Elsewhere on these Editorial and OpEd Pages this morning, the chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), under the pretext of defending his beleaguered regulatory and planning overlord agency, takes his constituents — that is, us — to task. He accuses us of “bashing” the MVC, harsh and undeserved behavior by his lights. And he deprecates Islanders with critical views of the commission by calling us “uninformed.” He admits, in a gesture of sympathy for the hopelessly deranged, that before becoming a member of the MVC, he was like us, but he’s better now.
What he does not do is confront the crucial question, namely, how is a bowling alley in a downtown Oak Bluffs neighborhood zoned for commercial activity a development of regional impact and a matter for Martha’s Vineyard Commission intervention. If the argument in support of MVC action in such a case is that Islanders and their visitors across the Vineyard may be attracted to use the lanes and the associated restaurant, well then isn’t every bike shop, dress store, ice cream parlor, no matter where located, an occasion of regional impact? How silly, and more important, how invasive of the municipal prerogatives of the six separate Island towns is that?
The argument, and the motivation for the “bashing” visited on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission by its constituents is the developments of regional impact checklist that encourages the spreading intrusion of the commission’s regulatory appetite.
This question of which developments the MVC should play a role in regulating and which should be reserved to the towns is a legacy of what was the very genius of the 1973-1974 effort that led to the creation of the Vineyard’s super-zoning planning and regulatory authority.
Islanders spurned Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s 1972 Nantucket Sound Islands Trust legislation because of its top-down, federal government approach. Islanders saw it correctly as a clumsy effort to transform the Vineyard into a kind of national park that would, if the legislation passed, hold the Island in suspension, unchanging and monochromatic forever. It was a national, indiscriminate bludgeon.
The Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s enabling legislation, envisioned as a prophylactic against the Kennedy Bill, was to be a locally inspired and locally managed effort to add protective authority to overwhelmed town government regulators. Local, to the authors of that legislation, meant the towns, in all their individual natures and aspirations. It was not a state-level corollary to the federal effort, and homogenizing the six Island towns as they grew and changed was not a goal of Governor Francis Sargent’s effort.
The first slate of elected Martha’s Vineyard Commission members in 1974 — I was one of them — were determined to tailor development of regional impact and districts of critical planning concern rules to the inclinations of the six communities, each one having become, over generations, an aggregation of like-minded souls, different in every case from its neighbors in other towns.
And, that early foundational effort, derived from the spirit that prevailed in the development of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission itself, also attempted to reserve for the towns the use of the MVC to help but never to trample or intrude upon the management of their individual lives.
That spirit has been eroded over time, and today the differentiation among Island towns is threatened with extinction, as the MVC inflicts itself on even the most unarguably local issues, such as the permitting of a Main Street pizza parlor in a business area — or a bowling alley.
Or, recall the history of the Girl Scout Camp expansion off Middle Road in Chilmark. There, the scouts’ expansion plans fell within all the town zoning and building rules. There was no possible argument that the contemplated changes had regional impact. But, harrying neighbors pressed the town selectmen to make a referral to the MVC. Their defense of their action was to say that the referral was a way to get the Girl Scout plans aired in a public hearing, because the efforts by critics in lawful municipal forums had not achieved the critics’ aims. In the Girl Scout Camp matter, the MVC had a fingerhold on the project, because development permits from Chilmark were needed for the project to proceed.
The MVC began as a strengthener, an adjunct, specially powered, helper to the towns and, through the towns, to the Island as a whole. It was not intended to act as a parental authority to municipal governments regarded as too juvenile and wayward to plot their own futures for their residents and taxpayers.