Islanders stake a claim to ocean regulation
Island officials and marine professionals called for protection of ongoing aquaculture projects Tuesday and asked for a strong role in the development of state regulations for the use of ocean waters off the Martha's Vineyard coastline.
The comments came at a "public listening" meeting held to solicit comments on the Oceans Act 2008, a sweeping new law enacted in June to regulate the use of Massachusetts ocean waters.
The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA) sponsored the meeting, held in the offices of the Martha's Vineyard Commission. Deerin Babb-Brott, state assistant secretary for ocean and coastal zone management, led a three-member panel that included Sen. Rob O'Leary (D-Cape and Islands) and Jo-Ann Taylor, Martha's Vineyard Commission coastal planner and a member of the Ocean Advisory Commission (OAC) that will help to develop the regulatory plan.
Mr. Babb-Brott is charged with developing an ocean use plan to implement the Oceans Act by year-end 2009.
The purpose of the Oceans Act is "to get the public purpose ahead of private interests," said Senator O'Leary, who Mr. Babb-Brott credited as the architect of the legislation.
Mr. O'Leary told those in attendance that while comments from private interests were welcome, he also wanted to hear from the public about how state waters should be used. Mr. O'Leary said the listening process is designed to give coastal citizens an opportunity to help determine a framework of first-in-the-nation regulations intended to balance projects such as energy generation against the need to protect the ocean habitat and its use for recreation and fishing.
He did not have long to wait for comments. Proponents of a nascent aquaculture project planned for Vineyard Sound told the panel to protect their project while developing an implementation plan for use of three miles of state waters off Martha's Vineyard.
Warren Doty, Chilmark selectman and a member of the shellfish aquaculture project, and Rick Karney, director of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group, also pushed for the state to expand its scope beyond state waters, both to analyze the impact of energy projects farther offshore and to have a role in affecting future federal policy regarding ocean use by private energy projects.
"Three miles is not as far out as you might think," Mr. Doty said, adding that three sites planned for the aquaculture beds extend well into Vineyard Sound. "We want to use deep water - 80 or 90 feet - and suspend the shellfish beds 30 feet off the bottom and 30 or 40 feet below the surface," he said. "We know where the fishing's done, where lobstering and conch harvesting is done. Talk to the fishermen and our group. We'll tell you the truth."
Mr. Doty described himself as a representative of three towns, noting that Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury are partners in the project.
"We consider three miles to be our jurisdiction, and we want to be in control of that space," Mr. Karney said, urging the OAC to use Island resources to build its database of information: "Check the master plans of the towns and the Martha's Vineyard Commission. We identified a lot of information for this aquaculture project".
Oceans Act planners emphasized the urgency required by the short legislated deadline for developing regulations, along with the commitment to represent the public interest.
"What we are doing is providing a framework that will be amended over time," Mr. Babb-Brott said. He suggested the situation might provide a larger role going forward for local groups and organizations, such as the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
Speaking during a question and answer session, Mr. Babb-Brott said that regional planning agencies with regulatory authority, such as the Martha's Vineyard Commission, can use tools such as the creation of districts of regional impact. "That means you can impact regulations on the back end as well as in the beginning of the process on the front end," he told about 20 residents and interested parties at the meeting.
Gov. Deval Patrick signed the legislation in June and the state expects a completed implementation plan by year-end 2009. Mr. Babb-Brott, told the audience "we have 189 days to present a draft for review. We are committed to including public input in the process."
"In my experience, the least bloody regulatory processes are the ones that are based on clear criteria," Ms. Taylor told the audience.
After the meeting, Ms. Taylor offered more perspective on the need for public input. "Now is the time to speak up," she said. "Yes, there will be more public hearings, but after a draft is developed it is difficult to change the paradigm in a major way.
"All of the project reviews have to be based on the criteria in the plan. I understand it's difficult for people to say what they want at this time. Reacting to a draft plan would allow more informed response but it's more difficult to effect change at that point."
Ms. Taylor said the process would provide great opportunities for partnership in planning. "You heard Warren (Doty) talk about the up-Island partnerships and Kitt Johnson, Edgartown's energy advisory committee chairman, talk about a tidal plan his town and Nantucket are working on together," she said. "We are talking with Gosnold about their joining the commission as a complete member, and we'll probably be working with the Cape Cod planning region as this goes forward."
The schedule for developing regulations involves a four-step process, Mr. Babb-Brott explained: 1.) information gathering until the end of January 2009; 2.) developing a draft plan by the end of April; 3.) public review and plan modification by the end of June; and 4.) formal review of the plan, implementing the regulations and integrating them into the state coastal zone management plan.
Mr. Babb-Brott said the plan must identify areas suitable for different kinds of development or protection and describe how they will be regulated. The finished plan must also contain a formal roadmap for modifying the plan over time, for gathering and analyzing ocean data, evaluating how the plan is working and refining management measures.