Martha's Vineyard Commission growth forum raises many questions, provides few answers
The good news is that Martha's Vineyard's water supply is ample to meet the Island's needs for many years. The bad news is that without creative, imaginative planning, thousands of new homes and buildings will further affect the Island's lifestyle.
Those were two of the messages delivered to a crowd of about 70 gathered at the Agriculture Hall in West Tisbury on August 27 for a forum on development and growth sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC), the Vineyard's regional planning and permitting body.
The gathering was the latest in a series of summer forums meant to elicit public comment on a comprehensive three-year planning project known as the Island Plan.
According to the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the goal of the Island Plan is to provide a long-term guide for the Island community as it struggles with questions of growth, affordable housing, and the future identity of the Vineyard. Ultimately, the MVC hopes to set out a strategy for achieving this vision by outlining possible programs, regulations, and other actions that could be carried out by the MVC, towns, and other entities.
The Wednesday forum attracted a mostly elderly crowd. Most of those who spoke identified themselves as year-round residents. Although the subject was growth, no one who spoke did so as a representative of the Island's building trades.
Jim Athearn of Edgartown, owner of Morning Glory Farm and chairman of the Island Plan steering committee, provided a brief introduction. Henry Stephenson of Tisbury, chairman of the Island Plan's built environment work group, followed with a description of the problem, as identified by his committee. He explained that the work group focused its efforts on answering four questions: how much should we grow, where should we grow, how fast should we grow and, can growth fit in better?
Mr. Stephenson pointed out that the percentage of year-round houses on the Island has remained consistently at about 42-44 percent of the total, dating back to the 1970s, and the percentage of the economy driven by the construction industry remains consistent also - there are fewer building projects now, but today the homes being built are more expensive than in the past.
Currently there are 18,000 residential buildings on the Island (16,000 main buildings and 2,000 guesthouses). According to the work group, total housing growth could increase by 50 percent (under the current zoning regulations) in the coming decades. Without any change in regulations, research indicates that development will continue to move away from the towns, past the fringe areas and into the surrounding area. As much as 53 percent of new building would be within areas designated as sensitive habitat, Mr. Stephenson said.
Slowing Island growth would have a number of benefits, including allowing the local workforce to better handle the demand for services, protecting open spaces, allowing for building incentives and allowing communities more time to absorb change. However, slowing growth would also limit a property owner's ability to build on his or her own property, according to the work group findings.
In order to ensure that new building will fit in better, the work group suggested several "tools" that might be implemented, including enlarging historic districts, identifying visually critical areas and subjecting projects near these areas to design review, ensuring that zoning is in line with current best practices for setbacks, height and density, and, publishing a reference document on building "the Vineyard way."
Following the work group presentation, its members invited the audience to answer seven questions by a show of hands. Asked if the Island should "change the total amount of potential development and if so, how," voters overwhelmingly said that projected growth should be cut in half from the current forecast of 50 percent to 25 percent.
The audience was asked if new development should be shifted from the towns to rural areas. The audience rejected the option of maintaining the status quo and voted for focusing development toward the towns and less in rural areas.
When asked "should we limit the rate of growth?" by letting the market forces alone determine the growth rate, no one raised a hand. The majority favored slowing growth. About a dozen in the audience abstained.
The audience voted almost unanimously for requiring greater open space protection as development takes place and requiring that new buildings in older areas fit better into the surroundings. A majority of the audience favored increasing the percentage of new building that should be "affordable." Mark London, Martha's Vineyard Commission executive director, noted there were many in attendance that abstained on the question.
More than an hour of the forum was open to public discussion. Often comments were greeted by enthusiastic applause.
Robert Wheeler, Martha's Vineyard Savings Bank executive vice president, explained that while restricting growth will increase the value of the bank's portfolio, which "will make any banker happy," the increase in values would increase the number of support people who are priced out of the market and forced to leave. "In the long-run property values will drop because of what the Island cannot be, because of the people who cannot be here any more." Mr. Wheeler called for "foresight and the political will to compromise" on the planning process to "preserve the beauty of the Island... and to support our people."
Island real estate broker Tom Wallace of Wallace and Co. Sotheby's Edgartown, drew agreement from the audience when he said that Island residents do not want the planning process to "come up with cookie cutter solutions" but rather that the Island faces "unusual challenges and it needs to have the tools to meet those challenges."
Vineyard Conservation Society vice president Terry Appenzellar warned that the planning process faces a challenge. "We have to do this Island-wide not from six towns, and the structure for doing that is missing," he said.
"What will be left if we do not act in unity and do not act now?" Mr. Appenzellar asked the crowd. His comments drew applause.
On the issue of water quantity and water quality, Mr. Stephenson assured the audience that the Island's water quantity is "pretty good" but the appropriate nitrogen levels need to be studied, because nitrogen is a "major issue in preserving the watershed."
Christopher Murphy of Chilmark, a member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, called for a town-by-town approach to implementation and enforcement of development standards. "We need to plan together and regulate independently," Mr. Murphy said. "I would like to see a whole series of proposed bylaws and then let the towns pick what works for them."
The Martha's Vineyard Commission and the Island Plan should serve a "guiding role rather than an enforcing role," according to Mr. Murphy. "Enforcing comes from the towns...solutions from the bottom up will be the ones that work." Mr. Murphy's remarks drew a loud round of applause.
Echoing those remarks, Holly Stephenson of Tisbury commented "there needs to be agreements between the towns that we all get to appreciate the natural beauty of the entire Island."
Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, Martha's Vineyard Commission vice-chairman, emphatically remarked that "implementation has to happen town by town...zoning is a function of the town authority." However, she called for action on an Island-wide basis, because protecting "what we value about the life here cannot be done by the market, it must be done by commitment."
Several in the audience expressed concern about the viability of Island living for the next generation. "These [development limiting] tools would make property more expensive...we have to balance how we protect what we have here and find ways for our sons and daughters to live here," said Nis Kildegaard of Edgartown.
In comments following the meeting, Tim Lasker, Chilmark planning board member and Democratic Party candidate for state representative, said, "It is important that we come up with an Island plan, but as was pointed out ... that plan needs to be implemented by the local town boards. Hopefully, the towns can work together in the implantation of that plan."
Assessing the forum attendees, Mr. Lasker said they were decidedly supportive of the Martha's Vineyard Commission and conservation interests. Missing from the meeting was the voice of the Island's construction industry, he said.
Martha's Vineyard Commission senior planner Bill Veno acknowledged that the MVC would have to make a more concerted effort to reach out to builders and contractors and "get greater representation and input from that community in the future."
The Martha's Vineyard Commission's next steps will include outreach to the individual towns, since they will have the greatest impact on land use, Mr. Veno said. The MVC expects to publish a comprehensive Island Plan report in 2009, he added.