The Martha's Vineyard Commission, despite conflict and delay, seems to work
The folks at The Martha's Vineyard Times have asked that I reflect on the work of the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) in 2007 and look forward to 2008. I think I'll leave the fortune telling to someone else and deal with what I can recall of 2007. What follows are some random musings and a highly selective review of 2007 at the MVC.
I joined the MVC in January 2003, after a rousing victory in my first run for public office. I was unopposed. I have now pulled off that feat (winning unopposed races) three times. Although I am relieved that I have never been tested like those characters running around Iowa and New Hampshire, I also find it curious that there is little competition for seats on the commission. Perhaps potential candidates have watched us on MVTV and discovered that much of what the MVC does is pretty mundane. Anyway, to give you an idea of how time flies when you're having fun, I recall that in January 2003, President Bush was telling us we should invade Iraq because of the threat of WMDs. He was also telling us that global warming was a figment of Al Gore's imagination. Looks like he got his figments mixed up.
One thing has become clear from my experience on the commission. What really gets people's juices going is any change in their immediate neighborhood. This is not a great revelation; nor is it necessarily a bad thing. It's just the way we are. This has been a consistent theme of the affordable housing projects that have come before the MVC in the last five years. Bridge Housing, Jenny Lane, Morgan Woods, Middle Line Road, and Cozy Hearth all piqued the interest of the neighbors. The good news is that, most of the time, the interaction between the project proponents and the neighbors has led to improvements in the project. Applicants know that the MVC has significantly greater power than town boards to modify or even deny a project. Hence, they are usually more open to input from the community than they might be if the MVC were not involved.
Bridge Housing was, in many ways, my introduction to the DRI (Development of Regional Impact) process. The project raised many concerns, including traffic, nitrogen loading, ancient way preservation, and impact on abutters. The plan approved by the MVC in 2003 was significant, because it was the first time that a community group on the Island had conceived and designed a totally affordable housing development. The Bridge Housing project has yet to be built because of litigation. Recently, the litigation was settled and the Bridge people came back to the MVC for approval of a revised plan. I must say that, even though the Bridge project went through a rigorous regulatory review at both the MVC and the Tisbury ZBA, the revised site plan is better than the one we initially approved. Why is it better? I think partly because the Bridge people, delayed by litigation, had an opportunity to partner with other affordable housing groups on the Island and learn from the affordable housing projects that followed them. The new site layout incorporates the pocket neighborhood approach that has worked so well at Island Co-Housing (which preceded Bridge by several years) and is a key component of the Jenny Lane project. It was nice to see that these people have persevered and may actually build their project next year.
In 2007, the DRI with probably the greatest regional impact was the YMCA of Martha's Vineyard. It has always struck me as a bit odd that a community completely surrounded by water doesn't have a public swimming pool, especially one in New England. The Y's proposal required collaboration among several parties - the high school, the Martha's Vineyard Arena, Martha's Vineyard Community Services, and the town of Oak Bluffs - to solve the traffic and wastewater concerns that are unavoidable with a project of this size.
The Y is also an example of how community priorities, as reflected in the Commission's work, evolve over time. At the urging of the MVC, the YMCA is taking a very hard look at the feasibility of using renewable energy (geothermal) for its facility. Moreover, the Y is planning to build as "green" and energy-efficient a facility as it can within its budget constraints. Our sensitivity to the need for energy efficiency in design and construction has certainly increased in recent years; and now, where the project may require a lot of energy, the commission wants to know how those energy needs can be met in ways other than burning more fossil fuel. This doesn't mean that we are a bunch of eco-radicals who will burden a project with expensive technologies just to satisfy our own agenda. Rather, we want to ask the hard questions of applicants so they understand that in designing such projects they must consider the global energy issues we will all face and investigate alternative energy sources.
The commission designated one District of Critical Planning Concern ("DCPC") and expanded another in 2007. The towns involved initiated both efforts. In Edgartown, the selectmen asked the MVC to add several very old ways to the Special Ways DCPC. The Aquinnah selectmen asked us to designate the entire town (at least the part that is more than thirty-two feet above mean natural grade) as an Energy DCPC. To me, these initiatives reflect the best aspects of our community. Edgartown wants to protect paths and ways that date back to Native American times. They are part of what makes Martha's Vineyard a unique place to live. Aquinnah recognizes that, in addition to its world famous beauty, it has an excellent wind energy resource. Aquinnah is embarking on the delicate task of balancing these two interests. I don't know how it will sort out; but I applaud the effort. These DCPC designations give Aquinnah and Edgartown the opportunity to protect and develop their resources in ways that are not available on the other side of Vineyard Sound.
I have learned in the last five years that the MVC has tremendous power to shape development on Martha's Vineyard. Most of that power is residual. It is inherent in Chapter 831, the statute that created the Martha's Vineyard Commission. The extent to which the MVC uses its power is really up to the community, not the people who fill the seats on the commission. The commissioners, individually and as a group, are very sensitive to the input of the community. We actually want to do the right thing. As the people of Martha's Vineyard plan their future, the MVC is uniquely empowered to help make that future a reality. This is often a laborious process, full of conflict and delay, but it seems to work.
Chilmark resident Douglas Sederholm is a lawyer with offices in Edgartown. He is chairman of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.