadbeck as reported by the Vineyard Gazette on Friday, June 5. My experience with the commission over the last eight and a half years has given me a perspective that I feel is important to share with you now.

I’d like to start with a few comments about the commission’s budget. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the commission never rebuffed any effort to find out about or provide input to the MVC budget. Since the commission was one of the first Island entities to adopt a budget, we did our best in early winter to determine what the six towns were going to do about salary increases, to attempt to match the standard. In the end, the MVC came out below the average increase in the six towns, schools, and county. Although the difficult financial situation didn’t let us reduce the town assessments as we had earlier hoped, the MVC budget for fiscal 2010 is $120,000 less than last year, and the assessments were flat with the previous year.

Concerning Edgartown’s share relative to other Island towns, the commonwealth set the formula for dividing the MVC assessment, based on each town’s share of the Island’s equalized valuation. Everyone on the Vineyard pays about $4.40 per $100,000 assessed value, so someone who owns a house assessed at $500,000 pays $22 a year, no matter where they live. This is an eminently fair and modest amount.

We are happy to work with each town’s finance committee on the preparation of the budget, and will be setting out a process for the coming year that will give everyone more time to provide input. But ultimately, it is the 18 elected and appointed commissioners who are accountable for making sure that the money is well spent. To that end, the commission will be hearing regular reports from each staff member, so that we can be fully apprised of the value of their positions. Next December I intend to be even more vigilant and critical in reviewing the MVC budget.

More important is to understand why the commission is needed now and in the future as much as ever.

The comment that, “The land, it’s all in conservation or it’s already developed,” is not correct. With present zoning and available land, 2,871 more single-family dwellings could be built in Edgartown alone. If guest houses are added, there could be a total of 6,096 new living units spread out over the town. Islandwide there could be 18,208 more dwelling units. Though we are seeing fewer large subdivisions than in previous decades, there are still many large parcels of unprotected land. Over the last few years several hundred houses have been built even without large subdivisions. One can easily see this is not sustainable development and that existing controls would not prevent over-development.

In addition, there are new challenges that need the attention of the MVC. Recently enacted or proposed legislation such as the Oceans Act, the Wind Energy Siting Reform Act, and the Land Use Partnership Act, would erode towns’ authority to regulate development. However, the existence of our regional regulatory authority, the MVC, offers a way to keep control on the Island.

The reason the MVC was created was because the commonwealth realized that town zoning alone cannot give the community the kind of protection it needs to preserve this Island’s unique environment and character. The 54-lot subdivision proposed for Herring Creek Farm in 1990 would have met town zoning; the existence of the MVC was important in helping the town of Edgartown achieve a much better solution.

In looking at the commission’s planning function, we cannot only look at the immediate activities within the borders of our town. It has been my observation that town boards are focused on the matters directly before them and have little time or inclination for long-range planning. Also, we Edgartown citizens are part of the whole of Martha’s Vineyard and we care about the whole Island, including the other towns where our friends, family, and customers live, and where we shop, fish, hunt, visit, hike, and work.

Groundwater from other towns flows into Edgartown and indications from the estuaries studies are that we have already built more septic systems than the Great Ponds can stand. The commission has worked with Edgartown and other Island towns and pond associations over many years to carry out water quality studies and plan the most cost-effective ways to protect public health and clean up our ponds. We all benefit from efforts to deal with Island traffic and transportation problems. We need the MVC’s trained staff and citizen planners to focus on these important issues that don’t come before the town boards week by week.

The unique legislation that created the commission states that its purpose is to preserve and conserve for future generations “the unique natural, historical, ecological, scientific and cultural values of Martha’s Vineyard which contribute to public enjoyment, inspiration, and scientific study, by protecting these values from development and uses which would impair them, and by promoting the enhancement of sound local economies.” The day-to-day administration of town government and our outdated zoning do not address these important values, which are being eroded on a daily basis by market forces. The Island Plan maps show that the Island environment has changed radically in the last 30 years and will change radically again in the next 30, perhaps making this into a suburban community indistinguishable from others throughout the commonwealth.

Edgartown and the rest of the Island have been blessed with a vibrant economy. In order for this prosperity to continue for future generations we can’t use up all our resources in this generation, as we have been doing with land, fish, and groundwater quality. Call it sustainability or just Yankee common sense, it means balancing consumption with renewal of the resource being consumed.

In order for the people of Martha’s Vineyard to get the future they say they want, we will have to take full advantage of the special powers of the MVC to give towns the legal authority and planning expertise to preserve the qualities of our Island lives that we value so highly.

For many of us Islanders, it is hard to spend our hard-earned money for professional services such as insurance, tax preparation, or septic engineers, but in the long run, it is money well-spent and may well save us money, make us money, or protect us from disaster. The $22 that the MVC costs for a typical household is probably the very best investment we can make in our future prosperity and happiness.

James Athearn owns Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown and has served on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for the last eight and a half years.