A team of consultants from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent last week on the Vineyard, gathering data for a first of its kind Island carrying capacity study. 

The aim of the study is to assess how much human activity can take place without irreversible damage to the quality of life Islanders want.

“It’s about character and about cost, really,” Martha’s Vineyard Commission member Ben Robinson told the Gazette.

“We’re looking to establish the metrics that allow us to say, ‘This is the quality of life we want and the level of service we want, and this is the cost of the infrastructure we’ll need,’” Mr. Robinson said.

The commission hired the Army Corps last year to begin the research phase of the carrying capacity study, which also will include a detailed Island-wide survey in 2025, Mr. Robinson said.

The federal Planning Assistance to States program, which focuses on water resources, is paying for half the cost of the study’s research phase.

As a result, the Army Corps is limiting its focus to the Vineyard’s waterways, beaches, aquifer and wastewater, falling short of covering the entire Island.

“It gets tricky with traffic and roads that are not coastal roads,” Mr. Robinson said.

Further studies can be commissioned, he said, but the federal reimbursement rate would fall to 15 per cent.

The other half of the current study’s research phase, about $25,000, is being funded out of a grant to the MVC from a private donor, he said.

Last week, the Army Corps team toured the Island and met with officials in all six towns individually, as well as with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and other community leaders in a public meeting Wednesday afternoon.

“We’ve given them a lot of information,” Mr. Robinson said. 

The corps also is crunching statistics from the commission and other sources, he said.

“The data becomes really important, so a lot of the work over the next months is making sure we have the right data,” Mr. Robinson said.

Carrying capacity is a term borrowed from science, where it’s used to describe things such as how much life an ecosystem can sustain, he said.

Applying it to humans is a trickier equation, Mr. Robinson said, because people — unlike wildlife — can innovate and change their environments to make room for more of their kind.

Islanders will need to decide how much expansion, and accompanying environmental cost, they are willing to accept, Mr. Robinson said.

This is the first time the Army Corps has taken on a carrying capacity study, he added.

“They’re kind of inventing this as they go,” Mr. Robinson said.

“It really hasn’t been done … in the way we’re thinking about it,” he said.

A video of last week’s public meeting with the Army Corps team is posted on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission YouTube channel.