Edgartown planning board tells MVC to butt out

Edgartown planning board members voiced their concerns about the low threshold for project referrals to the MVC. — Photo by Monica Busch

Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) Executive Director Adam Turner got an earful from members of the Edgartown planning board Tuesday night, who said that too often the regional permitting and planning body exerts its authority over matters the planning board is better suited to tackle.

Mr. Turner is in the process of collecting comments from town boards as the MVC gears up for its twice-annual review of the development of regional impact (DRI) checklist, a series of automatic triggers that require development projects to be sent to the MVC for review.

The DRI process can be a costly and lengthy process. In the past, Edgartown officials have questioned the actual regional impact of projects built within the town.  

Tuesday night, planning board members offered numerous examples of overreaching and superfluous DRI triggers they said impede development projects and undercut the authority of the planning board. Members said that they were better suited to make decisions about smaller projects in a town where some of them have served on the board for more than 20 years.

Mr. Turner, who is not a voting member of the MVC, took the criticism and promised to report the board’s concerns to the commission at large as it continues its review process prior to voting on any changes to the checklist.

“It’s supposed to be regional impact that’s the trigger,” board member Fred Mascolo said. “When we read through that checklist the other night, there were so many things that had nothing to do with regional impact, yet they were all triggers. Speaking from being on the board for 17 years, I think the planning board is perfectly capable on local issues.”

Mr. Mascolo said he thought the checklist was far-reaching.

“In certain situations, you serve a great need for the Island. The fact that you protect the Island regionally. In other situations, we don’t need the five towns weighing on something that isn’t regional impact,” he said.

Other planning board members echoed Mr. Mascolo’s comments.

Chairman Michael McCourt said that when projects are referred to the MVC because of a specific DRI trigger, the commissioners have a penchant for then debating the project from the perspective of multiple potential checkpoint triggers. “Basically, they get on that board [MVC] and they don’t know where the boundaries are,” Mr. McCourt said.

“We’re told very frankly it can come into the commission because it’s triggered by point A,” planning board member Alan Wilson said. “Once that point A is triggered, they can look at anything imaginable.”

Mr. Turner said he hopes to finish his data collecting by Thanksgiving, and that he will need about a month to complete his report, because he wants to look at MVC decisions over a 10-year period.

“That would explain a lot of the pluses and minuses of the commission,” said Mr. McCourt.

Making an example

After the general DRI discussion with Mr. Turner and MVC commissioner member-at-large Christina Brown of Edgartown, the board asked the two MVC representatives to stay for a hearing on a proposed expansion to 250 Upper Main Street. Owners Laura and Alex Alexander want to add a 700-square-foot addition to the existing 1,800-square-foot basement, and a 1,000-square-foot addition to the existing first floor of Evolve Pilates.

“What you’re about to hear, technically, is a trigger to you guys. And there’s not regional impact here,” Mr. Mascolo said.

Though the usage of the space would still be for fitness, the DRI checklist requires that additions of 1,000 square feet receive MVC review. The MVC can decide whether it concurs with the change or will review the project as a DRI.

“If this project is a DRI, why have a planning board?” asked planning board member Robert Cavallo.
Ms. Brown clarified that the project was not a DRI because it required concurrence, but that the MVC would decide during concurrence whether it was a DRI.

“What we’re saying as loud as we can possibly say it is there’s got to be some line, and this cannot possibly cross that line,” said Mr. Cavallo.

“I think we all agree, but it’s the mechanics that say we have to send it over there, and they have to say ‘OK, this doesn’t cross the line,’ and send it right back,” said planning board member Robert Sparks.

“Why do you have to send it? Just don’t send it,” Georgiana Greenough, planning board assistant, said.

“Then we have to come get you,” said Ms. Brown, referring to the MVC’s powerful legal authority.

Ms. Alexander told Ms. Brown that time was of the essence, because they wanted to begin construction on the expansion before the ground freezes for the winter.

“So clearly projects as small as this shouldn’t even come to the commission,” said Ms. Brown.

Turning to Mr. Turner, Ms. Brown asked how fast they could turn around a concurrence referral. Unwilling to make any promises, Mr. Turner suggested that the process could be expedited to two to three weeks. However, there is no formal process to do so.

“The concurrence review was not intended to be a DRI review,” Mr. Turner said.

Ms. Brown, retired Edgartown planning board assistant, said that the MVC needed to loosen up on triggers that affect commercial districts. She said that Edgartown was a model example of how towns should regulate such districts, owing to the town’s Upper Main Street master plan, which required the planning board to be more stringent in its review process of projects in that zone. She said that the general view of the commission is that they should review Main Street areas differently, and that “particularly Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven” should be encouraged to develop plans “as strict and detailed” as Edgartown’s.

Pick a fight

The Alexanders presented their construction plans, and the board agreed they should be approved. The sticking point was the DRI trigger sending it to the MVC for review.

Mr. Mascolo suggested that the board approve the project with the condition that the MVC concur, so that the Alexanders would not have to wait another two to three weeks to return for final planning board approval. Mr. Cavallo suggested the board refuse to send the project to the commission.

“What we’re going to vote on tonight, if we approve this, is whether this 1,000-square-foot addition that meets all the setbacks should go to the commission,” Mr. Cavallo said.

Mr. Sparks and Mr. Mascolo said they didn’t believe they had a choice.

“Can we be very candid and ask a question?” Mr. Sparks said to Mr. Turner. “Let’s say the board votes to approve this unanimously tonight, period, and we don’t mention the commission, how do you feel?”

“I don’t think that’s a fair question to ask Adam,” Ms. Brown said. But Mr. Turner answered anyway.

“I’ll say one thing: You guys should make your own decision with your own staff, and not worry so much about what I think,” Mr. Turner said.

“I don’t want to turn this into a legal fight that costs [the Alexanders] even more time,” Mr. Mascolo said.

After more discussion and expressions of concern from other members of the planning board about further delaying the Alexanders, Mr. Cavallo moved to approve the project without referral to the MVC.

“If this turns into a firefight, it’s going to tie up these two people for six months,” Mr. Mascolo said.

After further discussion, Mr. Cavallo rescinded his motion, and the board moved to send the project to the MVC with a letter to the commission explaining why they would like the concurrence process expedited. All voted in favor except Mr. Cavallo, who voted against.

The discussion between the planning board and the MVC representatives continued after the vote.

“I can’t speak for my fellow [MVC] members, but a lot of us are also agreeing, not just in Edgartown but certainly in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, that the thresholds are much too low,” Ms. Brown said.