MVC study targets ways to improve permitting practices Island-wide
The Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) recently released a comprehensive study of current permitting practices and procedures Island-wide, with a view toward identifying possible improvements for consideration by towns and the MVC.
In August 2006, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney signed legislation to amend the state's Expedited Permitting Law and to fund the review of local permitting processes by regional planning agencies. The review occurred at two levels, the first conducted statewide by the Massachusetts Association of Regional Planning Agencies (MARPA) and the second at the local level by the MVC. As MVC executive director Mark London explained at a commission meeting last month, the MARPA study resulted in a compilation of "Best Practices," a list of 26 recommendations to help streamline permitting processes.
The MVC's study, "Development Permitting Processes on Martha's Vineyard," and the MARPA report, "A Best Practices Model for Streamlined Local Permitting," are available on The Times website, www.mvtimes.com.
"The aim is not to lower standards, but to look at ways the process could be made clearer," Mr. London said. In addition to providing a good portrait of all permitting practices used on the Island today and an inventory of existing regulations, Mr. London said the study should prove helpful in planning for the future, particularly with respect to the Island Plan.
The MVC's study of the Island's permitting practices and procedures was funded under a contract with the Commonwealth's Department of Housing and Community Development. When funding became available in February 2007, the MVC hired consultant Ed O'Connell as a regulatory specialist to complete the study. He began work the next month, conducting interviews over several months with town employees, board and committee members, private interests involved in local permitting (such as developers, builders, architects, engineers and land use attorneys), and representatives of non-profit land conservation groups.
Reporting on his efforts at an MVC meeting last month, Mr. O'Connell said that outreach was the most important part of the study. "We tried to get a broad look at the processes, talking to people who do this day in and day out," he said.
In a follow-up call this week, Mr. O'Connell said the input from town officials, board members, and staff contributed significantly to the study. "The reality on the Vineyard is that folks generally do a very good job with local permitting, given the available resources.
"The people involved in the process are remarkably dedicated, conscientious, and very good at what they do. However, there are always opportunities to improve."
Mr. O'Connell said that rather than focusing on making the permitting process easier for applicants, the MVC study was aimed at making the system work better for town boards and staff, who are the commission's constituents in its role as a regional planning agency.
One of the more interesting findings statewide, although not necessarily on Martha's Vineyard, was that permitting delays are often caused by a lack of preparation on the part of applicants and their representatives, Mr. O'Connell said. "Too often delays are laid at feet of town officials and boards, and it's just not always the case," he said. "People come in with incomplete applications, change projects mid-stream or haven't reached out to abutters beforehand - those things more often cause delays than the sequence of hearings."
The MVC study considered the on-Island applicability of each of the MARPA report's "Best Practices" under four broad categories: improving communication with the permitting process stakeholders, standardizing permitting processes and procedures across town regulatory functions, marshalling town resources to improve local permitting performance, and pre-planning to support effective permitting.
For each technique, the MVC study includes a general description, the current status of its use on the Island, stakeholders' comments, and a discussion of its potential applicability.
"We tried to be careful about looking at those practices that did apply here," Mr. O'Connell said. "The genesis for all of this was the state's desire to create a friendly environment for the permitting of commercial and industrial uses, primarily in urban areas. Clearly, we on Martha's Vineyard are not in those areas. The legislation also gave cities and towns the opportunity to look at permitting overall and ways to enhance that."
Some of the most promising best practices recommended in the report for the Vineyard in the short-term include:
* Designate a single point of contact to help coordinate local permitting across town departments;
* Utilize a pre-application process to give applicants guidance before plans are finalized and the formal permitting process starts;
* Publish local permitting guides. Improve town websites to include permitting guides and other helpful planning information;
* Utilize permit-tracking software in the towns;
* Provide training sessions for board members Island-wide.
Another section of the report mentions using concurrent applications and permitting timetables, and possibly combined public hearings, as a promising tool that "might take a somewhat longer time to implement." That recommendation in particular stood out for John Abrams, president of South Mountain Company, who was one of the stakeholders Mr. O'Connell interviewed.
As a builder, an activist in the Island's affordable housing movement, and chairman of the MVC's Island Plan livelihood and commerce work group, Mr. Abrams has been through the permitting and project review process many times at the town level and at the MVC. "I felt that the study's conclusions, if towns will adopt some of them, could make a real difference," he said in a phone call on Monday. "I think the most important thing to me is if the MVC were able to hold joint hearings with town boards, rather than applicants having to go to the town, then to the commission, and then back to the town."
"It would make all of the information available in one place, and also the abutters would be able to go to one place in town to express themselves," Mr. Abrams added.
The idea of holding combined hearings is mentioned in the MVC study as a promising tool "that might take a somewhat longer time to implement."
Ron Mechur, a professional land use planner and trained mediator who has served as a public regulator and private developer and as director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, said this week he will be interested in reading the commission's study. He remembers discussions about streamlining permitting on Martha's Vineyard dating back to when he served as the MVC executive director from 1976 to 1979.
When asked about the idea of combined public hearings, Mr. Mechur said although it has merit, it might be difficult to achieve on the Vineyard.
"You might end up with a meeting with 30 town officials - we have enough trouble getting through an MVC meeting in one night," he pointed out. The best improvement would be for people involved in public hearings to listen carefully, answer questions as asked, and avoid repeating themselves, he suggested.
Now that the MVC permitting study has been released, Mr. O'Connell said the next step is for town board members and staff to view the report as a whole to consider possible additions and revisions. The third phase will involve implementation.
"One of more interesting outcomes may involve a possible pilot project in the towns where a range of the tools might be implemented," Mr. O'Connell said.
The MVC's project is funded through June 2008. Although Governor Patrick's latest budget includes funding for technical assistance with permitting for Massachusetts towns and cities, it is not clear what role regional planning agencies like the MVC will play, Mr. O'Connell said.