The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) continued a public hearing held Thursday night about proposed changes to its checklist for projects referred as developments of regional impact (DRI). With attendance scant as winds and rain from winter storm Athena still pummeled the Island, Oak Bluffs planning board member Mark Wallace requested that the MVC give town planning boards another opportunity to comment. Hearing officer Doug Sederholm agreed to resume the proceedings at the commission’s meeting tonight and to keep the written record open until tomorrow, November 16.
Mr. Sederholm, a commissioner from Chilmark, ran the hearing as the chairman of the MVC’s land use planning committee (LUPC). Only three members of the public showed up for the hearing, including Mr. Wallace and his fellow Oak Bluffs planning board member Eric Albert. Written decisions on the Allen Farm Estate Plan and Sepiessa Affordable Housing Expansion were postponed to tonight’s meeting as well.
The MVC is required by statute to review the DRI checklist every two years. It sets the thresholds that identify development applications that towns must refer to the MVC for possible review, before approving or denying the applications.
As Mr. Sederholm explained, the proposed revisions — the 12th version of the DRI checklist — resulted from a process that included a series of public meetings held in 2011 to address issues such as large houses and commercial development, for example. He said that over the last few months the LUPC held quite a few meetings to cull through the discussion at the public meetings and it had come up with revisions to recommend to the full commission.
Mr. Sederholm and MVC chairman Chris Murphy then sent a copy of the proposed revised DRI checklist to town boards, along with a cover memo that summarized the main changes. In addition to those, several sub-sections were relocated and new sections added to improve cohesion and clarity.
“Several modified DRI triggers are ‘with MVC concurrence,’ allowing the Commission to determine whether a specific application warrants full DRI review,” the memo said.
Planning board concerns
Mr. Sederholm gave a run-down of the memo at the hearing’s start. He noted that the commission’s proposal to raise the threshold for referrals for commercial development in business areas from 2,000 to 3,000 square feet stemmed from feedback received from various town planning boards.
Mr. Sederholm said the LUPC considered the issue carefully and proposed to raise the referral threshold, provided that a town has adopted a plan and standards approved by the commission which deal with the regional issues. Also, the town must have a special permit process in place to review regional issues so it would be in a position to put conditions on a project.
“The LUPC believes that if there are going to be regional impacts, we have to ensure that the local board can address those regional impacts,” Mr. Sederholm said. “Because if they can’t, and we let them deal with it, we would be abdicating our responsibility for reviewing projects that do have a regional impact.”
During the public comment session, Mr. Wallace suggested that it might be a good idea for the town planning boards that commented previously on possible DRI revisions and the MVC to review the final draft document once more together. He also questioned whether the revisions went far enough.
“There was lot of discussion in both Oak Bluffs and Edgartown about the commercial districts being overly restricted by the commission, and the burdens it creates for someone who wants to do something, whether they even want to deal with it because of all the process,” Mr. Wallace, an Oak Bluffs businessman and commercial property owner, said.
Although it appears that changes were made to the checklist as the result of extensive discussion, he said the only one that appears less restrictive is the commercial development threshold.
Mr. Wallace also took issue with an addition to the checklist regarding mixed use development. It allows up to two dwelling units to be excluded from the floor area calculation that triggers review of a project, which is 2,000 or more square feet, provided the space is permanently restricted to remain residential and excludes short-term rentals of less than two months.
“You’re saying, we’ll let you build the building, but you can’t rent it out for a week, you can’t rent it out for a month; we decided you have to rent it out for two months,” Mr. Wallace said. “And to me, that’s a restriction. That’s not what the planning boards were here for.”
Mr. Wallace said he thought there should be no restriction on rental terms for second floor housing in a commercial district. Mr. Sederholm said the point of not allowing short-term rentals is to promote year-round housing.
To refresh everyone’s memories about what the Oak Bluffs and Edgartown planning boards requested, Commissioner Ned Orleans of Tisbury gave Mr. Sederholm a copy of the boards’ joint letter dated March 4, 2011.
“As I read it, it does appear we addressed a number of your concerns,” Mr. Sederholm told Mr. Wallace. “Your number one concern was the ‘once a DRI, always a DRI’ checklist item. You asked that it be eliminated, and what we did, I think, is that we eliminated it to the extent that it addressed a DRI denial.”
As previously discussed, the MVC also addressed the planning boards’ other requests for the increased threshold for new commercial space construction and change in use, Mr. Sederholm said.
“But your main request was to eliminate all mandatory referrals for business or commercial districts, and instead substitute discretionary referrals when the town board believes there is a regional impact,” Mr. Sederholm said. “I think the LUPC thought about that, and concluded that we can’t abdicate our power or our responsibility to address developments that have regional impact. That’s why we crafted what we did.”
Big houses, review or not?
Since the meeting’s agenda was cut short because of the storm, Commissioner Christina Brown of Edgartown suggested that it might be useful to take a few minutes to discuss the LUPC’s thinking on mandatory referrals for large houses. That was one of the suggestions made by the West Tisbury Planning Board, the Vineyard Conservation Society, and a few individuals at last year’s public meetings. Some argued that large houses, which often are beyond the purview of town board control, could have significant regional impacts on issues such as community character, habitat, and resources. Others said those issues are best handled at the town level.
“I think what we were asked to do was a mandatory referral on large houses, and I think we struggled with how do you define a large house, do you do it by square footage, do you do it by the regional resources that are impacted, such as electricity or water quality, and by whether you can see it,” Mr. Sederholm said. “A 20,000-square-foot house in the middle of the woods may have considerably less impact than a 5,000-square-foot house that’s on a cliff, let’s say in Wasque, for example. So it’s very hard to define what large houses should come. And we felt that not all large houses are going to have regional impact.”
As a result, the LUPC took a pass on recommending a mandatory threshold for large houses. Mr. Sederholm pointed out that the commission’s enabling legislation already includes a provision for discretionary referrals of projects, which the MVC may or may not decide to review, by any municipal agency of a town in which a project is located, a board of selectmen from any other town, or the Dukes County Commission.
The draft checklist does include a new section, 8.9, on community character as possible criterion for either a mandatory or a discretionary referral threshold.
“And I guess the message we want to give to the towns is, if you’ve got a problem and you think it has a regional impact, and if it’s a large house and you feel it has a regional impact, it’s okay to send it to us, but you have to make that call, because large houses are sufficiently difficult to characterize, that we can’t do one size fits all,” Mr. Sederholm said.