Soundings: Benefits and detriments

Soundings: Benefits and detriments

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Every couple of years, as required by its state charter, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission pulls out a document called the DRI checklist and reviews it.

The checklist, in 14 pages of technical prose, is the MVC’s answer to a question that borders on the theological: How big does a project have to be before we call it a development of regional impact and subject it to the regional agency’s formal review?

The legislation which created the MVC doesn’t speak to the details, simply calling on the agency to review projects “which, because of their magnitude or the magnitude of their effect on the surrounding environment, are likely to present development issues significant to more than one municipality of the island of Martha’s Vineyard.”

This year, the DRI checklist is making more news on the Island than it has for quite some time. Partly this is because the MVC, to its credit, has reached out to the six towns for guidance and feedback. Partly it’s because some Island boards of selectmen are complaining that the checklist targets too many projects for regional review — projects which they say the towns are perfectly capable of handling themselves.

When the DRI checklist was revised in 2008, the review process got much less ink from the Island press. This newspaper did report briefly on a revision whose significance seemed minor at the time, but which has dramatically changed the way the MVC fields development projects. Janet Hefler wrote: “In addition to several definitions, which have been added, expanded or clarified, the proposed DRI checklist changes add the words ‘with concurrence’ to a number of items.” This addition, then-MVC chairman Christina Brown told the reporter, “will make for a shortened review.”

Indeed it has. I spent an hour this week tabulating 45 DRI cases brought to the commission in 2008, 2009, and 2010 (casting out only the case of the FOCUS camp in West Tisbury, which remains unresolved). Of those 45 projects, 24 were approved by the MVC and four were withdrawn by the applicants. The remaining seventeen have outcomes that mean the same thing: “nonconcurrence” or “remand to town.”

In more than a third of all DRI cases brought before the commission over the past three years, the agency has found that although these projects might technically qualify for regional review under its rules, in fact their regional impact isn’t significant. “Nonconcurrence” is MVC-speak for: “We don’t agree that this is a project of regional impact. We’re giving it back to you, the town, to handle with the regulatory tools you have in place.”

Those critics who deride the MVC as a bossy, micro-managing authority need to give the agency credit for this change, which has gone a long way toward reducing the scrutiny of projects that really don’t need it.

But is there still work to be done on this front? Yes — and in fact the case for reform was made quite convincingly in 2003 by the then newly appointed executive director of the MVC, Mark London, in his report entitled “Looking at the Commission.”

“The net for referring projects to the MVC is too fine and requires referral of too many projects that don’t have a significant regional impact,” Mr. London concluded in his 46-page report, which was based on five months of study and some 50 interviews, including conversations with every Island board of selectmen.

One of Mr. London’s key recommendations in March of 2003 called for a bit of work that remains undone to this day: Making the DRI checklist context-sensitive, so that projects in an established business district, for example, might have a higher threshold before needing review than projects in the Island’s sensitive rural areas. The DRI “trigger” for a commercial project is currently 2,000 square feet, whether that project is planned for the busy heart of Circuit Avenue or a quiet stretch of Lambert’s Cove Road.

Eight years ago, Mr. London also examined the DRI process itself, found it wanting, and called for a major streamlining. His first and central recommendation is contained in this sentence, which I’ll warn you, requires at least one coffee-break: “The process for reviewing DRIs, though sound in its essential structure, should be thoroughly renewed with a view to making the process, though not necessarily the outcome, more clear and predictable, as well as to making more effective use of applicant’s, the public’s, town officials’, commissioners’ and staff’s time, and reducing costs to applicants.”

Unfortunately, the DRI process in 2011 is no better than it was when Mr. London called for its streamlining in 2003. In fact, it’s arguably more bureaucratic today.

Here’s something the MVC’s supporters and critics should be able to agree on: A DRI process so onerous and burdensome as to be dreaded by project applicants only increases the political pressure on the commission to review fewer projects. A process kinder to applicants, fostering collaborative efforts to make every project the best it can be, could benefit both the Island’s economy and the environment.

After this winter’s round of conversations about the DRI checklist, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission should continue with an examination of the way these reviews are done. There’s nothing in the MVC statute that calls for regular review of the DRI process itself, and that’s too bad. Because it’s way past time.