For MVC, municipal planning across six towns is a balancing act

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission spends the bulk of its time on planning, a function largely invisible to most.

— File photo by Nelson Sigelman

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the Island’s regional permitting and planning body, is most visible when reviewing developments of regional impact (DRI). But the MVC’s municipal planning function is the backbone of the regional agency, and largely invisible to most Island residents, despite its impact on Island life and decision-making.

The MVC’s operating budget totals $1.4 million, with just over $1 million of the cost funded proportionately by the seven towns (including Gosnold) of Dukes County, according to a formula based on property values in each town. A total of 65 percent of the costs assessed to the towns goes toward planning functions, according to Executive Director Mark London.

Mr. London said regional and local planning and regulation are at least partly responsible for the Island’s unique character.

“People look around Martha’s Vineyard, and they say, ‘What a nice place,’” Mr. London said. “It doesn’t just happen to be like that. It would have been overdeveloped and transformed into Anywhere, U.S.A., very likely, like many other places up and down the coast. It’s such a nice place because people are planning and regulating it to be that way. That’s what was happening on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s, and the people said no.”

Bill Veno, MVC senior planner, said protecting the rights and opportunities of individual landowners must be balanced with the collective goals of the larger community.

“The community can regulate private land when it’s for the general welfare of the people,” Mr. Veno said. “We want to protect people’s rights. When they invest in their home, they know it’s a residential district and nobody can open a 7-Eleven next to your house. There’s some predictability to your investment.”

Planning functions

According to the American Planning Association, a trade organization for professionals, planning and implementing the design of public projects is a complex balancing act.

“Good planning helps create communities that offer better choices for where and how people live,” according to the organization’s web site. “Planning helps communities to envision their future. It helps them find the right balance of new development and essential services, environmental protection, and innovative change.”

The MVC employs six professional planners, with specific areas of expertise.

Mr. Veno is the regional agency’s senior planner, with responsibility for managing comprehensive planning efforts that involve major public development. He also works on walking trails and bicycle paths, energy initiatives, and helps the executive director with policy and operations.

Christine Flynn is the economic development and affordable housing planner. She has a hand in coordinating and supporting affordable housing initiatives, and helps local town governments with documentation for state and federal grants. A big part of her job is the collection and analysis of demographic and economic data.

Jo-Ann Taylor is a coastal planner, working to plan projects that impact local harbors, shorelines, and ocean waters. She coordinates environmental research and environmental reviews by state regulators, and works to secure grant funding.

Christine Seidel manages geographical information systems (GIS), gathering and analyzing geographical data, and creating maps that are critical to town planning boards, assessors, and first responders.

Sheri Caseau is the MVC’s water resources planner, working on issues of water quality. Much of that work involves efforts to limit excess nitrogen, a problem that threatens the health of most salt ponds and bays on Martha’s Vineyard. She manages water quality testing, and works with state regulators find cost-effective methods of restoring waters damaged by nitrogen loading and other pollutants.

Priscilla Leclerc is the transportation planner, responsible for coordinating various infrastructure improvements, including planning that solves problems related to traffic congestion, parking, public transportation, bicycles, pedestrians, ferries, and air transportation.

The good with the bad

Mr. London cites the Lagoon Pond drawbridge as an example of good planning. MVC planners advised the committee appointed by Oak Bluffs and Tisbury to oversee design and construction of the new structure. The committee was able to add features, including completion of a bike path from the bridge back to the Tisbury town landing, better access to the waterfront on both the harbor and Lagoon Pond side, and a public park.

“The drawbridge was improved very substantially from the first design plan from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation,” Mr. London said.

He also cited the planning functions that prioritize and design transportation projects on the Island. Under an agreement signed in 1980, a joint transportation committee, which includes appointees from the six Island towns, Dukes County, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), makes decisions about transportation projects. The committee also includes representatives of the biking community, transportation providers, and members of the public, and includes a public hearing process for others to add their views.

The committee prioritizes transportation projects over a 10-year period, essentially deciding how to spend the state and federal funds allotted to the Island. MVC planners collect data on various aspects of the transportation system, and provide expertise as the committee oversees the design process.

Mr. Veno points to up-Island’s many scenic roadways as an example of good planning. In 1976, most of the primary roads in Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury were declared a district of critical planning concern (DCPC), which gave the MVC the authority to review development and prepare regulations later adopted by the towns.

Among the regulations adopted was a requirement which limited the number of driveways and service roads, requiring each road off the main thoroughfare to be located at least 1,000 feet apart.

“It has retained the rural character of those roads,” Mr. Veno said. “If you are going to develop property, you would have to serve it by an interior road. You don’t really notice, but there are hundreds of houses behind the tree line on both sides. Without the DCPC, you would have those driveways every few hundred feet.”

Mr. Veno points to the Triangle, one of the Island’s notoriously congested intersections, as an example of poor planning. The roads were designed decades ago, and fixing the congestion is far more expensive, and politically difficult, now.

“There may have been some opportunities for some additional roadways that might have alleviated some of the bottlenecks that we have,” Mr. Veno said. “In Edgartown, it all funnels into Upper Main Street. There may have been opportunities to have another road that would bypass that.”

But he added that planning has to achieve a balance acceptable to the community, and that often involves compromise.

“There’s a reluctance, appropriately so, to route traffic away from your commercial area,” Mr. Veno said. “That’s the dilemma that the community has to wrestle with. What we’ve done in some cases, we’ve relocated stuff from downtown Edgartown to the Triangle. Now some people say downtown is dead in the off-season. If you move it out further, that’s how sprawl happens.”

Local cooperation

Planning boards in Island towns are generally happy with the level of cooperation they get from MVC planners, and several have called on town officials to utilize the resource more.

Brian Packish, chairman of the Oak Bluffs planning board and a candidate for selectman, questions whether Oak Bluffs is getting its money’s worth. The town will pay the MVC an assessment of $141,868 next year, with $91,816 of that amount for planning.

“We’re essentially paying for a town planner at the MVC level,” Mr. Packish said. “I don’t know that we’re really reaching out to get the most benefit, outside of the DRI process.”

He said he sees some reluctance to utilize the MVC as a planning resource, based on controversial DRI reviews that sometimes trigger political infighting.

“I think where people get lost, there’s a little bit of fear,” Mr. Packish said. “They’re worried the commission is going to swallow the project and there won’t be room for town input. I don’t think it has to be all or nothing.”

Dan Seidman, chairman of the Tisbury planning board, said MVC planners have helped with traffic studies, growth estimates, and geographical data. But he said the town has not taken full advantage of the MVC planners’ expertise.

“I don’t know if they’re underutilized, or not utilized because people don’t know what they offer, or whether they choose not to avail themselves of what’s available,” Mr. Seidman said.