The politicians who drafted the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s enabling legislation in 1974 tried to strike a delicate balance. They wanted to empower the commission to push out the town-by-town boundaries of limited zoning and subdivision regulation, but they also wanted the commission’s jurisdiction to function as a limited grant of authority from the towns and town voters. The target then was the large, multiplying development of housing subdivisions, whose buildout and occupancy would ultimately have significant and often deleterious effects on the abilities of towns and the Island as a whole to meet the demands of growth.
Despite the wholesome results of the MVC’s establishment in the overheated 1970s and 1980s, it is reasonable to wonder if a revision of the enabling legislation, undertaken today, would approach 21st century problems the way the law in place today does. For example, among other failings of the original legislation, the unwitting grant of discretion to Martha’s Vineyard Commissioners reviewing certain sorts of development projects appears — or at least their self-indulgent interpretation of the scope of that grant does — to untether the commission members from common sense and from all sense of regulatory modesty. That’s why the MVC consideration of the Stop & Shop expansion is entering the seventh round of public hearing consideration. Because the commissioners believe they can follow whatever whimsical notion comes into their heads, and because they see no difference between the core question posed by the project and any notional sidetracks that pop up along the way from a wholly untethered public, there are no accepted limits to the commission’s grip on the applicant and no fundamental responsibility for the cost of the exercise or the adequacy of the outcome.
That’s why the Martha’s Vineyard Commission indulged itself in a long, expensive effort to see if the new Martha’s Vineyard Hospital might be built somewhere else, despite the common sense reality of hospital economics and philanthropic possibilities.
And that’s why the commission’s consideration of the Stop & Shop’s plans for remodeling and enlarging its Water Street, Vineyard Haven, store finds itself whirling in eddies of chimerical options. It is why some imagine that the market project may be used to solve a host of problems — traffic, parking, affordable housing, historic preservation, architectural exhaltation of the neighborhood, just to name a few.
Stop & Shop wants to enlarge its small, worn-out store, on a site that is sensible business-wise. It wants to disguise the mass of the building so that it will look like a collection of shops, not like the big box Cronig’s or Edgartown Stop & Shop. It wants to create onsite parking beneath the market, where ordinary retail construction might be subject to flooding. In doing so, Stop & Shop wants to incorporate several adjacent buildings that are completely undistinguished architecturally and help with the protection of another building it owns that has some historic value.
The proposal will probably increase traffic some. While it will add parking, parking will remain deficient in the immediate area of the market and throughout Vineyard Haven. The plan would attempt, with the cooperation of town planners, to improve the efficiency of the town parking lot adjacent to the Stop & Shop property and to improve the connection between Main Street and Water Street for pedestrians. It will enhance downtown Vineyard Haven, not detract from it. The larger market will employ more Islanders. The developers will help as they can to house the market’s workers.
The plan will not cure Five Corners, but it is unreasonable to expect that it should. It will not fix traffic congestion, largely spawned by the location of the Steamship Authority, and it will not solve Tisbury’s overall parking problem. (By the way, the Steamship Authority is a public utility of sorts, and if the town and the Island’s purposes could be better served — as I am sure they could — by moving its terminal elsewhere, the Island towns, the Island’s planners, and the state government can jolly well tell the Steamship Authority to move. That isn’t the case with the private Stop & Shop business.) But the Stop & Shop plan will give the appearance of Water Street a tremendous lift. It will make it more efficient for Islanders, motorists, visitors, and it will improve competition for Islanders’ shopping dollars.
After all the keening and claptrap, the Stop & Shop proposal will do downtown a lot of good, make some of downtown’s problems a little less severe, and leave plenty of planning issues for the planners to chew over — and fail to digest — for years to come.