Maybe the long winter is causing short tempers, but it seems like the mere mention of Stop & Shop these days is met by a spew of fury. Anyone with a gripe – high prices, low wages, too much government, corporate greed, lack of parking, traffic congestion – can find something to complain about in the long-running debate over the proposed expansion of the Vineyard Haven grocery store.
Lately much of the anger seems to be directed against the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, to whom the plan was referred as a development of regional impact a full year ago. The commission has held six public hearings so far; hearings will resume on February twentieth.
All can agree that the review process has dragged on too long, though in fairness the commission is only partly to blame. Requests for even routine information and adjustments posed to Stop & Shop and its parent company, Ahold, often need to be sent up the corporate ladder, resulting in frustrating delays. And in the latest wrinkle, it became clear last week that the town of Tisbury is still muddling over a related issue of what to do with the town parking lot.
To be sure, the Stop & Shop project has been freighted with a host of issues that have been kicked down the road for years. And the proposal itself is full of complexity: is it prudent to allow a high-traffic business to triple its size, given its location in a floodplain next to a historic house at the very gateway to the Island?
But by failing to identify the essential issues clearly and allowing itself to be tugged in too many directions, the commission is doing itself and the Island a disservice. It’s hard to get a clear sight line on things, even for the commissioners themselves. “There are so many angles to this whole project . . . nobody knows what’s really going on,” said an exasperated Ned Orleans, commissioner from Tisbury and a seasoned elected official, at the most recent public hearing.
Created by an act of the state legislature forty years ago, the commission’s mandate is broad, charged as it is with balancing a range of interests to protect the Island’s unique natural, historical, ecological, scientific and cultural qualities. Though the specific pressures on the Vineyard are different than they were four decades ago, the Island still badly needs a body that can take the long view about what’s best for the Island.
Instead, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and its director Mark London seem to have taken a steady hand off the tiller and allowed themselves to become distracted by side matters and bogged down in minutiae. Though the commission has wrested some size and design concessions from Stop & Shop, it is hard not to feel that it has been nipping around the fringes of the project instead of sinking its teeth into the core issues and addressing them head-on.
The commission needs to climb out of the weeds, identify the critical questions raised by the plan — including traffic, parking, aesthetics, economic impacts and the fate of a historic house — and spell out exactly what it would take for Stop & Shop to win approval. The commission has the power to impose conditions on every project, but it needs to first make clear against what standards the project is being judged.
In the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Vineyarders have a potentially valuable vehicle for resisting outside pressure and defining the Island they want. But the commission needs badly to find some leadership. That Islanders are beginning to look at it as a meddlesome bureaucracy ought to be a wake-up call.