The Oceans Plan Quid Pro Quo

Gov. Deval Patrick and his senior advisors in energy and the environment have an ambitious, aggressive agenda that is designed to regulate and encourage the development of renewable energy industries, especially wind. But the legislative initiatives that have grown from the this agenda would also eviscerate the protective powers of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and this is an unacceptable trade-off.

Created by an act of the state legislature thirty-five years ago, the commission is unique among regional planning agencies and was the blueprint for the Cape Cod Commission. They are the only two commissions of their kind.

In an ominous sign, the Cape Cod Commission lost a key battle this year against Cape Wind when the state Energy Facilities Siting Board overruled the commission’s power of review over the land transmission portion of the giant wind farm planned for Horseshoe Shoals. It was a procedural matter from the start, with the Cape Wind developers gambling that they would have a better shot at review by a friendly state agency than by the Cape commission. So the Cape Wind developers never bothered to complete their application before the Cape Commission, received what is termed a procedural denial (for an incomplete application) and appealed to the state Energy Facilities Siting Board, which granted them a comprehensive permit.

The effect of all this was to cut the Cape Cod Commission out of the process, and the matter now rests before the state Supreme Judicial Court for an important ruling that will determine which state agency trumps the other.

Under the draft Oceans Management Plan and another draft bill called the Energy Facilities Siting Act, the exact same scene is set to play out with future commercial and private wind farms in and around the Vineyard. Both the Oceans Plan, which aims to write the rules to accompany the Oceans Act of 2008 and must be completed by the end of the year, and the newer siting act, still a draft bill, call for the Energy Facilities Siting Board to handle appeals of commission reviews of wind projects. Currently commission appeals are heard by a superior court.

That is a key difference. The commission has repeatedly been upheld by the state courts over the years, including the highest courts, which have recognized and underscored the commission’s role in protecting the unique qualities of the Vineyard. By contrast, the EFSB is a political board whose members are appointed by the governor.

There is no reason to think that the EFSB would give the same deference to the commission as the courts have given over the years, and Islanders have begun to sit up and take notice, including Island selectmen. Led by J.B. Riggs Parker of Chilmark, a fired-up meeting of the all-Island selectmen last week paved the way for heated testimony at a state public hearing on Wednesday night this week in the Katharine Cornell Theatre. The strong message from Islanders to Gov. Deval Patrick and his administration: the powers of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission must not be traded for the sake of developing renewable energy facilities along our coastline.

It calls to mind a time some years back when the Vineyard was under assault by the state legislature to take over the Steamship Authority, and selectmen rallied to protect the rights of Islanders.

This is another time when all Vineyarders should come together to protect and defend the powers of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

The future of the Island is very much at stake.