Despite its director's call for change, MVC slogs in DRI details
In January, hoping to persuade Martha's Vineyard commissioners to approve the World Revival Church's plans for a new building, project manager Joao Barbosa relayed an earnest promise from his fellow church-goers that they would come and go quietly from their services, so as not to disturb the neighborhood.
"No laughing, no talking," MVC commissioner Christina Brown said sternly. Then her face broke into a smile, and she assured him she was kidding.
The comment was tossed off in a spirit of levity following weeks of meetings. But nearing the end of a 10-month review by the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC), Mr. Barbosa appeared uncertain whether to smile back at her or cringe.
He had good reason to be apprehensive. The recommendations made by the land use planning committee (LUPC) Ms. Brown chaired would influence the MVC's final decision on his church's project. Under review as a development of regional impact (DRI), the MVC would determine whether it would advance to the local permitting process, and if it did, what conditions would be attached.
Over the years, project leaders of all types and persuasions - from commercial developers to nonprofit leaders - have appeared before the Vineyard's powerful regional land use authority. Many have complained that it is a lengthy, costly and often undisciplined process.
In March 2003, Mark London, newly named MVC executive director in October 2002, released a 50-page report, "Looking at the Commission, Review of the Operations of the Martha's Vineyard Commission and Recommendations for Improvements." The report's conclusions and insights were based in part on in-depth interviews with a cross-section of people who had dealt with the MVC in varying capacities, including project applicants.
Mr. London made several recommendations designed to revitalize the commission and significantly change the way it operated. Those included leaving more project details in the hands of local boards.
The DRI process, he wrote, was in great need of reform. "There is a perception that the MVC improvises the process as it moves along," said Mr. London, "that it micro-manages projects, and that its decisions are inconsistent."
In his report, Mr. London also highlighted reasons why MVC meetings often drag on for hours. "With respect to the way meetings were conducted, many interviewees criticized what they felt was excessive repetition, speechifying, lack of self-discipline ('not everybody has to weigh in on every issue'), disorganization, getting side-tracked and getting bogged down in detail that is not of real regional impact."
Despite efforts to change the process, the hearings for two recent DRIs, the World Revival Church in Oak Bluffs and the Red Gate Farm estate plan in Aquinnah, illustrate the extent to which commissioners continue to involve themselves in the minute details of some projects.
The leaders of the World Revival Church bought 1.5 acres of property on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs in 2000 to build a new church to accommodate their growing Brazilian congregation. Because the project was an assembly place of 2,000 square feet or more and was designed to serve the residents of more than one town, it was referred to the MVC as a DRI.
Church leaders began the MVC process with a pre-application meeting with MVC staff on May 19, 2005, with plans for a 6,500-square-foot building and 84 parking spaces. Following four meetings with the MVC's LUPC, a subcommittee used to iron out issues and fine-tune plans, a November public hearing continued to and closed in December, and two full MVC meetings, the church plan was approved with 36 conditions.
According to Mr. Barbosa, between fees, lawyers, architects and other costs, completing the MVC review process cost the church approximately $70,000.
The final plan that emerged was a 200-seat church and community room with a 5,500-square-foot footprint and 74 parking spaces. Conditions included limiting church services to no more than three times per week with an average of one special activity a month, installing a denitrifying wastewater treatment system, not producing commercial food products in the kitchen, and providing a revised landscaping plan for final approval by the LUPC before proceeding with construction.
Lost in translation
During numerous hours the commissioners discussed the church project, the impact of church services on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road before and after services was a chief concern. In response, church leaders offered to hold services during non-peak traffic hours.
Although the MVC staff provided an assessment of ways in which increased traffic, noise, and lighting might affect abutters and judged the effects to be minimal, the commissioners' concerns were not assuaged when church leaders offered to limit church services to three times per week, with an average of only one "special activity" per month.
A discussion by several commissioners that followed that offer provides some insight into the MVC's deliberative process:
John Breckenridge, Oak Bluffs: "I think, unfortunately, we've not defined either in discussion or in public testimony or in our deliberations about what, in effect, constitutes a special activity. And it just strikes me that we're sort of keeping, that we're using that word rather loose, that it could be baptisms, weddings, potluck supper. It could be a dance, church education, it could be a confirmation. And I was trying to come to grips with, do we, you know, list every potential church activity?
Or do we try to say that a special activity's defined as some event with a number of people attending? We'll say, over 25 or something. Because you know, you may have some education-type classes where it would be small, and we don't want to define that as an activity..."
Christina Brown, Edgartown: "Ultimately, it will be the zoning officer in Oak Bluffs who has to interpret this. And what if the zoning officer thinks that that means a confirmation or a baptism with, you know, 10 relatives gathered, that anything that's not a church service is a special activity. And I think John's point is, we don't want the zoning officer shutting them down for having little things. I'm thinking, again, from an enforcement standpoint, perhaps we could say, 'special activity such as weddings'..."
After further discussion, Doug Sederholm of Chilmark, made a motion to define special activity as any gathering in excess of 25 people or using the food facilities for serving food to 25 people or less.
Ms. Brown: "I would suggest that 50 is a better number, because as Doug pointed out, our concerns are increased traffic in the neighborhood at heavy traffic times, and overuse of the septic system, and a gathering of 50 people, probably just families and people coming in cars, is not going to add that much more traffic at any time of the day."
MVC chairman Linda Sibley, West Tisbury: "If you suddenly say we're not in any way limiting real small gatherings, and then real small gets defined as 50, that means they could have 50 people there every day. So we need to decide what small gathering is small enough that we don't care how often they have it. Or we move to take that out all together, and we leave them with the enforcement officer to go, 'You know, I check on their meetings every day. Is that okay?'"
Megan Ottens-Sargent, Aquinnah: "Let's go back to where we were before this long, lengthy discussion, and just reference weddings, when we state special event, per the testimony. 'Such as weddings' gives the enforcement officer some sort of a clue but it doesn't limit. Well, it does limit - it's sort of what our deliberation was about."
Ms. Sibley: "We're gone around in a little circle here..."
The discussion dragged on for several more minutes, after which Mr. Sederholm remarked, "...I don't know why we have to get into this much detail."
Ms. Sibley: "Have you withdrawn your motion?"
Mr. Sederholm: "Sure. I'll be happy to...The reality is that it is unlikely an enforcement officer will waste much time on this issue."
That said, the commissioners finally agreed to leave the words "special activity" alone.
John Best, Tisbury: "We just spent 20 minutes deciding to do nothing."
Speak less, listen more
In his 2002 report, Mr. London focused on the undisciplined nature of MVC discussions, which sometimes go on for hours. He wrote, "The Chair or Hearing Officer should exercise strict control to limit digressions and minutiae to make meetings more focused, while simultaneously respecting the need for input from applicants, the public and Commissioners."
During the World Church hearings, the degree to which the church-goers might leave the door open during services also was a subject of deliberation.
The discussion began when the commissioners addressed the church leaders' offer in writing "to endeavor" to try to keep building doors closed when amplifying services or events so as "not to impose upon the residential neighborhood."
Ned Orleans, Tisbury: "Endeavor seems to me they'll try to. Is that sufficient?"
Mr. London: "Well, that's what their offer is."
Mr. Orleans: "Well, if they're going to have air-conditioning, they should keep the doors closed, not just try to keep them closed."
Carlene Gattling-Condon, Edgartown: "It does say that someplace else."
Mr. Orleans: "It says they'll endeavor. That's my point. They're going to try to do it."
Ms. Condon: "I guess they can't control all their parishioners."
Mr. Orleans: "Okay."
Paul Foley, MVC staff: "They replaced 'ensure' with 'endeavor.'"
Ms. Condon: "I think that's reasonable. I'm assuming the church will proceed in good faith and endeavor to really keep the doors closed. You have to assume that at some point."
Duplication of oversight
The degree to which the MVC is willing to leave project details to town boards, which may ultimately issue a development approve any project after it receives an MVC development approval, has sometimes led to strains between town and MVC officials.
In his report, Mr. London wrote, "The MVC and the Towns should cooperate more in their planning and regulatory activities. The DRI process should be a collaborative one between the MVC and the Town."
Although the Oak Bluffs zoning board of appeals requires a site plan review that includes landscaping, one of the lengthiest debates by the members of the LUPC concerned what type of landscaping would be provided down to what species of vegetation would be used.
The church submitted one landscaping plan that was rejected. A second submission followed and was then revised in order to meet the requests of commissioners, including the following exchange.
Ms. Sibley: "I would appreciate Latin names. I don't know green ash. (Darran Reubens, the church's architect, provided the list.) White cedar is not native. And red pines are dying in the State Forest. The mix of plants is important."
Ms. Ottens-Sargent: "Are there any deciduous trees?"
Ms. Sibley: "The trees there are mostly oaks. Are they still proposing red maples? I definitely don't think we want them to put evergreens in that buffer. We want to keep the consistency of what's growing along there."
The LUPC recommended a condition that the church would have to submit a final landscaping plan for approval before proceeding with construction. Landscaping came up again during the MVC's final deliberations.
Ms. Ottens-Sargent: "Because ash is specified, wouldn't it make sense to say 'and other native vegetation' in 6.2?"
Ms. Sibley: "No, that's their offer. They did offer red maple and ash."
Ms. Ottens-Sargent: "It's an inaccuracy to call ash a native tree, that's all. There are stranger things. I will let it go."
Asked about the attention to such details, Mr. London said that because no local boards oversee landscaping plans, the LUPC's scrutiny was justified due to the church's visual impact on a major road. However, according to the Oak Bluffs zoning bylaws, section 10.4 requires a site plan review of the proposed church, including landscaping and environmental measures, by the town's planning board.
In talking to The Times this week, Mr. London deflected the focus on those of his recommendations that have not been effectuated and pointed instead to what has been accomplished in streamlining the MVC process.
"I'm not sure what more we can do," Mr. London said. "We go through the process of the hearing and the deliberation and decision. A hearing might be two or three hours long, and the deliberation might be another couple of hours. It's true after the fact you could go back and say we could have done a particular half-hour discussion in 10 minutes. But it still would have taken four and a half hours."
During a hearing in which the applicant, 12 to 15 commissioners, town board members, and the public all express opinions and ask questions, Mr. London said, "It's difficult to find that right balance between wanting, on the one hand, to get it done as soon as possible, but making sure there's adequate time for public input."
He cautioned, "Let's not exaggerate. It's somewhat annoying, but that's the price of democracy. The alternative of cutting people off and not letting them voice their concerns is worse. It's the price we pay for having an open process."
Although the commission does try to get as much comment from town boards as possible, Mr. London said, questions arise as to what town boards have a right to review. Ideally, he said the MVC would like to have someone from the town board that refers a project act as an informal liaison. However, they are all volunteers and do not always follow through by attending MVC meetings.
"If something is going to be subject to getting a special permit from the town board, then the commission will not look at a lot of the details," Mr. London said. "There are some projects that are highly visible, right on the main road, where the commission gets involved in the landscaping and lighting. If those projects were located in a town where the town board had review of those things, then the commission might not feel it's necessary to review it."
In terms of preparation for MVC hearings, Mr. London said, "We have made definite progress in that area." The commissioners receive a more complete kit of information on DRI applications than they did four years ago. Applicants meet with the MVC staff first to prepare their proposals before going before the LUPC, which helps shorten the DRI process for many, he said.
Currently, the commission is drafting policy documents for applicants concerning open space, water, affordable housing, traffic and transportation, and landscaping and lighting, also recommended by Mr. London.
"One of the main points in my report is to try to spend more time on preliminary planning and not just on the regulatory side, and that's what we're doing," Mr. London said. "We're just gearing up now for the Island planning effort. We have a survey going on and are inviting people to be involved by going to the web site www.Islandplan.org to participate, and to sign up and join our network of planning advisors. That's where we're going in the next few years."