Thirteen years ago Mark London spent his first five months as the new executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), the Island’s powerful regional planning agency, examining the commission’s mandate and operations. The process involved 50 in-depth interviews with people that had dealt with the MVC in various capacities as members of boards of selectmen, planning boards, conservation commissions, and the Cape Cod and Nantucket commissions. He also reviewed numerous comments solicited from the public.
Mr. London published his results in a 51-page report, “Looking at the Commission,” in March 2003. In addition to a review of the MVC’s operations, his report included 11 general recommendations, 38 specific recommendations, and 131 short-, medium-, and long-term actions to achieve them.
Before he retired last month, The Times asked Mr. London to take another look at the report and provide some observations. In doing so, he reexamined each of the general and specific recommendations in his original report, and then provided a 20-page follow-up report on what the MVC has achieved and what remains to be done. Both reports are available online at mvcommission.org.
Over 13 years, Mr. London weathered the MVC’s involvement in some of the Island’s most memorable — and controversial — regional projects, including the design and construction of a replacement Lagoon Pond drawbridge, a new Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and a roundabout at the former four-way stop at the intersection of Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road at Barnes and Airport roads in Oak Bluffs.
Other notable projects highlighted the Island’s ongoing struggle with managing growth and the community’s divergent attitudes about housing and development. Cozy Hearth, a unique affordable housing development proposed in 2005 by businessman Bill Bennett and a group of his employees, friends, and family in Edgartown, and an expansion plan proposed in 2013 by the Stop and Shop Supermarket Co. for its Vineyard Haven store, generated long, emotion-filled public hearings. Ultimately, neither came to fruition.
“In looking back over the past 13 years, it is satisfying that the vast majority of recommendations from the original ‘Looking at the Commission’ have been carried out, so much so that today, we now take most of these things for granted,” Mr. London said at the report’s conclusion.
Among topics Mr. London revisited in his follow-up report, he focused on planning, which is one of the MVC’s primary responsibilities, and developments of regional impact (DRIs), projects that require the MVC’s review and provide the bulk of its workload.
Although in 1990 the MVC issued a policy plan, “The Island Plan,” Mr. London said in his 2003 report that many people he interviewed were concerned there was no “shared community vision” about how the Island’s growth should take place. Others told him people were tired of talking about theoretical planning concepts. With that in mind, Mr. London recommended that the commission lead a community-based update of the Island Plan, in close cooperation with the towns.
In his follow-up report, Mr. London notes that the MVC did just that in a comprehensive four-year regional planning effort that resulted in the Martha’s Vineyard Island Plan. The comprehensive planning document, adopted by the commission in 2009, includes data on the Island’s economy, population, and development, analyzes scenarios for growth and the implications, and outlines a vision for future conservation and growth, as well as recommendations for how to achieve that vision, Mr. London said.
“The Island Plan includes a list of 207 implementation strategies with definitions of responsible agencies, a timetable, and financial orders of magnitude,” Mr. London said. “MVC staff is currently preparing a report card on progress implementing the Island Plan strategies.”
Streamlining DRI process
The MVC Act authorizes the commission to review developments that are either so large or have such significant impacts on their surroundings that they would affect more than one town, according to the MVC website. A DRI is referred to the MVC by town boards or the Dukes County Commission on the basis of the DRI checklist. It sets the thresholds that identify development applications that towns must refer to the MVC for possible review, before approving or denying the applications.
Mr. London got quite an earful on the subject of DRIs when he began his review of the commission’s operations for his 2003 report. He said most of the people he interviewed told him they felt DRIs would continue to be a vital part of the commission’s mandate and that the fundamentals of the process were sound. However, people also said that the MVC reviewed too many projects, the reviews could be done more effectively, and the commissioners were too involved in project details that could be more appropriately handled by the towns and MVC staff.
“There is a perception that the MVC improvises the process as it moves along, that it micro-manages projects, and that its decisions are inconsistent,” Mr London wrote. He recommended that the MVC’s review process should be revamped to make it more clear and predictable, a more effective use of everyone’s time, and less costly for applicants.
Since then, many practices related to that recommendation, such as reviewing fewer DRIs and in more depth, have been put into place, Mr. London writes in his follow-up report.
The MVC is required by statute to review the DRI checklist every two years. Since 2003, the commission has reviewed and revised the DRI checklist four times, Mr. London notes.
“As recommended, many of these revisions resulted in either raising the threshold for DRI review or in making certain types of referral ‘with concurrence’ so the Commission could remand the referral back to the town if it is determined that there are no regional impacts,” Mr. London said. “For example, a commercial project between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet is no longer a mandatory DRI.”
He added that the commission also has clarified DRI submission requirements and procedures, adopted six DRI policies that provide project evaluation guidelines, improved communication with applicants and preparation for public hearings, and conducted more effective public hearings.
Mr. London said the MVC has not yet acted on two of his recommendations, to streamline the review of simpler projects and to coordinate more effectively with the towns in reviewing DRIs.
In the future, Mr. London suggests, “the MVC could play a more active role in tracking town planning efforts, serving as a centralized source of information and documents, and taking a leadership role in creating an Island-wide multi-issue roundtable.”
A balanced membership
In regard to the commissioners, Mr. London restated his 2003 recommendation that a balanced membership should be encouraged, as it would be useful for planning efforts and DRI review.
“A decade ago, individual commissioners specialized more clearly in specific areas of concern, though this practice has fallen away in recent years.” The areas of concern in planning, development, and growth management specified in his 2003 report included environment, transportation, economic development and housing, and open space and scenic values.
“Finally, I’d like to recognize the huge amount of volunteer time and energy put in by Commissioners over the years, without which the Commission could not function,” Mr. London wrote in the report’s conclusion. He also thanks other Islanders who served as members of various MVC committees and work groups, as well as the staff.
“I feel that I am leaving the Martha’s Vineyard Commission in good shape, and look forward to the Commission continuing to play a critical role in protecting the unique character and environment of Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. London said.