This year the voters of Chilmark are being asked to make a change to a very specific area of the Chilmark zoning bylaws. I have real concerns about this.

Two years ago the voters unanimously approved a solution to the long debated Squibnocket bridge/parking lot project. I was proud to be a vote in favor of what most folks thought was a great compromise.

Unfortunately, an appeal of that decision was filed. As a result Chilmark lost the state grant that would have provided funding for a large percentage of the project. In addition the project has been delayed which puts a burden on the interests of the town and the landowners who deserve a serviceable road to their property.

The selectmen are now facing the threat of continued appeals resulting in possible lengthy delays to the interests of voters and landowners alike. It is out of this concern that arises the selectmen’s proposal to change the bylaws.

The Chilmark bylaws acknowledge the fragile nature of the Squibnocket area. The following language of the zoning frames this point: “The district is created with special concern for preservation of the unspoiled nature of the pond and adjacent coastal areas, and for the fragile ecology of the area, including fisheries, wildlife, vistas and historical and archeological resources.”

The proposed change to the zoning bylaw removes the intent of the protections as a way to end the appeal to the town’s decision. An applicant may streamline the normal review process of any proposed bridge/roadway project by appealing to the town voters for a project, if the voters find that there is a public benefit. As our town counsel explains it, the process requires a determination that there is a public benefit, which if found, will allow the streamlining of the application process. The question is, what is a public benefit? Yes, it may be the extended public beach, which is an important element of the original agreement, but what may not occur to folks is that real estate tax revenue may also be perceived as a public benefit. This change sets a very low bar and will allow the circumvention of protections that most voters agree are important. This is troubling to me because it creates a clear imbalance. Most Chilmark residents have had to jump any number of review hurdles to do almost anything in town. Why should this fragile area be exempt from the same thorough review that is required of all of us? It will make this project an as-of-right use, which is something none of us benefit from.

One example of how this change may fall short is what happens if an old structure reaches the end of its serviceable life or is damaged in a storm? There should be as part of any review process the required removal of any old structures as they are replaced with new structures.

As climate changes and the sea level rises, we will see similar projects in Chilmark and other parts of Martha’s Vineyard. If other towns determine that bridges and roadways are exempt from the stringent review required in the fragile coastal districts projects may be built without regard to their impacts. Another unintended consequence of this change will be that any project falling under this provision will also be subject to the potential that an applicant may set conditions for which there is no recourse or ability to negotiate.

Chilmark must protect those areas that remain unspoiled. We need to stand by the strength of our zoning bylaws and protect them. As unpalatable as that may be in the short term, in the long term it is vital.

The selectmen face a very frustrating situation. The public’s interests are being blocked by an appeal and they want to move forward. This change is not the way to do this. The potential consequences of these modifications have not been thoroughly considered. It may take time but I believe the town’s interest will prevail in court.

David Damroth