Martha’s Vineyard Commission lacks building trade candidates

— File photo by Mae Deary

Although the November election may be far from the thoughts of Martha’s Vineyard voters in the heat of July, the makeup of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), the Island’s powerful regional permitting body, will be partially determined in the next two weeks.

Candidates for nine open seats on the 17-member body have until 5 pm, Tuesday, July 31, to file nomination papers with ten signatures with local boards of registrars to run in the November election.

A survey of town clerks revealed that as of Tuesday the roster of potential candidates includes all incumbents, with the exception of Susanna Sturgis of West Tisbury.

The familiar incumbent faces include Christina Brown of Edgartown (commissioner since 1997), John Breckenridge of Oak Bluffs (2004), Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs (2010), and Holly Stephenson of Tisbury (2009).

Notably absent are candidates actively involved in the building trades, one of the linchpins of the Island economy, and tourist-related jobs, which represent 37 percent of employment on the Island, according to the MVC.

The MVC exerts a strong influence on the Island economy. It does this by shaping and permitting projects referred to the commission as developments of regional impact (DRIs), and in the creation of districts of critical planning concern (DCPC), which towns can adopt to provide an overlay of regulatory control on top of local zoning bylaws.

Nine MVC candidates are elected at large to two-year terms. There must be at least a minimum of one commissioner elected from each town and no more than two from any one town.

The nine will join eight voting members appointed annually by the Island’s boards of selectmen (6), the Dukes County commission (1) and the governor (1). The governor or member of the cabinet may also appoint four other members who do not vote on DRIs or DCPCs.

Business and building trade reps

Although the MVC’s decisions have a significant impact on the Island’s businesses and building trades, few of the announced candidates or current MVC members are actively involved in those livelihoods.

Ms. Brown is retired from her former job as the assistant to the Edgartown Planning Board. Mr. Breckenridge works in the food service industry . Mr. Hancock is self-employed as a technical director for corporate meetings. Ms. Stephenson is a retired former city planner and co-owner of a sports schedules business. Ms. Sturgis is a freelance editor and writer.

Of the current elected and appointed commissioners, only Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, the longest-serving MVC member since 1992, owns and operates a retail store, Vineyard Electronics.

Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark (2003) and Erik Hammarlund of West Tisbury (2011) are both lawyers. Brian Smith, a 2010 West Tisbury appointee, works as the Martha’s Vineyard operations manager for ABC Refuse Disposal Service.

Martin Crane, a physician from Hingham who is a seasonal Island resident, serves as the governor’s appointee.

The majority of people who serve on the MVC, while active in the community in a variety of capacities, are retired. Kathy Newman, a retired psychologist and Camille Rose, a retired fisherman, represent Aquinnah.

Chris Murphy of Chilmark (2005), chairman, is a retired fisherman.

Peter Cabana (2007), a retired civil engineer, and and Ned Orleans (2004), a retired retailer and education administrator , represent Tisbury.

A matter of time

Up until about three months ago, Bill Bennett, an electric contractor appointed to the MVC by the Chilmark board of selectmen, was the only commissioner actively involved in the building trades. Mr. Bennett resigned from the MVC because of his wife’s illness.

In a phone conversation with The Times Tuesday, he said most of the tradesmen and business owners he knows have been putting all their efforts into coping with a poor economy and tough business climate and do not have time to serve on the commission.

“It requires a lot of focus, and generally, people don’t have much time to even consider a position on the MVC,” Mr. Bennett said. “What woke them all up recently, however, was the big house issue.”

Last fall the MVC discussed possibly including large private homes in the checklist that could trigger the commission’s review.

“When that came up I wrote an email to everybody I knew in the building trades, and I was very surprised at the participation we got at the meetings,” Mr. Bennett said.

Several of the Island’s prominent builders and contractors who attended reminded the commissioners of the importance of the construction industry, and also the people who pay them to build big houses, to the Island’s economy.

The MVC’s Island Plan, a multi-year planning effort completed in 2009, reported that construction accounted for 10 percent of Island jobs and 14 percent of wages.

“A number of them had not realized I was the only one from the trades on the commission,” Mr. Bennett said. “A few that came said afterwards they would be interested in perhaps considering a position on the commission, but no one has come forward yet.”

“Another thing that galvanized the Island business community was the whole issue of the commission’s review of the Goodale’s gravel pit,” he added. “The big house and Goodale’s pit were issues they could see would directly impact their ability to do business. But what many don’t realize is that other less publicized issues and decisions will also have an impact on their businesses and work, as well.”

Mr. Bennett said it is important that more business owners and tradesmen, especially ones with young families, participate on the MVC, because they are under represented.

“It may be that people who are older, who are semiretired or retired, are in a better position to handle the workload, but do they necessarily have a finger on the pulse of the way the Island population is working and interacting? Maybe not,” Mr. Bennett said. “I think all voices need to be heard,” he added. “The only thing I see troubling is the absence of the voice of the demographic I represent. There are no bad voices, but we need more representation from young families who are actually running businesses here.”

Although being a commissioner may seem like a lot of work, Mr. Bennett said, “It’s not going to overwhelm you. It’s interesting work and the MVC staff and other commissioners are very helpful.”

“It’s not a hideous position by any means,” he added, “and you can make a difference individually.”

Another commissioner that does have both business and construction experience is Jim Joyce, appointed by the Edgartown selectmen in 2010. He is the owner/broker of Carroll and Vincent Real Estate and a State-licensed construction supervisor.

Although not employed in the building trades, commissioner Leonard Jason, appointed by the Dukes County Commission, is in close contact with many who are, as the building inspector for Edgartown and Chilmark.

“Usually those guys are too busy trying to earn a living,” Mr. Jason said, when asked why he thought few of them serve on the MVC in a phone conversation with The Times. “It’s difficult to sit there at a meeting for several hours at night, after working nine to ten hours a day.”

Nomination papers for MVC candidates must include ten signatures from registered voters only. After town clerks certify the signatures, the papers must be provided to the Secretary of the Commonwealth by 5 pm, Tuesday, August 28.