MVC strikes big house ‘character test,’ closes checklist hearing

The Martha's Vineyard Commission offices are in Oak Bluffs. — File photo by Martha's Vineyard Times

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) voted to delete a mandatory referral threshold aimed at large houses in its draft checklist for developments of regional impact (DRI) at a public hearing on November 29.

Although the MVC decided not to add a mandatory “trigger” in the checklist for large houses, the draft checklist contained a new section (Section 8.9) on “community character” as a possible criterion for a mandatory or discretionary referral.

Before hearing chairman Doug Sederholm officially opened the hearing, continued from November 15, commissioner Brian Smith of West Tisbury got things off and running with a motion to delete Section 8.9 from the draft DRI checklist.

“The section’s not really ready for prime time; it’s not well-defined,” Mr. Smith said. “I don’t think any one of us can defend it, because I don’t think any one of us understands it. And if this were to come back in a couple of years, I would hope that it would be much better defined, with better terminology, and better reasoning for it.”

The section defined “community character” as “any development that has a density more than 50 percent greater than the median for its surrounding neighborhood — with MVC concurrence.” It also included definitions of “surrounding neighborhood” based on setbacks and lot sizes.

The commissioners voted to 11-1 to delete it. Commissioner Holly Stephenson of Tisbury cast the dissenting vote. She said she agreed that there should not be a mandatory referral for projects based on the “community character” criterion, but she thought it should remain somewhere in the checklist as an option for planning boards.

In its current form, the checklist is a 21-page set of guidelines that determine whether local town boards must refer a planned development to the commission for review.

Under its enabling legislation, the regional planning and regulatory agency has wide authority to regulate developments of regional impact, by imposing conditions that cover density, traffic impact, environmental impact, and other factors above and beyond those that may be imposed by towns at the local level.

Too much

About 25 people attended Thursday’s session, the third since the public hearing started on November 8. They included several town board representatives, builders and tradesmen, and Vineyard Conservation Society members. Many of them made comments, not only on the checklist revisions but also on the MVC’s overall role and power as a regional regulatory agency.

Edgartown selectman Mike Donaroma said he would like to see the DRI checklist greatly reduced in size.

“I look at this, and I say what is it that our local boards can’t do that this DRI checklist does for us?” Mr. Donaroma said. The problem is that the MVC’s increasing restrictions stop a lot of projects from happening, he added.

“And this DRI checklist, because of its power and strength and unfortunate way to go about it, costs so much and takes so much time, it’s only people who can afford it who can go through this,” Mr. Donaroma said. “So I think in the best interest of the people on the Island, we really need to get away from the commission’s perception of being the all-powerful torturer, for lack of a better word.”

At the end of the almost two hours, Mr. Sederholm closed the proceedings to oral testimony and kept the written record open until open 5 pm Tuesday. The MVC will deliberate and make a decision on the DRI checklist revisions at a meeting tonight.

Hearing continued, again

The commission is required by statute to review the DRI checklist every two years. Mr. Sederholm, an elected commissioner from Chilmark, ran the public hearing as the chairman of the MVC’s land use planning committee (LUPC). As he explained at the first session, the proposed DRI checklist revisions resulted from a process that included a series of meetings open to the public held in 2011 to address issues such as large houses and commercial development, as well as several LUPC meetings held over the last few months. Due to poor attendance at the continued hearing on December 8 because of winter storm Athena, Mr. Sederholm continued the hearing to November 15.

He actually closed the public hearing that night. His action, however, sparked protest from some of attendees, including Mr. Donaroma, Oak Bluffs Planning Board member Mark Wallace, and a few Island builders, who said they would like the hearing to remain open and the discussion to continue. Mr. Sederholm held firm.

Of particular concern to the builders was the MVC’s proposal that in some circumstances, large houses might constitute a development of regional impact on the basis of “community character,” a standard they said was too subjective.

Other commenters questioned what constitutes “regional impact,” and whether the MVC has overreached its regulatory function in the past in reviewing details such as the color of roof shingles and types of siding.

The Edgartown selectmen followed up with a letter to the MVC on November 20, in which they said a number of residents attended their meeting the day before to express concern about the MVC’s decision to close the hearing.

“The board feels this decision appears to deny due process,” the selectmen’s letter said. “You had an Edgartown selectman asking you to continue the public hearing. You are paid an assessment from each town, with the theory being you are representing the best interests of that town. We are simply asking you to continue a public hearing. What is the big rush?”

The commission relented and agreed to hold a third session on November 29.