The Martha’s Vineyard Commission had a busy year in 2019.

The unique, 15-member regional planning commission spent months permitting two undersea cables that will connect to an 84-turbine offshore wind farm. It reviewed a Wampanoag gaming development without the applicant’s participation. It reviewed the demolition of a historic home after it had been torn down. And it held a handful of tense public hearings on the largest subdivision to come before the commission in decades, ultimately sending the 28-lot project in Edgartown back to the drawing board.

Packer wharf is planned as a future facility for offshore wind offices. — Albert O. Fischer 3rd

The coming year looks to be just as busy, if not busier.

“This is the busiest time of my tenure, for sure,” said commission executive director Adam Turner in an interview over the holiday break. “And not just busy, but significant.”

Chartered in the 1970s with the vital task of preserving the unique character of Martha’s Vineyard, the commission has long served as the Island’s proverbial scale for development, balancing growth and conservation, often with delicately-drawn lines in the sand.

But in 2020, the tides are changing, literally. Lines that may have once been clear are now obscured by projects that have to take into account the threat of rising tides, eroding beaches and trampled shores — threats to the very character of the Island itself.

As the Vineyard heads into the new decade, the task of re-drawing those lines will fall most heavily on the shoulders of the one body expressly charged with preserving them.

Beginning in January, the MVC docket is full. The commission is set to begin its review of a first-of-its-kind, $15 million Eversource battery storage facility that the utility giant has proposed on its property in Oak Bluffs. Hearings will likely begin on a major redevelopment project at the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard. Across the street, Vineyard Wind has plans to put in a home port for its offshore turbine development. Down the road, the commission has its eye on a proposed 70-unit, 40B housing development at the former Hinckley’s property. A controversial, multi-million dollar plan to completely redesign the high school athletic complex and add an artificial turf field is also waiting in the wings.

But the front-and-center review will be the redesigned 28-lot Meeting House Way residential subdivision in Edgartown. Having been before the commission for multiple public hearings in 2018, the project is set to come back for another hearing at the beginning of the year.

“We’re going to have to make a decision firmly on the Meeting House Way subdivision, which is a big decision,” Mr. Turner said. “It is balancing several different things in a very distinctive area. And it’s the largest residential development we’ve had [in a long time].”

He continued:

“The next six months is going to be a very interesting and busy time at the commission. These are the quintessential economic development projects that also balance climate change and the environment.”

Last year, the commission was faced with two projects that went to the heart of its mandate and required a show of resolve. When the historic, 18th-century Mill House was demolished without a review, the commission took the unprecedented step to analyze the project retroactively, ultimately requiring $100,000 to go toward historic preservation. When a federal judge ruled that the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) needed to abide by local and state building permits, the commission decided in another unprecedented step to review the project without the applicant’s participation. The project was ultimately denied on procedural grounds that there was not enough information.

There were also personnel and structural changes at the Olde Stone Building in Oak Bluffs, where MVC offices are housed. In the shadow of the Mill House demolition and the departure of long-time DRI coordinator Paul Foley, the commission hired Christina Mankowski and Alex Elvin, new staff members to focus on planning and historic preservation. It developed a 13-point scale for reviewing historic buildings, and has taken steps to make sure historic homes are listed clearly on demolition applications. The commission overhauled and strengthened its affordable housing mitigation guidelines in light of the Meeting House Way subdivision. And it is in the process of changing rules about land and subdivisions as part of an update to the DRI checklist that takes place every two years. In response to a newly-formed climate action committee, the commission also adopted a nonbinding set of emergency environmental protocols aimed at the Vineyard becoming carbon neutral by 2040. The resolution includes a commitment to develop specific regulatory guidelines to analyze developments based on their environmental impacts and the threats of a changing climate.

“Basically, we’re going to have to balance projects that include the modernization of facilities and other kinds of things, with the environmental impact on a fragile Island,” Mr. Turner said. “It’s very complex.”

But the year 2020 — despite its name — isn’t just about hindsight. It’s about having a clear vision for the future. In Mr. Turner’s view, that doesn’t just mean thinking about development from a planning perspective. With an economic climate favorable to building and growth, he said he suspects a constant stream of regular DRI projects has become inevitable. And he said he believes it is partly the commission’s role to facilitate development in a responsible way, with farsighted vision.

Multimillion-dollar overhaul is being planned for high school athletic fields. — Jeanna Shepard

“It’s going to require us to work really hard,” Mr. Turner said. “The line between pure regulatory and planning policy is really blurred. We’re going to have to have planning policy that guides whatever regulatory decisions we are going to make.”

To lay the groundwork, Mr. Turner has been focusing on compiling previously unavailable data and making it available to towns as well as the general public. That work includes last year’s comprehensive statistical profile, partnering with Healthy Aging of Martha’s Vineyard to provide surveys of the Island’s elder-service network, a $200,000 earmark to focus on homelessness and housing insecurity, and new data from six traffic counters that were installed in year-round locations throughout the Island. All the data is available online.

“What we’ve been trying to do in the last couple of years is develop regular statistics, metrics, that anybody can look at to see what’s going on,” he said. “These shouldn’t be one-time snapshots. That doesn’t help anything. These need to be over time. So you can track trends. So you can tell a story. That’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

The story that emerges is one of an Island confronted with the most pressing challenges of the 21st century. Nearly all the major projects coming before the commission in 2020 involve issues of affordable housing or center around emerging technologies, developed in response to climate-based threats. That includes the raised, permeable surfaces proposed at the shipyard, a port for renewable wind generation, and the Eversource battery facility, which the utility hopes will help it store power from renewable sources for use in the peak summer months. Currently, Eversource often has to fire up five diesel generators to support the Island’s power demands during July and August.

But those projects also present potential threats themselves, including unknown ecological impacts on Island ponds, floodplains and sole-source aquifer.

And while the burden of review falls on the commission, Mr. Turner sees it as paramount to work with the towns during the process. The story of 2020 involves everyone.

“There’s no way that we can just begin doing this ourselves,” Mr. Turner said. “Now, we’re going to have to deal with issues much more far-reaching than we once did. And it’s going to require us to really develop policies that respond to these changing times.”