West Tisbury selectmen at their regular meeting November 30 met with Chris Murphy, vice-chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC). The discussion was intended to be a friendly summit.
Mr. Murphy scheduled the appearance before the selectmen, one of a continuing series of meetings across the Island. He described it as an effort to foster better communication and good will between the MVC and the selectmen in all six Island towns.
And while the mood of the meeting remained civil and courteous throughout, things did get a bit prickly when the topic turned to the highly controversial roundabout project at the blinker intersection. That was no surprise.
Selectman Richard Knabel was a leader of the effort to send the roundabout to the MVC for review, and following MVC approval, he has led the effort to have the MVC reverse that decision. In the vote to approve and the vote not to reconsider, Mr. Murphy cast the tie-breaking vote.
Selectmen questioned why the roundabout, which the MVC approved on Oct. 6, was not automatically reviewed as a development of regional impact (DRI), and why West Tisbury had to refer the project themselves to trigger such a permitting review.
The West Tisbury selectmen submitted a letter on June 22 asking for a discretionary referral of the state-sponsored roundabout project, which ultimately led to the commission reviewing the project as a DRI.
After the commission approved the project, and a subsequent motion to rescind that decision failed in another close vote, the West Tisbury selectmen agreed to join with Edgartown to appeal the approval in superior court.
The impending litigation underscored the discussion on Wednesday, as selectmen questioned why the project, which so clearly has a regional impact, was not automatically reviewed as a DRI.
“What we heard when we made our recent referral, was that it could only come to the commission from another board from a town,” selectman Cynthia Mitchell said.
“I think there is a problem with that, as evidenced by the way the whole roundabout thing has gone — how a development of regional impact, and the commission agreed it was one, could have been under development for as long as it was without being designated a development of regional impact.”
Mr. Murphy said that historically, the towns worked more closely with the commission, and there was a greater awareness of large-scale projects which caused fewer problems with DRI referrals.
“Almost every one of the selectmen’s representatives [to the commission] was a selectman, so there was much greater flow of info back and forth than there is now at this moment, which is what I am trying to solve,” he said.
“The whole process was set up so the towns were partners in the process … the whole idea was to allow the community more power than it had before — the entire community of Martha’s Vineyard — versus one town,” he added.
But the legislature did not charge the MVC with searching for projects to review as DRIs, Mr. Murphy said.
“Nobody wanted the commission to go out and start turning over stones looking for things to get upset about and they still don’t — so one of the checks was it had to be nominated by someone,” he said.
Still, Mr. Murphy said there are lessons to be learned from the roundabout project. “It has shown all the towns that they need to be sending stuff to the commission early, rather than letting it sit until later and go through the whole process and then have it explode,” he said.
He added, “What is clear now is that Oak Bluffs should have referred it a long time ago; it would have made life a lot easier for all of us if the process had started with the commission rather than end there.”
Ms. Mitchell noted the commission staff worked on the project with state officials for several years. But despite this, the commissioners had no way to initiate a DRI review on their own.
“I wonder if … it could have been recognized earlier by someone on the staff or someone on the commission so it didn’t have to go so many years under the radar?” she said.
Mr. Murphy said most of the day-to-day work done by the commission staff is done without the knowledge of the commissioners.
“Doesn’t that represent a rather significant gap in communications?” asked selectman Richard Knabel.
“It could but generally it doesn’t,” Mr. Murphy answered. “Their job is very different from our job. We have hired them over the years to fill in the gaps so the towns don’t have to have their own list of experts that are underutilized.”
Brian Smith, the selectmen’s appointee to the MVC, said the enabling legislation doesn’t allow self-referral. “We can’t go on a wild goose chase looking for things, and according to our legislation we aren’t allowed to do that,” he said.
Mr. Smith said most projects get referred when they go before the building inspector or a town board for a permit, which didn’t happen with the roundabout.
“There were no permits … so no red flags were ever put up,” he said.
Mr. Knabel questioned why MVC executive director Mark London didn’t reach out to town officials to ensure the project was referred.
“Why wouldn’t the commissioners say to the executive director: why didn’t this come to us? Why are we in this limbo in this particular situation? Why was it allowed to go on for so long?” he said.
Selectman Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter suggested Mr. London keep the commissioners informed about what the staff is working on. “Then at least it’s across your desk, so to speak,” he said.
Mr. Murphy said he understood the selectmen’s points of view, but warned it was difficult to craft a perfect referral process.
“It’s something I have been struggling with for a long time, and there isn’t an easy answer. We don’t want to be discussing every detail of everybody’s project,” he said.