Citing concerns about the role of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and how it might regulate house size, the Edgartown selectmen and several members of the building community spoke out this week about proposed changes to the commission’s criteria for reviewing developments of regional impact (DRIs).
At public hearings Nov. 8 and Nov. 15, the commission outlined proposed revisions to what is commonly called the DRI checklist, which determines what developments towns refer to the commission for possible review. The commission revises the checklist every two years.
The commission said that despite discussions about automatically referring large houses for review to the commission, it will leave that decision up to Vineyard towns. But the checklist does include a proposed section on “community character,” stipulating that any development 50 per cent greater than the median size for its surrounding neighborhood could be referred to the commission, with the commission then deciding whether or not to review it.
An explanatory note said the item was included in the draft checklist “to allow discussion with town boards and the public. The aim is to ensure or allow buildings significantly larger than the surrounding area.” The note said this could be a mandatory checklist referral, or discretionary, and asked whether the criteria were clear enough.
Members of the building community came out in force to the Nov. 15 commission meeting to argue against the community character criteria, which they said was loosely defined and seemed to regulate house size alone. About 25 people attended the public hearing. After well over an hour of discussion, the commission closed the hearing but kept the written record open until Nov. 30.
The first public hearing on the matter, held during bad weather on Nov. 8, was sparsely attended.
On Monday, several of the same builders attended the Edgartown selectmen’s meeting, where the selectmen agreed to write a letter asking the commission to extend the hearing. The meeting was marked
by sharp criticism of the commission and the proposed checklist.
“ I have a problem with the commission inserting themselves into the towns, especially in regard to the two issues that I’ve heard today, the size and the character,” said selectman Margaret Serpa.
“I think that part of the attraction to this Island is the different character in all the towns and I don’t like the idea of the commission setting a character for Martha’s Vineyard,” she continued.
Selectman Michael Donaroma, who also attended the MVC hearing, suggested that the town write a letter to the commission asking them to extend the public hearing.
“I have a lot of questions,” he said.
“The people in our town voted our bylaws for a reason,” he added, saying that he felt town master plans, zoning regulations, boards and districts are sufficient.
Mr. Donaroma said the commission’s duty is to protect the character of the Island and not look at a house on a street with five houses. “Our taxpayers and our residents could be subjected to going to the MVC to build a residence . . . that’s not regional and that’s where this is leading,” Mr. Donaroma said.
“It’s usurping the town’s authority,” selectman Art Smadbeck chimed in. “We have a planning board and a [zoning board of appeals]. This is a blatant usurpation of our authority in this town. And it’s constant, it’s continuing,” he added.
“The concern is that it’s really left up to a very small group to determine major issues amongst the towns,” said Ted Rosbeck, the owner of Island Pools and Spas. He said community character seemed to talk only about house size.“It was clearly an agenda that was being pushed, in my opinion, of course.”
Norman Rankow, the owner of Colonial Reproductions, said the town has done a fine job regulating itself. “I think Edgartown, and everyone in this room agrees, has done a very good and diligent job in addressing zoning issues, character issues; we have master plans,” he said. “We’ve done a good job and we’re diligent at it . . . it just seems like [the commission is] ever increasingly all-encompassing, and [wants] to take in more and more and more, and it’s tough to fathom and swallow.”
In the letter sent to the commission Tuesday, the selectmen wrote in part: “The board feels [the decision to close the public hearing] appears to deny due process . . . You had an Edgartown selectman asking you to continue the public hearing. You are paid an assessment from each town with the theory being that you are representing the best interest of that town. We are simply asking you to continue a public hearing. What is the big rush?”
Commission DRI coordinator Paul Foley said Tuesday that the commission has decided to continue the public hearing and will be accepting public testimony on the DRI checklist at its Nov. 29 meeting.
Public comment on the checklist will be accepted through 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 30.
At the commission hearing four days earlier, the sentiment was similar.
“I think the reason a lot of the people are here, we’re afraid of restrictions people might put on sizes of houses on the Island and we think towns do have the capability of deciding on their own,” said Joseph Chapman, a Chilmark contractor.
“I would point out to you, sir, that we didn’t put that in. We absolutely did not,” said commissioner Doug Sederholm.
“But when you say community character, I’m a little concerned of that. It could be construed in many different ways,” Mr. Chapman responded.
Several argued that community character is subjective.
“How would you judge character?” Mr. Chapman asked. “How would you do it? It’s like creating a rule or a law that you can’t control. You can’t enforce.”
Peter Rosbeck of Rosbeck Builders said it sounded to him to like character was the same as house size. “It is really leading down to the same path that we were concerned about before,” he said.
The discussion was at times contentious.
Mr. Donaroma, a former member of the MVC, said the idea of regulating character “scare[d] him severely,” and that it was clear that people did not want community character included on the checklist, though he questioned whether the commission would take it out.
“Everything you talk about, you guys end up doing,” he said.
“That’s really an unfair comment, Mike,” Mr. Sederholm said.
Some questioned whether houses that are smaller than other homes in the neighborhood should be subject to review. Other discussion centered on whether the commission checklist is too restrictive, and whether the tourism industry or the building industry drives the Island economy.
“I think there’s opportunity to relax the DRI checklist,” Oak Bluffs resident and business owner Michael Wallace said. “It’s my feeling that it’s very restrictive.”
He said the commission should have the burden of explaining why each item on the checklist was included.
“Here’s what bothers people,” commissioner Leonard Jason Jr. said. “We started out with what, a four-page DRI checklist. And all we hear is we’re trying to loosen things up, and the exact opposite is occurring . . . [builders] see everything that has to come here as an impediment to them earning a living.”
Commissioner Linda Sibley said the community character item was perhaps badly worded, but could be called “neighborhood characteristics,” and was in response to a dispute over a planned housing development off Mullen Way in Edgartown.
She said issues like house size, single versus multi-family homes and housing style dictate community character, and is important to the economy. “Our core economy is tourism and the building trades are as vibrant as they are because of tourism, because people fall in love with this place and want to come here. If they decide that this is an ugly place and they don’t want to come here, there will be no building trades.”
She also noted that the commission rarely says no to projects.
And commissioner Brian Smith said the commission started hearings about the checklist about a year ago. “A lot of time and effort has gone into this,” he said.
“Hundreds of boards across the country have successfully come up with criteria for ensuring community character is protected,” commission executive director Mark London said.
The discussion comes as the Chilmark planning board wrestles with whether to require extra review for houses larger than 3,500 square feet.
“I think it’s very clear that members of the building trades are very concerned about [the community character item],” Mr. Sederholm said. “I think we’ve gotten that message very clearly and we will consider that when we deliberate on this.”