Oak Bluffs continues to change and evolve amid challenges

The Oak Bluffs planning board chairman looks within and without as he describes his committee’s planning responsibilities.


Goodbye to 2015, with a glance back and a look ahead to 2016. Again this year, The Martha’s Vineyard Times invited several Island leaders and community members to consider some of the accomplishments and challenges of the past year and peer ahead to the New Year. 

As 2015 winds down and the holidays usher us into 2016, I welcome this opportunity to reflect on the year that has passed and my hopes as we work to plan for the future in Oak Bluffs and on Martha’s Vineyard.

In Oak Bluffs and across Martha’s Vineyard, many members of our community recognize the value of planning on a comprehensive level. We have realized we can no longer look at each step we take as an isolated movement. Every initiative, no matter how big or small, affects the next, whether it is building a new fire station, armoring a coast, or what I consider a crowning community achievement, the Island coming together to build the Niantic Park Playground.

Living in a community like Martha’s Vineyard brings challenges many think are unique. While they may all come with a twist, similar challenges exist in communities worldwide. The basic quality-of-life issues, such as housing, food, clean water, health care, environmental impact, employment, and safety are a few that come to mind. The Oak Bluffs planning board (OBPB) took all of these and more into account as we made choices and decisions over the course of 2015.

The Oak Bluffs Streetscape Master Plan was an initiative managed by the Oak Bluffs planning board. We enjoyed working on a project that united our community and thoughtfully planned for the future of our downtown, which will improve the quality of life for the entire community. As we enter 2016, the next phase, which will include design and applying for potential funding sources, we look forward to working with the community to develop our downtown.

The Southern Woodlands subdivision development was reviewed by the OBPB in 2015. A stalled development, the remnants of a proposed golf club that at one point divided our town virtually down the middle and left an open wound on the Island community as a whole, the property sold at auction, and a new discussion, along with a new group of people, came to the table. The conversation had many moving parts: market-rate housing, a land swap crucial to affordable and workforce housing, protecting our ponds, clean drinking water, special ways, and more. The OBPB worked closely with the developer, town leaders, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and most important, the taxpayers to tailor a plan. The final discussion led to a $700,000 contribution to affordable housing, reduced bedroom numbers, and nitrogen levels far below previous agreements.

The North Bluff project was perhaps one of our most difficult decisions of 2015. The OBPB and the community in general agreed that the North Bluff needed our help, and that protection of the bluff was crucial in many ways. Looking at the project from a comprehensive planning standpoint, it became clear there were some details we needed to solidify prior to moving forward. The community was expressing a need for process and an ability to speak to what was a priority for them. While we look at infrastructure like walls, walkways, and roads, what we needed to be most mindful of was the environment.

The beach below the bluff had been neglected, and quickly became the most important treasure in the discussion. As it became clear we were going to be unable to have that discussion at a town level, the value of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for a project of this scale became evident. Multiple public hearings have been held, and attendance has been standing-room-only. Hopefully, the MVC can create conditions for this project based on the lengthy testimony that has been heard from the public and provide the community with a final project we can all be proud of at its next meeting on Jan. 7.

The All Island Planning Board met a number of times over 2015, and the topic that became a top priority was housing. The AIPB discussion between housing entities, planning boards, and various community leaders quickly identified a need for all types of housing. It has become clear that the need for affordable workforce and market-rate housing has reached critical proportions, and it is going to take a regional effort, looking at projects larger in scale than one to four units, to house our community. We have begun working on a housing production plan for each town and the Island as a whole. My hope is the Island as a whole will step up to support this much-needed effort, immediately. I look forward to continuing discussion at the All Island Planning Board meeting at the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging at 6 pm, Jan. 13.

In 2015, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission began its biannual review of the development of regional impact checklist, and is planning on finishing it in early 2016. The Oak Bluffs planning board participated on all levels in this initiative. The OBPB recognizes the value of the MVC on larger-scale projects that are truly developments of regional impact, but firmly believes that the process for most projects can be handled at the town board level. Each town has its unique characteristics, and a one-size-fits-all document that at times can feel vague at best is overreaching. The thresholds are low, definitions are not clear, and many items on the checklist were developed as knee-jerk reactions to individual projects in the past. We believe the elected officials of individual towns have the tools and resources needed to manage projects in each town, including a discretionary referral to the MVC should it be necessary. My hope for 2016 is that we see a revised checklist that reduces micromanagement by the MVC.

As we ring in the new year on Martha’s Vineyard, I want to take a moment to express how grateful I am to be part of this community. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to raise a child here and the day-to-day experiences of calling the Island home. I look forward to working with this community in 2016 to plan our future, without losing the history and traditions of our past.

Brian Packish, a lifelong resident of Oak Bluffs, is chairman of the planning board and chairman of the streetscape master plan project. He also serves with many other town and civic groups. He is the father of a 14-year-old daughter, and he owns and operates a landscape company in Oak Bluffs.