Contemplating a Comprehensive Island Plan
Where is Martha's Vineyard heading, and is that where we want our community to end up? If not, what do we have to change now so the Vineyard ends up in a better place in the future?
These are some of the questions that will be addressed during the preparation of the Vineyard's Comprehensive Island Plan over the next couple of years. This week, a steering committee named by the Martha's Vineyard Commission to coordinate this important planning effort held its first meeting.
Over the past generation, Martha's Vineyard has grown at a rate seven times greater than Massachusetts as a whole, with its year-round population increasing two-and-a-half times, from about 6,000 to 15,000 people. Every year, 250-300 new homes are built.
We like to think of the Vineyard as a rural Island, with country roads connecting traditional New England towns. We have done a better job than most places in managing growth to preserve the Island's environment and character, thanks to the efforts of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the towns, the Land Bank, and other conservation organizations. Despite these efforts, however, the amount and speed of this growth is transforming the Island.
Unless we are flying over the Island, we are not so aware of the existence of the many large subdivisions and scattered homes built since 1970, since they are mostly hidden from the main roads. But we see the impacts of this growth as the traffic jams at Five Corners and the blinking light get longer. We see it with more undesirable algae in our ponds and with declines in the volume of shellfish production, largely as a result of the additional nitrogen flushed down those additional toilets. We see it in the changing character of the Island, as development strung out along Island roads is transforming whole stretches into something starting to resemble the car-dominated commercial strips found in the rest of America, albeit with wood shingles, classier signs, and better landscaping. And the pressure of growth is, of course, making it increasingly difficult for ordinary Vineyarders to afford to live here.
Our economy is based primarily on our ability to offer a great experience to visitors - seasonal residents and tourists. But how many will want to come if the ponds are dead and smelly, if the traffic is as bad as everywhere else, if we look more like everywhere else? What will that do to our economy and our jobs?
Fifteen years after the preparation of the Island's first plan - the Regional Island Plan - and eight years after a series of visioning exercises, it is time to renew our vision for the future by preparing a new Comprehensive Island Plan. The aim is also to set out the strategy for achieving this vision by outlining possible programs, regulations, and other actions that could be carried out by the Martha's Vineyard Commission, by the towns, and by other entities. The Martha's Vineyard Commission will adopt the plan as the official regional plan.
We might conclude that we are doing the best we can in managing growth. But we might also come up with different answers to questions such as: How much development should we plan to accommodate? Where should it be located? At what rate should it take place? Are there specific things that we can do so that future growth has less negative impact on water quality, traffic, affordable housing, the environment and the character of the Vineyard? Should we be moving towards a more sustainable year-round economy and what would that entail? Can we reorient development so that it adheres more to the principles of Smart Growth? This approach favors compact, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development, coupled with the preservation of rural and environmentally sensitive areas. This is in contrast to spreading single-use, car-oriented development across the land, as has typified much of the Vineyard's development in the past decade.
The Comprehensive Island Plan steering committee is made up of twenty Vineyarders from all walks of life, all towns, representing a wide range of interests and areas of expertise, and including members of various town boards, non-profit organizations, and individual citizens. Its members were selected by a group of MVC commissioners who met many times over the past few months to analyze more than 100 names of people who had expressed interest or whose names had been proposed. The aim was to put together a committee of a balanced cross-section of Islanders who could take a leadership role in helping the community define how it wants the Vineyard to evolve. The committee members are: John Abrams, Marie Allen, Clarissa Allen, James A. Athearn, Prudence Burt, Tom Chase, Steve Ewing, Ann Floyd, Ray Laporte, Ned Orleans, Kerry Scott, Linda Sibley, Elio Silva, Russell Smith, Bret Stearns, Henry Stephenson, Paul Strauss, Richard Toole, Susan Wasserman, Durwood Vanderhoop.
The Steering Committee will oversee both the process and the content of the plan. In addition, it is proposed that an advisory committee be created to provide a sounding board periodically throughout the process, as well as task forces to be set up for concentrated periods to deal with each of the specific topics such as water quality, housing affordability, transportation, the economy, and open space. The planning effort will be supported by the specialized expertise of the Martha's Vineyard Commission staff, and outside expertise will be brought in as needed.
There will be many opportunities for members of the public to participate in the Comprehensive Island Plan process. Already, in anticipation of the process, the MVC conducted a number of surveys such as this summer's Visual Preference Survey in which Vineyarders were asked to indicate what type of development and character they preferred and which they wanted to avoid. We are preparing reports on the results.
In the coming months, the steering committee and MVC staff will outline a full planning program including a variety of activities and methods to encourage members of town boards, non-profit organizations and the general public to be involved. For a start, we invite people to send us their general suggestions, and specifically to respond to the following two questions:
What are the main issues that the Comprehensive Island Plan should address?
What specific techniques or proposals do you think the steering committee should look at for possible application on the Vineyard?
There is a second way that you can support this effort. Though much of the work will be done by volunteers or by MVC staff within the commission's regular operating budget, this effort will require some additional funding to pay for items such as specialized expertise in various fields, meeting facilitators, printing, and other out-of-pocket expenses. The MVC's assessment to the towns was increased slightly to help pay for the extra cost; however the commission undertook to raise most of the funds from foundations and private donations.