Essay: MVC chairman says Islanders are ‘bashing’ the commission and are ‘misinformed’

Essay: MVC chairman says Islanders are ‘bashing’ the commission and are ‘misinformed’

I would like to respond to a recent spate of Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) bashing, particularly as it relates to the current review of some developments of regional impact and to the commission’s budget. As chairman of the MVC, it concerns me that these criticisms seem to be largely based on misinformation about these issues, as well as about what the commission can and can’t do. I must admit that before joining the MVC as the appointed member from Oak Bluffs five years ago, I was perhaps equally uninformed.

I think that most Islanders continue to believe in the mission of the commission as described in the enabling legislation that created the MVC 40 years ago, namely: “preserving and conserving for the enjoyment of present and future generations the unique natural, historical, ecological, scientific and cultural values of Martha’s Vineyard…by protecting these values from development and uses which would impair them, and by promoting the enhancement of sound local economies.”

The Commonwealth gave Islanders and towns special authority — through the commission — to regulate development. This has been remarkably successful in preserving the environment and character of the Island, which are the basis for the Vineyard’s strong economy, property values, and tax base. The commission has two regulatory tools, developments of regional impact (DRI) and districts of critical planning concern (DCPC).

DRIs are new building projects, subdivisions, and other developments that require a permit or permission from an Island town and have a regional impact. If the project triggers the commission’s checklist defining Island-wide impact, the town must refer the application to the MVC before issuing a permit. The commission then reviews the application based on the procedures, sometimes admittedly a bit cumbersome, dictated by our enabling legislation and the Commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law. As a result, dozens of projects every year are significantly improved, thanks to the commission’s DRI review, by ensuring they don’t negatively impact the water quality of coastal ponds, traffic, parking, affordable housing, scenic values, and many other concerns that are largely beyond the scope of individual towns to address.

When the commission reviews a DRI application, it must not only look at the big picture, but it must also look at the details — such as the specifics of how much nitrogen is in the wastewater or calculating the appropriate affordable housing mitigation — to determine whether the project’s anticipated benefits outweigh the detriments, the standard for project approval. These details are also important since they will be included in the project approval that the community will live with for generations to come.

Usually, the MVC completes its hearings in one or two meetings, as was the case for the Cottage City Bowling application. Clearly, the Stop & Shop hearings have stretched out much longer than the MVC or Stop & Shop would like, due to the fact that it took Stop & Shop six weeks or more to go back to head office each time it revised its plans in response to community concerns, to the time it took for the traffic studies and peer reviews, and to the fact that the applicant asked for several delays waiting for the town of Tisbury’s resolution of the design of the town’s adjacent parking lot.

The Commission’s other regulatory function, DCPCs, provides additional protection to special areas, generally at the request of towns. DCPC designation gives towns the authority to write special regulations to protect these critical districts. After approval at town meeting, these regulations are administered exclusively by each town.

Some people criticize the commission for going too far with its regulatory authority, others for not going far enough. Notwithstanding the high-minded goals of our mission statement, the commission does not have unlimited authority to right any wrong and prevent anything that anyone sees as a threat. The DRI and DCPC processes are for new development and do not include regulating existing buildings, businesses, or other situations.

In addition to funding the MVC’s two regulatory functions, two thirds of the commission’s budget is spent on planning, serving the Island as a whole and assisting individual towns. This is where we make some of our greatest contributions to achieving the goals of our enabling legislation.

We work on a wide variety of planning challenges, most of which do not stop at the town lines. Almost all the watersheds of the Island’s coastal ponds extend across several towns and our water resource planner, Sheri Caseau, works on protecting the water quality of our coastal ponds and single source aquifer. Our transportation planner, Priscilla Leclerc, works with Mass DOT and towns on efforts to improve transportation across the Island. Our economic development and affordable housing planner, Christine Flynn, spearheaded the recent Housing Needs Assessment and has been instrumental in working with towns to apply for grants. Our DCPC coordinator and coastal planner, Jo-Ann Taylor, is completing a Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan for the Island, making towns eligible for a range of grant opportunities. Our GIS (Geographic Information Systems) coordinator, Chris Seidel, not only makes maps supporting a wide range of MVC planning efforts, but also provides assistance to all towns on GIS issues and supports various town departments’ map requests. The DRI coordinator, Paul Foley, is the only planner who works exclusively on the regulatory side.

The cost of these important services to the Island is modest. The commission is funded largely by assessments collected by the towns on behalf of the commission. This year, a typical property assessed at $500,000 pays $23.68, regardless of what town it is located in.

For the fiscal years 2011, ‘12, and ‘13, the MVC had no budget increases because we knew the towns were in dire financial conditions because of the recession. However, that caught up with us in 2014 and 2015, when legal expenses for defending MVC decisions so greatly exceeded our artificially low budget line that we had to take money from our general reserve fund to meet legal expenses. Even though our FY 2015 budget includes a one-time obligatory replenishment of the reserve fund, the MVC’s average budget increase over the past six years is only 2.2 percent. And since the replenishment of the reserve fund is a one-time expense, all town assessments will go down next year.

The MVC continues to play a vital role in protecting what makes the Island so special and not the “Anywhere U.S.A.” it could become without the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

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