Op-Ed : The Island Plan - a progress report
As the Island Plan moves into its second summer feedback period, we'd like to give you an update on the work we've been doing and a few of the issues that have arisen, and invite you to help chart the future of the Vineyard.
Two key issues will be at the fore in the coming months: what kind of development and what kind of economy we want in the future. Also, two new work groups have outlined proposals dealing with the built environment and transportation.
When it comes to growth, there seems to be a big difference between what people say they want and what we will be getting. In surveys, forums, and meetings, most people say that they want growth to be limited and especially want to restrict or carefully manage development in critical natural areas.
For example, in the extensive surveys of almost 3,000 Vineyarders and visitors carried out a few years ago, 95 percent of respondents said that protecting the Vineyard's environment and character was a high priority, whereas only seven percent said that promoting development and growth was a high priority. Seventy-six percent said that the summer population should not grow very much, while only seven percent said it could grow without problems. And 65 percent said that controls over the quantity and quality of development should be strengthened, compared to seven percent who said that they should be relaxed.
The Island Plan Steering Committee would like to kick off a public discussion about four basic development and growth questions dealing with the amount, location, rate, and fit of new development.
The first and most fundamental question is: Should we change the total amount of potential development? With current zoning and available land, the number of houses could grow by 50 percent, from 18,000 to 27,000. The year-round population could grow from 16,000 to 24,000. That would likely mean 50 percent more traffic and more nitrogen pollution in coastal ponds. Also, if current trends continue, of the land that is currently neither protected open space or developed, about 80 percent would be developed and only 20 percent would remain open space. We could change zoning regulations to allow more, or fewer, new houses or guesthouses, and increase or reduce acquisition of open space.
The second question is: Should we shift the location of development? Historically, development took place mostly in or at the edges of town centers. In the past generation, development began moving to the countryside where it threatens the Island's most significant natural resources; based on presently available land and current zoning, this trend will accelerate in the future. To change this, we could tighten regulations in some areas (such as significant natural areas and sensitive watersheds) and loosen them in others (such as smart growth locations and opportunity).
The third question is: Should we limit the rate of growth? Currently, about 200 new homes are built each year. In the boom years of the 1970s, there were as many as 700 a year. There are potential advantages of limiting growth rates: more time for open space acquisition, stabilize construction, create incentives for affordable housing or smart growth, and give the community time to adjust. A disadvantage could be owners having to wait for building permits.
The fourth question is: Should we make development fit better into natural areas and neighborhoods? Whatever the community decides in terms of the overall amount, location, and rate of development, there are many ways to make specific new development, additions, and replacements of teardowns fit better into historic areas, neighborhoods, and environmentally significant areas. For example, we could encourage or require that new buildings fit in better with existing historic areas and neighborhoods, that there be more native habitat protection in environmentally sensitive areas, that better wastewater management be used in sensitive watersheds, and that visual impact be minimized in significant viewsheds and vistas.
Many of these questions imply trade-offs between what people might feel is best for the Island, and what they might want to do with their individual properties.
We'll be looking more deeply at development and growth issues in the coming months in anticipation of a forum on August 27, and continuing into the fall.
The livelihood and commerce work group and the Martha's Vineyard Commission have prepared an economic profile of the Vineyard as a basis for a series of proposals that will be released later in the summer and will be presented at the living local event in September. The two new work groups - Built Environment and Transportation - will also be holding forums, on July 14 and August 4, respectively.
More than 500 people have now joined the Island Plan's network of planning advisors and the eight ongoing work groups, and I invite you to get involved and give your input. The best place to start is to go to the website islandplan.org. Or you could corner members of the steering committee next time you see us on the street. Our names and photos are on the poster on the wall of the ferry terminal and in the windows of grocery stores, and will be in the progress report that will be distributed to all Island homes in a few weeks.
This coming winter, we plan to take everything we've heard and put it together into a draft vision statement that will include an implementation program. Many of the work groups are already working on implementation of some of the most broadly supported proposals.
We look forward to hearing from you.
James Athearn is chairman of the Island Plan steering committee. Mark London is executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission. The Island Plan is an ongoing, multi-year, 50-year master planning effort mounted by the commission.