Planning in the Coliseum

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The underlying structural premise of local government is that volunteers, elected and appointed, sometimes supported by salaried staff, organize to carry out various essential functions contributing to our quality of life. This arrangement, and our acceptance of its legitimacy and effectiveness, is at the heart of delegated governance and management.

Here on Martha’s Vineyard, we keep our delegations close to home: 17,000 residents and 13,000 registered voters in 6 separate towns, plus county government and, in planning matters, a near-omnipotent Martha’s Vineyard Commission, plus countless general and special planning and zoning boards and committees, all devoted to considering, reviewing, and tweaking any proposals departing from past and present use.

With so much structure in place, you’d think that we would be prepared to leave review and consideration of a new project to the boards, committees, and commissions we convene. But in a surprising and uncharacteristic homage to the Romans’ reliance on crowdsourcing in the Coliseum to decide the fate of performing gladiators in the heat of the moment, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival’s stillborn plan to convert the former Walsh property in West Tisbury into the bustling multiuse campus MVFF’s leadership believes it needs died abruptly, pummeled into submission by a barrage of community thumbs voting in the negative.

The idea of MVFF’s relocation to West Tisbury to accommodate the variety of programs it sponsors and supports certainly generated a flurry of attention, on its way to oblivion in a microburst of personal judgment offered and umbrage taken. MVFF plans, as best they were understood, were quickly and roundly condemned, their more generous opponents broadly characterizing them as badly matched to the selected site, and tone-deaf or disrespectful as to context, community wishes, and current zoning. Chastened, MVFF board members decided to abandon plans and, at last word, sell the former Walsh property.

In a way, this kind of dispute has been a familiar Martha’s Vineyard tempest — an expensive and visible property, earnest applicants, afflicted neighbors, impassioned partisans with or without a direct stake, and requisite lawyers, all arrayed for and against change. With these proposals Island practice has been to describe, document, analyze, counter-analyze, and review down to the nub. Maybe the possibility of generosity and constructive compromise can be found, maybe there’s nothing but a sea of selfishness and malevolence to be found, but whatever the track record of these excruciating reviews, their entire underlying premise is that we use a formal process to seek constructive outcomes.

In this instance, though, absent any formal process, the thumbs-up or -down decision was reached without any actual public review at all. Remarkably, rather than stand for deliberate consideration by its own boards, West Tisbury town officials wrote to the MVFF trustees strongly discouraging them from pursuing any formal review at all. If stopping an unpopular idea before wasting our time actually considering it and the possibilities it might raise was a legitimate intent, we suppose the MVFF’s capitulation could be judged a good outcome. In fact, though, the outcome is a disappointment.

It’s not a disappointment because we would have taken a favorable position on the project: Given applicable zoning and contextual considerations, the MVFF campus plan needed substantial indulgence, and was clearly in a big hole, and its proponents seem to have been particularly clumsy or at least inexperienced in generating a sympathetic hearing. But tactics aside, since their plan never was the subject of dialogue, brainstorming, remediation consideration, or reimagining, we have no idea what might have emerged to overcome natural resistance. And importantly, neither will anyone else.

Even a proposal which is on its face too bad a fit and too fundamentally flawed to have a chance to win over skeptical planning and zoning board members deserves the structured, thoughtful review those boards and local selectmen are charged to provide. And it’s not just a matter of fairness, although that alone is essential in protecting our individual rights to make and propose unpopular plans and not be peremptorily counted out by informal referendums.

More important needs than those addressed by the MVFF campus development, from micro to macro, could be at stake. Interested in a nonconforming guest house for your aging parent? Planning four townhouses for a traditionally zoned parcel you own? Thinking about an expansion to your social service agency’s addiction-service facilities? Sorry, your neighbors, abutters or otherwise, already know all they need to know, and have signed petitions or pledged financial support to stop you, and you’re out of luck.

Public planning bodies should seek out and embrace the opportunities presented by discussing and negotiating unpopular or tone-deaf ideas, to see if just maybe something that is in better balance all around might emerge. Certainly it’s a mistake to short-circuit the structured review process to let applicants know that their ideas are just not likeable, and that they should simply get over it. Good or just modestly useful ideas are in great demand and in short supply on our resource-constrained Island, where the need to balance preservation and change can be so exquisitely complicated. Giving this job over to informal crowdsourcing is a bad idea.