New MVC chairman reflects on his learning experience

Martha's Vineyard Commission chairman Fred Hancock will assume the chairmanship in the new year. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Three years ago, John Breckenridge, the elected Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) member from Oak Bluffs, asked me if I had ever considered representing the town on a public board. As it turns out, I had.

My New Hampshire public school education emphasized civic duty and community participation, but I never seemed to have the time as my life took me from Boston to Manhattan, Brooklyn and then New Jersey, before I moved to the Island full-time in 2005. My work was thinning out, so when John told that the selectmen were looking for someone to volunteer to be their appointed member to the MVC. I raised my hand.

When I started at the commission, I would have described myself as a reasonably well-informed person. I regularly read both Island newspapers and thought I knew what the MVC did. I soon found that my notion of the commission was very superficial. I would like to share some of what I discovered.

Other than the Dukes County Commission, which has very limited authority, the MVC is the only governmental agency that has the welfare of the whole Island as its mission. The towns, of course, focus primarily on what happens within their boundaries. The commission members have to back up a bit and see beyond their towns to the whole Island.

The MVC’s 1974 enabling legislation states, “The purpose of the commission created by this act shall be to further protect the health, safety and general welfare of Island residents and visitors by preserving and conserving for the enjoyment of present and future generations the unique natural, historical, ecological scientific, and cultural values of Martha’s Vineyard which contribute to public enjoyment, inspiration and scientific study, by protecting these values from development and uses which would impair them, and by promoting the enhancement of sound local economies.”

In every regulatory decision the MVC makes, we are weighing and balancing the goals of preservation with the need for development. The Island can’t be a museum of the past nor an overdeveloped “build whatever you want district.” We try to keep in mind the aspects of the Island which make it the unique place that people are passionate about and make sure that development is compatible with that vision. It’s not always easy.

During my time on the commission, we have approved every project that has come before us as a development of regional impact (DRI). Many applicants have said they believed their project was improved by going through the review process. Some folks believe that there are projects that were not built because developers didn’t want their property to be a DRI. That is easy to say, not so easy to document. But even if it is true, if we are discouraging people who are not interested in developing responsibly, that is all right with me.

Another thing I learned is that the regulatory functions of the commission, DRI review, and Districts of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC’s), while being the most visible aspect of the commission to the public, are actually a very small part of the MVC’s total mission. The MVC’s highly skilled staff of planners is a resource for all of the Island’s towns. A coastal planner, a water resources planner, an economic development and affordable housing planner, a transportation planner and a cartographer support the towns on many fronts with technical assistance for grant writing, as well as expertise in planning that the towns cannot afford on their own.

Looking back at the past year, most DRI’s were passed unanimously, or with one or two dissenting votes. The only exception was the one very contentious vote regarding the roundabout at the Blinker. I believe the integrity of the members, to vote for what they believe, is in the best interest of the Island as they see it. We can disagree about a decision but should not question the motives of a member. In the end, all decisions of the commission, whether unanimous or contentious, carry equal weight.

Now for a finer point; when the commissioners vote on a DRI, we are doing so as if we are jurors in a court case. We are asked to make a decision by weighing the benefits and detriments of a project based only on the evidence presented at the public hearings and not what newspapers, neighbors, or co-workers may say. This is not just a procedural nicety, it is mandated in the enabling act and is one of the reasons that the MVC decisions have a very good record of being upheld in court.

Looking to 2013, we will begin the year with five new members. I met with the three new elected members during an orientation meeting at the commission office last week. In front of them was the intimidating three-ring binder given to all new members, which contains procedures and policies. The first section is the text of The Martha’s Vineyard Commission Act. It is in that position for a good reason. While all of the information is important, this is what informs everything else. As we all know, there is never an opinion shortage here, but there is often a shortage of people who will actually commit the time to serve their community. I am excited that almost a third of the commission will be new members who have stepped forward to continue the vital work of protecting this Island we all love.

Fred J. Hancock of Oak Bluffs is the new chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.