Before Tisbury can plan for its future, the town needs to reckon with a legacy of more than three centuries without a governing strategy. This fact was laid bare recently as planning consultants, who have spent the past half-year gathering public comment and copious data for an inventory of Tisbury’s weaknesses and strengths, presented their initial findings.

The town’s advantages include its all-seasons economy, with nearly 83 per cent of businesses in town open year-round, and steadier employment than other Island towns.

But Tisbury also has a lot of room to improve, the consultants said.

Cramped, outdated public buildings, vaguely-worded bylaws and a lack of housing policies are among the obstacles to progress that came up during a virtual presentation to Tisbury’s master plan steering committee last week.

“Your town has some challenges,” said Judi Barrett of Barrett Planning Group at the Jan. 3 presentation. “Reading through your town reports, you begin to get a picture of a community that’s really struggling.”

Spearheaded by the Tisbury planning board, which named a steering committee of community members, the master planning process got underway about six months ago when Ms. Barrett’s team began gathering information and visiting the Island. The target date for a finished plan is September of this year.

The consultants’ next virtual presentation, focusing on the town’s three business districts, is scheduled for two dates in mid-February.

Tisbury officials agreed that the master plan process will hold up a mirror that doesn’t always flatter the town.

Report focused on numerous municipal buildings, like the town hall annex, that need improvements. — Ray Ewing

“They’re going to say things that we’re going to need to hear,” town administrator Jay Grande said.

The state of Tisbury’s municipal buildings caused particular concern among the consultants, with their report stating that the town hall, town annex, senior center and Vineyard Haven Library are all inadequate.

“[We] were very surprised at the condition of your public facilities,” Ms. Barrett said. “People, almost to a person, said they were shocked. It’s just kind of a feeling of a town that is really weighted down by a lot of responsibility and not the resources to take care of itself, and you tend to see that... where you see public buildings that really need a lot of attention.”

But it wasn’t just structures that came under the critical eye of the Barrett Planning Group. Issues of governance and zoning bylaws were also raised. Ms. Barrett suggested that the town’s zoning bylaw needed a complete overhaul, describing the current bylaw as relying heavily on officials’ discretion.

“The lack of clarity in the document is remarkable. It’s one of the most special-permit-dependent zoning bylaws I’ve seen,” she told the steering committee.

“[This] can be an impediment to development unless there are a lot of incentives built in for an applicant to go through that discretionary process, and potentially an appeal process as well,” Ms. Barrett said.

The zoning bylaw also is unfriendly to multi-family and cluster developments, with dimensional requirements only work for single-family homes, she said.

“When we see things like that, we have to assume either the town is writing zoning and doesn’t really understand what it’s asking for, or there’s an underlying intent to discourage something,” Ms. Barrett said.

Tisbury benefits from a year-round economy, the report stated. — Ray Ewing

Also discouraging, she said, is the bylaw’s lack of a table where applicants can easily see the requirements for setbacks, frontage, height and other dimensions.

“To someone who’s coming into your community, or even to an existing property owner... just having that all laid out in a table makes it easier than wading through text,” she said.

Fixing the zoning bylaw is essential for Tisbury’s future, she told the committee.

“You’re going to have to make some big policy decisions during this [master plan] process, and what you don’t want to do is pile those policy decisions on a zoning bylaw as fundamentally flawed as this one is,” Ms. Barrett said.

On Feb. 13 and Feb. 16, the consultants’ next report will focus on the commercial districts in town, presenting a series of potential options for future development on the waterfront, Main street and State Road business districts, said Dan Doyle, a Martha’s Vineyard Commission planner on loan to the town as its master plan coordinator.

“We’ll be looking particularly at critical zones in the business areas that have opportunities, vulnerabilities and possibilities,” he said, adding that the consultants will be seeking feedback from participants.

“We’re trying to focus not only on the broader community, but looking for property owners and business owners to attend,” he said.

A community survey on the master plan has been mailed out with this month’s water bills from Tisbury, Mr. Doyle said, and is also posted online at the Barrett Planning Group’s website.

Mr. Doyle also echoed Mr. Grande’s sentiments about listening with an open mind to the consultant’s findings.

“There are some hard truths that we need to reckon with,” Mr. Doyle said.

More information is posted at