Towns should claw back their depreciated prerogatives


In the mid-1970s, when the ground rules for implementing the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s enabling legislation were being written, a general goal was to identify and devise protective protocols for fragile landscapes, for delicate and delightful environmental features, and for open space, which was under assault. A companion objective was the protection from regional regulatory intrusion into town centers. Since those hallowed, ingenuous moments, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission has spread itself, with the witless, complacent connivance of Island voters into downtown environs, most of them well protected by zoning rules and vigilant planning boards.

The most recent version of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s (MVC) developments of regional impact checklist sparked some wan sense of relief. Practical people — town officials, business owners, contractors, and others — have recognized the spreading intrusion of the commission’s regulatory appetite and attempted to correct the regional agency’s course.

This question of which developments the MVC should play a role in regulating and which should be reserved to the towns is a legacy of what was the very genius of the 1973-1974 effort that led to the creation of the Vineyard’s super-zoning planning and regulatory authority.

Islanders spurned Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s 1972 Nantucket Sound Islands Trust legislation because of its top-down, federal government approach. Islanders saw it correctly as a clumsy effort to transform the Vineyard into a kind of national park that would, if the legislation passed, hold the Island in suspension, unchanging and monochromatic forever. It was a national, indiscriminate bludgeon.

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s enabling legislation, envisioned as a prophylactic against the Kennedy Bill, was to be a locally inspired and locally managed effort to add protective authority to overwhelmed town government regulators. Local, to the authors of that legislation, meant the towns, in all their individual natures and aspirations. It was not a state-level corollary to the federal effort, and homogenizing the six Island towns as they grew and changed was not a goal of Governor Francis Sargent’s effort. But, in practice the self-referential nature of regulatory regimes and the instinct for reinforcing and expanding its authority has led the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to do what Governor Sargent attempted to avoid by checkmating the Islands Trust Bill.

The first slate of elected Martha’s Vineyard Commission members in 1974 — this writer was one of them — were determined to tailor development of regional impact and districts of critical planning concern rules to the inclinations of the six communities, each one having become, over generations, an aggregation of like-minded souls, different in every case from its neighbors in other towns.

And, that early foundational effort, derived from the spirit that prevailed in the development of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission itself, also attempted to reserve for the towns the use of the MVC to help but never to trample or intrude upon the management of their individual lives.

That spirit has been eroded over time, and today the differentiation among Island towns is threatened with extinction, as the MVC inflicts itself on even the most unarguably local issues, such as the permitting of a Main Street pizza parlor in a business area.

Or, recall the history of the Girl Scout Camp expansion off Middle Road in Chilmark. There, the scouts’ expansion plans fell within all the town zoning and building rules. There was no possible argument that the contemplated changes had regional impact. But, harrying neighbors pressed the town selectmen to make a referral to the MVC. Their defense of their action was to say that the referral was a way to get the Girl Scout plans aired in a public hearing, because the efforts by critics in lawful municipal forums had not achieved the critics’ aims. In the Girl Scout Camp matter, the MVC had a finger hold on the project, because development permits from Chilmark were needed for the project to proceed.

Which brings us to the bowling alley proposal for Oak Bluffs. It is a development of a sort that can be and was overseen by the town planning board and the rules in place. Or, if a more discriminating set of rules that recognized the potential for distress when an established commercial district abuts an established residential area, the planning board might have asked voters for carefully targeted fresh tools. For example, planners could have amended the commercial district so that developments of certain types, while specifically allowed by the existing bylaw in all parts of the district, would require stricter scrutiny or be disallowed altogether within some specified distance from the commercial/residential boundary line. The town has access to tools to deal with bowling alleys in commercial neighborhoods adjacent to residential neighborhoods. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission ought to recognize the town’s right to control such decisions on its own.