Development and growth on the Vineyard
The population of the Vineyard has almost tripled since 1970. It and Nantucket are the fastest growing counties in the Commonwealth. Under current zoning, about 6,000 more homes could be added to the present 16,000. With the current ratio of 56 percent seasonal homes to 44 percent year-round, this would translate into a year-round population growth from the current 15,000 to about 21,000. If all seasonal homes became year-round, the population could grow to about 50,000.
Is the Vineyard community happy with the current pace and type of development and the prospects for future growth? Can we better manage where and how new building takes place, as well as the overall pace of development? What is the carrying capacity of the Island?
The Island Plan is starting to work on the overarching issue of how to best manage development and growth. This will be the focus of a forum next Wednesday evening.
Some believe that continuing fast-paced growth is vital to our economy; for example, nine percent of Vineyard jobs and 17 percent of businesses are in construction. Others feel that by undermining the Island's character and environment - key to the healthy economy which keeps us happily employed - rapid development could kill the goose that laid the golden egg; they note that "growth as a goal" is the philosophy of a cancer cell.
In the Island Plan's forums and surveys so far, almost everyone said that the Vineyard should move to a more sustainable economy, less dependent on growth. People have favored concentrating future development in town and village areas and limiting building in environmentally sensitive areas; reinforcing compact, mixed-use, walkable town and village centers; and ensuring that new building is compatible in its scale, siting, and design. The challenge will be translating these general goals into specific actions.
Trophy homes are the poster child for concerns about the changing Vineyard. People say they are bothered by the visual impact of large new homes, their energy and water use, the traffic they generate, and loss of open space. However, of the 200 new homes built each year, there are probably only a small number of McMansions. Also, a single large house on 30 acres in a rural area could have far less impact than 10 medium sized houses, with 10 guesthouses, 10 garages, and multiple swimming pools and tennis courts. The Island Plan steering committee concluded that we should look at the impacts of all new development on energy, water, views, community character, habitat loss, and other specific factors. We'll start by working with town building inspectors to analyze the size and location of recent building.
Future needs: The Island Plan will project the likely range of future population growth, and changes in age and seasonality. Current needs and future scenarios will allow estimating future community needs, especially businesses and institutions needed to serve the future population, as well as affordable and community housing. How much of these future needs can be accommodated in existing buildings? An increase in winter population might mean new stores, or might just mean that existing stores will be busier year-round. Could our population reach a threshold that attracts off-Island chains, undermining local business?
Is there some way to slow the pace of development to keep on-Island workers busy, but to limit importing workers, or exporting jobs when homes are pre-built elsewhere? What would the impact be on the cost of building?
Fitting into the natural environment: How much of the 21 percent of the Island that is presently "available" should be developed and how much protected as open space? Can we better protect existing farmland? Can trails and greenways link open spaces into an integrated network, which could also provide better access to the shoreline? Can we better protect natural views and vistas, such as by maintaining vegetation along rural roads or limiting the visual impact of new buildings from the coast? What is the minimum viable area of habitat needed to maintain a healthy range of plant and animal species as well as accommodate public access and recreational uses?
The Island Plan is looking at working landscapes, recreation, character and biodiversity, to identify which areas are most significant and vulnerable to the effects of new building, and which can be used for development with little environmental impact. We will also focus not only on conservation of remaining natural resources, but also on restoration, for example, by encouraging property owners in sensitive areas to restore the original habitat on large parts of their properties. In some cases, there could even be long-term, voluntary un-development of critical natural properties.
Fitting into the built environment: Many people are concerned about the impact of new development in their neighborhoods, including the razing of older buildings and their replacement with houses that some Islanders consider out-of-scale. Can we better protect our heritage buildings and streetscapes, and ensure that new development fits into existing neighborhoods? To get a better handle on this, we've started discussing with town planning boards how to take a closer look at existing neighborhoods, analyzing what particular characteristics of each one people feel should be protected and whether current regulations do the job.
Directing development to existing built-up areas may make sense from a planning and environmental point of view, but what about the impact on the services and taxes of down-Island towns?
We hope that all Islanders - year-round and seasonal - get actively involved in discussing these important issues for the future of the Vineyard.
The Island Plan Development and Growth Forum will take place on Wednesday, August 22 at 7:30 pm at the new Agricultural Hall. A discussion paper on Development and Growth, as well as other information, are available on the web site (www.islandplan.org), at libraries, or from the MVC (508-693-3453).
Jim Athearn is chairman of the Island Plan steering committee and Mark London is executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.