Question of growth has no easy answers
How much, and how, should the Vineyard grow?
The question seems deceptively simple, but, by the end of a public forum on development issues being considered for the Martha's Vineyard Commission's (MVC) Island Plan this past Wednesday, it was clear the answers will not be simple at all.
Intended as a course for the kind of future the Island wants, the Island Plan will outline the actions necessary to steer that course over the next 50 years.
"Is it too late to alter the pattern of development?" asked Jim Athearn, chairman of the Island Plan steering committee. "The crowd here says no. It's obvious by your presence in the room that you don't think so."
The commission was encouraged by the turnout. The crowd filled the front room of the Agricultural Hall, and spilled out onto the porch, where people peered through the windows to see visual presentations from a panel offering various perspectives on growth and development.
Several audience members who participated in a discussion with the panel disagreed with the idea of modifying growth, advocating instead a halt to development. Panel members cautioned that stopping development may be an unrealistic goal.
"Whether you want more development or don't want more development, odds are good that we're going to get more development," said Mark London, executive director of the MVC. "You don't have to agree on the philosophy, you come to agreement on the practicality."
The panel of experts included a planner, a farmer, a conservationist, and a state official, but did not include anyone representing builders or retail businesses. Some who did not attend the session criticized those omissions.
Chilmark selectman J.B. Riggs Parker noted "a conspicuous absence from the business world, which is an essential guiding element to any development and growth. If we don't get the stakeholders together to discuss these matters, progress is going to be limited. We can't have planning forums that are just composed of one point of view."
John Early, a prominent Island builder and recently retired West Tisbury selectman, questioned whether a process that does not include the local construction trades can be successful. "I would say no," said Mr. Early, a former MVC chairman. "I think it would be a much healthier process if it did include the construction industry in some form. That's definitely a flaw of the system they're using. Whether that's our fault, or their fault, or nobody's fault, I don't know."
Mr. London said the commission plans to engage people in the development and business sectors more in the next phase of its work, but to date, the commission has been focusing on gathering information that will help it make informed decisions.
He called on developers to participate in the next forum, which will focus on livelihood and commerce. That session is scheduled for 7:30 pm, Sept. 5, at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.
Each panelist presented charts and pictures projected on an enormous screen to illustrate the development issues being studied for the Island Plan.
Henry Stephenson, an architect and member of the Tisbury planning board, offered pictures of many existing homes and current building projects, including several controversial buildings which drew groans of displeasure from the crowd. "What's really nice about the Vineyard is the combination of the built environment and the natural environment," he said. "There's a way of building where you can snug the houses into the landscape very nicely. What we have to do is find a way to create a better fit."
Tom Chase, director of The Nature Conservancy's Island Program, urged Island residents to consider shifting focus from preserving undeveloped lands, to recovery and integrated use. "We have concentrated mostly on the last scraps of open land," he said. "This has been mostly a salvage mentality. What we need to do is think beyond picking land for conservation. We need to undo the damage done, and in some places need to modify development."
Kurt Gaertner, Director of Land Use Policy of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, offered a tool kit of policies and techniques that have been successfully applied in other communities to promote sustainable development principles.
He talked about a concept called transfer of development rights, which calls for identification of areas where development is not desirable, and encouragement for builders to purchase easements to preserve that land, in exchange for zoning variances or other concessions to build where development is more desirable.
"Building rates stay level, and you have more development where you want it," said Mr. Gaertner. "None of this is magic. It requires a combination of these techniques, and perseverance. I'm trying to caution you about stopping growth. Legally, it's difficult to say no to growth."
Mr. Stephenson asked whether transfer of development rights could be negotiated across town borders and drew a hearty laugh when he suggested that beach access rights might be a valuable bargaining chip.
One growth issue not addressed by any of presentations, but clearly on the mind of the public, is air traffic. "It's made my life quite miserable," said Carol Koury, who owns property in both Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury. Her comment elicited a buzz of agreement in the crowd.
"Rather than one or two planes that wake us up, its three, four, five," said Arthur Strang, a summer resident of Chilmark. "And I don't live that close to the airport."
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 61,317 aircraft events (approximately 168 per day) at the Martha's Vineyard Airport in the year ending May 14, 2006, the latest period for which statistics are available.
Airport manager Sean Flynn said air traffic has been flat since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York, though he expects statistics will show some growth in commercial traffic this year.