MVC declines Mullen Way DCPC
The Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) voted no on designating Edgartown's Mullen Way neighborhood as a District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC) in a public hearing last Thursday night.
The commissioners' consensus overall was that a DCPC designation for Mullen Way would be a piecemeal rather than a regional approach. Instead, they voted in favor of forming a working group aimed at protecting and preserving neighborhoods Island-wide, through planning efforts already underway in the MVC's burgeoning Island Plan.
MVC Chairman Linda Sibley maintained a tight rein on the proceedings, keeping the testimony from the public and town officials flowing, and cutting inappropriate comments short. The commissioners concluded the three-and-a-half hour public hearing in one night, voting 11 to 3 in favor of not making the DCPC designation.
Edgartown Commissioner Jim Athearn, Edgartown Commissioner Carlene Gatting-Condon, and Chilmark Commissioner Chris Murphy voted no. Oak Bluffs commissioner Deborah Pigeon abstained, after telling the commissioners she was torn and did not feel ready to vote.
More than 70 people crowded into the small hearing room, representing both sides of the philosophical fault-line regarding the potentially precedent-setting decision.
Public testimony revealed the sharp division between those who wanted to use the MVC as a way to bypass local zoning bylaws and those who thought the control over building projects should remain in the hands of local boards. Up until now, the MVC had only applied the superceding set of regulations afforded by a DCPC designation to larger geographical areas of the Martha's Vineyard.
The nomination came about through the efforts of Robert Coad, an Island fisherman and Mullen Way resident, who collected 100 Island residents' signatures on a petition.
The move to nominate the neighborhood as a DCPC was viewed as kind of an "end run" around future development that might take place on eight acres at the end of Mullen Way, a narrow, thicketed street off Pease's Point Way with an older neighborhood consisting of about 12 bungalow-style homes built in the 1920's and 1930's.
Although a proposed development called Tall Trees Village by property owner Mike Kidder technically did not trigger review as a development of regional impact (DRI), the Edgartown Planning Board asked the Edgartown selectmen for a discretionary referral of the project to the MVC last spring.
In a letter to the MVC, Mr. Kidder said he decided to table his plans for Mullen Way in late spring after undergoing open-heart surgery, and told the commissioners last week that he has no plans to develop the property at this time. He told them when and if he does decide to develop the property, he will work with the town boards.
In the meantime, although the subdivision plan was withdrawn, the neighbors pursued the DCPC nomination, convincing the MVC in July to consider it.
DCPC Coordinator Jo-Ann Taylor explained carefully the MVC's criteria and process for designating a DCPC.
According to the MVC's regulations, she said, the critical underlying requirement of a DCPC designation must be that current state and municipal regulations fail to protect the cultural and environmental resources at issue in a geographic area.
Attorney Ronald Monterosso, representing the Mullen Way residents, made his case for the DCPC designation in courtroom style, his voice rising and falling as he delivered his arguments with sweeping gestures, as he paced rapidly back and forth in front of the commissioners.
What the Mullen Way residents wanted, he explained, was for the MVC to prohibit any extension and widening of their road, to limit the neighborhood's architecture to bungalows and Cape Cod style homes, and to protect a house on the street that is the second oldest house in Edgartown.
Conversely, Attorney Marcia Cini, representing Mr. Kidder, kept her remarks brief. She pointed out that only four Mullen Way residents actually signed the nomination petition, and that it was misleading to characterize the neighborhood as consisting totally of small, older homes, as only 15 were built between 1928 to 2001.
"We talking about whether Mullen Way meets DCPC criteria, and we think it's insulting to suggest that the Edgartown board don't have the authority to protect it," Ms. Cini said. "I want to congratulate you [the commissioners] for the Island Plan and encourage you not to be distracted by these piecemeal projects."
When called upon for their comments, two Edgartown planning board members expressed opposing viewpoints. Edgartown Planning Board Chairman Alan Wilson said he thought a DCPC designation would be inappropriate.
Although he described himself as "up in the air" about the DCPC issue, Planning Board member Roger Becker said, "It may be a way to keep our neighborhoods from being cleaned out by people who have too much money." If the neighborhood was for it, why not back them up? he told the commissioners.
Other Island town officials also weighed in with letters, including Chilmark selectman Frank Fenner, who labeled the effort to designate Mullen Way as a DCPC as "spot zoning" and a "misuse of the Commission's time and responsibilities."
Ms. Sibley opened the hearing to the public, inviting comment from people who had not already submitted letters or e-mails to the MVC.
Several expressed concerns about increased traffic on the narrow street, and the fact that its tree canopy impedes sight lines. Nelson Smith spoke of the need for a mechanism to preserve the community as a whole and to maintain it as an affordable community.
The issue divided families as well as neighbors. While Mullen Way property owner Allen W. Norton supported the DCPC nomination, his daughter, Melissa Norton Vincent, argued eloquently against it. "Mullen Way was a neighborhood when I was growing up," Ms. Vincent said. "Everybody lived there year-round. Unfortunately, time has passed for Mullen Way to be where it was. The decision on Mullen Way should go back to the Edgartown Planning Board and town residents."
The prevailing opinion expressed by many of the commissioners and members of the public was that decisions regarding development in the neighborhood should be handed back to the local town boards.
The sense of some of the MVC commissioners was that designating the neighborhood as a DCPC would not stand the test of a two-thirds vote by the town.
Doing it wrong could be a terrible catastrophe, said Ms. Sibley, as a lack of strong support from the town could set back the planning process.
"This issue has clearly touched a nerve Island-wide," she pointed out. "It has shown people are serious about not wanting to see special neighborhoods altered. It appears we have reluctantly concluded we should do this as a general planning process."
While several of the commissioners admitted they had mixed feelings about the DCPC designation, they also agreed that Mullen Way did not fit the criteria for a DCPC.
"I did not hear there are unique characteristics for this neighborhood to make it a DCPC," said Dr. Martin Crane, a governor-appointed commissioner.
After the commissioners' vote, Christina Brown, Edgartown commissioner and chairman of the Land Use Planning Committee, pressed for setting a six-month deadline for putting together a working group under the Island Plan and inviting members to preserve and protect neighborhood character.
Attorney Cini said afterwards, "It's a great relief. It really was a misapplication of the DCPC process, and should be part of the Island plan."