No Seat at the Table

Gov. Deval Patrick and his administration in energy and environmental affairs have sold the Vineyard down the river with the draft Oceans Management Plan, which it is now clear was developed with only passing regard to the rich natural, historical, cultural and archeological resources of the Island. These are the same resources that the Massachusetts legislature expressly recognized as threatened and deserving of special protection when it passed the act in Nineteen Seventy-Four that created the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The state legislature wisely vested the regional land and water commission with unique powers to regulate development and also to create special planning districts, known as districts of critical planning concern.

The very first such districts were drawn around the fragile coastal areas of the Island, prohibiting development in these areas. Quickly following were districts to protect the Island’s rural road system and places of special historical significance, places such as the Christiantown chapel, home of the Praying Indians.

And so it is especially appropriate, and perhaps especially ironic, that the commission voted overwhelmingly last week to nominate a district of critical planning concern for the ocean waters around the Vineyard. Ironic because the special planning district, which triggers an automatic moratorium on all structures in ocean waters around the Island, comes in direct response to the state Oceans Management Plan. It has come to light in recent weeks that the oceans plan, which has designated just two areas — one off Noman’s Land and a second off Cuttyhunk — as the only appropriate sites for large commercial wind farms in the entire state, is badly flawed, poorly written and questionably drawn.

The problems are flagged by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission in twelve pages of comments that were submitted to the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs early this month. The complete text of the comments can be read on the commission Web site,

Diplomatic in tone and framed around clear expressions of support for the development of renewable energy resources, including wind (with a list of concrete examples), the commission comments also expose the oceans plan for its deep flaws, including:

• Avian studies that relied on data which excludes the Vineyard (Island bird experts do not report their findings to Mass Audubon and Bird Observer, the only two agencies that the state used for its information in developing the plan).

• No clear explanation in the plan for why the Vineyard was chosen over other areas in the state. In the absence of information to the contrary, a large group of public officials on the Island believe the reasons are purely political; with its small population the Vineyard has virtually no clout on Beacon Hill.

• Unsophisticated planning and analysis related to emerging technologies. The plan focuses narrowly on wind generation in state waters, but emerging technologies are rapidly being developed for wind generation in deeper, federal waters, where the wind resources are richer than near shore. The state of Rhode Island is moving in this direction with wind planning, which also addresses the problem of disrupting scenic views.

And to those who would scoff at concerns about scenic values as shallow and a symptom of the Not in My Backyard syndrome, consider this: scenic views such as those from the Gay Head Cliffs are valued not only for their beauty but for their history. The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), whose people have lived there for nine thousand years, value the cliffs and view across the ocean as a sacred piece of their heritage. That heritage also includes tourism and fishing. The commission comments underscore the point: “The people who choose to live or visit here consider scenic values to be very important. It is unacceptable that the oceans plan virtually ignores scenic values.

“Of concern is not only the impact during the day, but also the fact that after sunset the darkness of the ocean will be replaced by what will look like the skyline of a major city, with flashing lights from 166 turbines the height of fifty-story buildings.”

Should a hundred or more towering wind turbines be built in a row across the horizon off the Gay Head Cliffs? Maybe, maybe not; there is not enough solid information yet to make that decision. And however laudable, the goals of renewable energy development are no excuse for a bad plan.

But this much is certain, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission says it best in its comments:

“The people of Dukes County need to play a central role in the decision making process . . . It is essential that the community have a real voice, a real seat at the table in determining what happens here.”

To date this has not happened, but there is still time for Governor Patrick and his administration to respond to the commission’s comments and revise the plan. The final version is not due until the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Islanders must continue to stand up for what is right, and to make their voices heard, as they have always done.

And the Martha’s Vineyard Commission is doing precisely that.