The question about the Martha’s Vineyard Commission


That Edgartown will remove itself from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s (MVC) embrace is unlikely. That some Edgartonians and some Islanders in other towns find the regional land use planning and regulatory agency frustrating and out of step is certain. But, the cost of maintaining the MVC and its staff is not the chief spur to this chronic, low-level restiveness.

MVC members, former members, and supporters, despite what seems a secure footing, are worried about Edgartown’s upcoming special town meeting vote. Witness their declarations in this morning’s newspaper.

Most Islanders have nothing at all to do with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, just as they have nothing to do with county government. Most Islanders’ projects don’t need MVC review, most Islanders do not participate in long-range planning discussions, or in envisioning their town’s or this Island’s future 50 years down the road. In this way, they may resemble the young jungle cats one watched years ago on the Wild Kingdom. Tangling with the huge boa constrictor, the cat concentrated on the snake’s head, heedless as its thick suffocating coils twined themselves repeatedly around him.

Town government departments — planners, zoning boards, building/zoning inspectors, highway departments — do have business with the commission, and generally find the interactions useful. Taxpayers and voters consider the costs of MVC membership modest, unavoidable, and nowhere near as alarming as school costs or Steamship Authority fares.

Also, as with county government, elected, appointed, and volunteer participation in the MVC’s affairs is slight. Newcomers rarely challenge incumbents or even offer themselves for election to vacant seats on the commission. Despite its influential involvement in Island life, the MVC and the county government are widely regarded — mistakenly so in the case of the MVC — as remote and incidental to the daily business of living Vineyard lives.

This sometimes changes when an Islander’s plans — or a town’s particular interests — intersect with MVC review. The expensive, time-consuming, sometimes whimsical and bewildering breadth of the MVC process often leaves the everyday Islander with a sense of his having missed something that he ought to have kept track of more carefully. This is especially true when the MVC harries what it calls developments of regional impact, but which actually have no real, discernible regional impact at all, such as Tisbury pizza parlors and Chilmark Girl Scout camp renovations.

Edgartown, which has had experience living outside the strictures of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s enabling legislation, has a justified sense of itself as a well-managed, prosperous, financially sound, environmentally cautious municipality of distinct and admirable character. It is unsurprising that at times its self-direction brings it into disharmony with the regional agency.

As this page has argued often enough, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s enabling legislation, designed to deal with an onslaught of large-scale housing lot developments, is only indifferently suited to the current type and pace of Vineyard development and the very different needs this community has at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. When the MVC began, we feared that every speck of Vineyard open land would be divided and divided again, into tiny lots that would spur population growth and environmental blight. We fretted that growth would make getting around impossible and that air and water would be fouled.

Today, partly because of the MVC’s beneficial influence, partly because of the national and global economic changes, and partly because the cost of being here has risen so sharply, the problems we face are different.

Today, we would benefit, as Edgartown has, from some small lot development or condominium or townhouse development that would accommodate moderate-income Islanders who did not aspire to publicly subsidized, tightly controlled affordable housing.

Today, we would benefit from regulatory spurs to economic growth and a sharp planning focus on the technological infrastructure, so that the cost and availability of goods and services might be moderated, and employment and wages might rise.

Today, we might benefit from a well-aimed effort to confront the demographic issues that lie ahead — an aging population, a high cost of living that hurts older Islanders as well as younger workers, and a need for coordinating, funding, and expanding services for older Islanders.

To do all this, reshaping the MVC’s legislative authority for these times, rather than those of the mid-1970s, is absolutely in order.