Op-Ed: Revised development of regional impact checklist awaits comment

Op-Ed: Revised development of regional impact checklist awaits comment

Editor’s Note: This Essay was revised and updated by the writers, as of 5:30 pm, October 28, 2012.

Every two years, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission reviews its Standards and Criteria for Developments of Regional Impact — commonly referred to as the DRI Checklist. This is the list of thresholds that delineate which development applications towns must refer to the MVC for possible DRI review prior to towns approving or denying the applications. Last week, the MVC released its proposed revisions to the current Checklist and invites public comment before adopting the changes.

These proposals come out of an in-depth review of the Checklist that started last year. The goals were to deal with issues that have come up since adoption of the current Checklist, to respond to public suggestions, to improve clarity, and to better align the Checklist with recommendations of the Island Plan by increasing protection of significant resources while easing referral thresholds for development proposals without significant regional impacts.

The process started with a series of public meetings held by the Land Use Planning Committee (LUPC) in 2011 at which town boards and members of the public proposed changes to the Checklist. In 2012, the LUPC held a series of meetings to discuss possible changes which has culminated in its recommending the draft revisions to the DRI Checklist.

One suggestion made by the West Tisbury Planning Board, the Vineyard Conservation Society, and a few individuals at last year’s public meetings was that the Commission review very large houses. It was argued that such houses could have significant regional impacts with regard to issues such as community character and habitat disruption, and that these proposals are often beyond the purview of town board control. Others argued that these issues are best handled at the town level. The LUPC has recommended that the MVC not include a mandatory threshold for large residential buildings at this time. However, the LUPC recommends that the Commission indicate to town boards that it is receptive to reviewing discretionary referrals for large house proposals, if a town seeks MVC assistance, as the Commission has done on a few occasions in the past.

Another issue the LUPC dealt with was how to address the Edgartown and Oak Bluffs planning boards’ suggestion that the Commission relax the threshold for commercial development in business areas. This has to be balanced against the fact that the Commonwealth mandated the MVC — with its Island-wide representation and professional staff — as the entity responsible for ensuring that regional values on the Island are protected from inappropriate development. The proposed Checklist revisions include a provision to relax the threshold for commercial development in down-Island business districts from 2,000 to 3,000 square feet, provided the town has adopted a plan and standards that deals with all regional issues, and provided the town has a special permit process to review development applications in such areas. The MVC will offer technical assistance to the towns to help prepare these plans.

The proposed modifications to the DRI Checklist include a number of changes and clarifications that would make clear that certain proposals would no longer have to be referred to the MVC. For example, it proposes that only developments proposing to subdivide or develop areas of significant wildlife habitat of more than 2 acres or 20 percent of the property would have to be referred, rather than all proposed development. Also, the proposed modifications limit the types of “change of use” or “increase in intensity of use” that need to be referred.

The proposal also includes some modifications to thresholds aimed at better protecting resources of regional significance, such as calling for referral of subdivisions of six or more parcels in rural areas, and of developments in Critical Resource Protection Areas identified in the Island Plan. Most of these provisions are “with MVC concurrence,” meaning that the Commission would carry out a preliminary review of the proposal to establish whether it was likely to have regional impacts, before determining that it needed DRI review. It adds thresholds for wind turbines, as recommended in the recently adopted Wind Energy Plan, as well as for large arrays of solar panels.

The draft changes including a summary can be downloaded from the MVC website. The Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes on November 8 and welcomes public comment until November 15. Then, the Commission will make revisions as necessary and adopt the revised Checklist before the end of the year. The adopted changes to the DRI Checklist go into effect after they have been approved by the Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

These revisions to the DRI Checklist should allow better protection of the those aspects of Vineyard’s character and environment that have regional significance while easing the permitting process for projects with little or no regional impact.

Chris Murphy is chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and Doug Sederholm is chairman of the commission’s land use planning committee.