Op-Ed : Martha's Vineyard Commission - an indispensible tool for managing growth
In the past several weeks, comments in Island newspapers have questioned the need for the Martha's Vineyard Commission or whether Vineyard towns' zoning laws are now strong enough to protect the Vineyard.
In 1974, the Martha's Vineyard Commission's legislation was drafted by Vineyard residents and made law by the state legislature, to give an added layer of review and protection of the unique resources of the Vineyard.
In 2009, the Supreme Judicial Court, in Kitras vs. Aquinnah and the Martha's Vineyard Commission, reaffirmed that a district of critical planning concern protects against challenges to local zoning. It found in favor of the town of Aquinnah and Martha's Vineyard Commission's town-adopted districts of critical planning concern, in a decision that prevented a subdivision in a fragile landscape on Moshup Trail. The 2009 decision restates an earlier SJC decision (Island Properties v. Martha's Vineyard Commission), "that the Martha's Vineyard Commission Act is a 'polar opposite' from those local enactments contemplated by the Zoning Act... Not only is Chapter  a statute of the General Court; the reason of its being is to import regional - island-wide and statewide - considerations into the protection of the land and water of Martha's Vineyard, considerations which...towns themselves...would not bring to bear."
Ron Rappaport, the Edgartown lawyer, commented, "If you want to know why the Martha's Vineyard Commission is important, just read this decision."
The Martha's Vineyard Commission act gives the commission some powers the towns simply don't have. For example, a developer can't simply override a town's zoning by proposing an affordable housing project. The Superior Court ruled that Corey Kupersmith could not force a 366-unit, 40B (the Commonwealth's affordable housing law) project on Oak Bluffs when he couldn't build his proposed golf course. Our six towns are the only ones in the state so protected. (In fact, the commission has often worked with responsible 40B applicants to allow higher density, affordable housing projects while making them compatible with their environments. But the commission can deny a project which is clearly inappropriate and not in the interests of the Vineyard.) Similarly, the commission can address the aesthetic, design and landscaping aspects of new, large buildings that typically escape zoning regulation.
Maintaining Martha's Vineyard's rural, small-town authenticity is not only important to our daily lives, it drives our visitor-based economy. How much of Martha's Vineyard's $800 million a year gross domestic product, or the $18 billion in property values, would be undermined if we didn't carefully protect the Vineyard's environment, character, and quality of life? And how many jobs would this affect?
Seasonal residents and visitors - the driving forces of the Vineyard economy - like to go kayaking and shellfishing in coastal ponds that are not polluted, to drive down scenic, narrow roads lined with farms and fields rather than strip development, to have a vital year-round community, to walk through charming town centers and older neighborhoods whose character is respected, and to relax in a place where the splendid natural beauty is unspoiled. That Martha's Vineyard still offers these is due to the combined work of the towns, private groups, and the Martha's Vineyard Commission.