Under scrutiny by at least two Island towns over rising expenses and a skyrocketing legal budget, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission has begun defending its role as a regional planning agency to some town officials as town meeting season nears.

Due to an unprecedented number of lawsuits from appeals on developments of regional impact decisions, the commission’s legal budget has ballooned this year. Total projected legal spending for fiscal year 2024 is pegged at $445,000, compared with $195,000 the prior year.

Overall, the commission budget totals $2.4 million, an 18 per cent increase over fiscal year 2023. Town assessments, which pay for the bulk of the budget, are slated to increase 24 per cent.

The sharp spending increases came under pointed questioning by select board members and finance committee members in Edgartown at a meeting last month.

In response, MVC executive director Adam Turner wrote a letter on Feb. 22 to the two boards, both acknowledging the concerns and seeking to underscore the importance of the commission.

“The commission understands that its fiscal position impacts the town’s budget,” Mr. Turner wrote in part.

“While we understand your members’ concerns, I feel it is important to demonstrate the value of the commission’s work to Edgartown and the Island as a whole,” he also wrote, outlining the many planning projects under way.

Among other things, Mr. Turner said, the commission has completed an open space plan and a storm tide pathways mapping project, and is working on an update to the town’s harbor plan and a study of the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road — planning that enables the town to seek grants and move forward on its own projects. The letter also outlined a score of Islandwide planning initiatives in areas including climate change, water quality and housing.

Rumbles of discontent over the MVC have continued in Oak Bluffs, where this week the select board debated whether to put a nonbinding resolution on the annual town meeting warrant this spring, asking voters if they want the town to withdraw from the commission.

Mr. Turner attended the meeting.

But after discussion, the board voted to not put the nonbinding resolution on the warrant.

Select board member Ryan Ruley had asked that the question go before the board for discussion, but at their meeting Tuesday several board members felt that the idea, or at least the timing of it, wasn’t prudent.

“I don’t agree with a lot of their decisions,” said board member Gail Barmakian, speaking of the commission. “That doesn’t mean you do away with it.”

Mr. Ruley told Mr. Turner that he floated the question because of the jumps in budget, which he feared could eventually start eating into town services if left unchecked.

By statute, the six Island towns must pay their commission budget assessments.

The only way to stop paying would be to engage in the lengthy process of pulling out of the commission.

For that, a town would have to petition the state legislature to make changes to the state that authorizes the commission, get a change in the law, and then vote again on the issue at a future town meeting or election.

This process took place in the 1980s, when Oak Bluffs and Edgartown withdrew from the commission for a time, and later returned.

An article to start the withdrawal process remains on the draft Oak Bluffs warrant. When commission chair Joan Malkin, who also attended the meeting Tuesday, asked if the town planned to take that off the warrant as well, select board member Brian Packish indicated it would likely be withdrawn, given the decision about the nonbinding resolution.

The select board plans to meet to finalize the warrant this month.

Edgartown has placed no articles on its warrant to withdraw from the commission. And despite the concerns, the finance committee did eventually vote to recommend the commission’s budget to town meeting. Speaking to the Gazette by phone this week, Edgartown select board member Arthur Smadbeck agreed there had been anxiety from town officials, but he said it’s their job to scrutinize the budget.

Mr. Smadbeck said that even with the ongoing legal budget debate, trying to pull out seemed to be a permanent solution to a hopefully temporary problem.

“It was a big uptick for this particular year in the legal budget,” he said. “Do I see that continuing? No.”