Every two years, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) reviews and revises the checklist under which local town boards must refer a project to the Island’s powerful regional permitting body as a so-called development of regional impact (DRI). Depending on the degree of scrutiny the MVC applies, DRI review can cost applicants more time and money.
This is the first biennial review of the checklist under new MVC executive director Adam Turner, who took over the commission last August, following the retirement of Mark London, executive director since 2002.
“In terms of process, the law requires review of the checklist every two years for a reason, so that the checklist is dynamic and reflects the issues facing the Island,” MVC executive director Adam Turner said in an email last week in response to questions emailed from The Times. “It forces the commission to review its policies regularly and update them as times change. The commission continues to play an important role in Island development, and we sought to ensure that mission by making the document cleaner and more responsive.”
The most significant proposed change in the checklist would be a 500-square-foot increase across the board in the thresholds that would trigger DRI review for building development.
In 1975, one year after state lawmakers created the MVC, the DRI checklist was two pages long. The applicant was required to answer a 12-question checklist that was used to determine if a project had “regional impact.”
The current checklist encompasses 18 pages, including nine subsections, a swath of definitions, and a list of possible factors warranting discretionary DRI referral. Overall, about 75 different triggers can send a project to the commission.
Town boards use the checklist to determine whether a project must be referred to the MVC for mandatory review as a DRI. The commission defines DRIs as projects that are either so large, or would have such significant impacts on their surroundings, that they would affect more than one town. Once officially classified as a DRI, the project must be approved by the MVC before a town board may issue a required permit or take any action.
The DRI checklist consists of standards and criteria that relate to a project’s likely impact on the environment, traffic, and municipal services, among other factors, according to the MVC’s website. DRI triggers are just that, benchmarks that require that a project go to the MVC, where the commission may decide to go forward with a full review or refer the project back to the town.
On Thursday, July 21, the commission will hold its first public hearing to discuss the results of its review, and the proposed changes. The hearing will take place at the MVC’s regular meeting, which starts at 7 pm, in the Stone Building at 33 New York Avenue in Oak Bluffs.
The MVC’s land-use planning committee (LUPC) oversaw the DRI checklist review. The six-month review process included numerous public meetings to solicit comment; the production and review of a staff report that detailed historic DRI records and documents; and a detailed evaluation of each checklist item, according to the MVC.
The DRI checklist review subcommittee included retired Edgartown administrator Christina Brown of Edgartown, retired businessman Robert Doyle of Chilmark, retired lawyer Joan Malkin of Chilmark, and lawyer Doug Sederholm of West Tisbury. The subcommittee was chaired by the LUPC chairman, a position that changed hands from retired retail business owner and long-serving commission member Linda Sibley of West Tisbury in 2015 to Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs, a self-employed technical director for corporate meetings, in 2016.
The DRI checklist subcommittee’s regular meetings included a page-by-page evaluation of each checklist item, while MVC staff compiled comments. Staff members also developed a DRI project history and conducted a general analysis of DRIs over the 10-year period.
A detailed report on historical DRI reviews and public comments on the current checklist are available on the MVC’s website, as are a marked-up version of the current checklist with deletions and additions, and a revised checklist with an annotated memo explaining the changes.
The MVC staff also provided the subcommittee with a listing of possible amendments to the checklist. The subcommittee met in February and March this year to review the report and made recommended revisions to the checklist.
New director, fresh look
Asked what his initial impression of the checklist was, Mr. Turner said he didn’t really have one.
“The DRI checklist document was comprehensive and well-written in most cases, but I wanted to see how it worked in reality,” he told The Times. “I tried to listen to participants’ comments and respond to their views initially, more than to develop mine. My recommendations for the most part centered on responses to commission and public comment.”
As he became more familiar with the MVC’s practices, Mr. Turner said, it made him aware of the importance of ensuring that the process was transparent, and that applicants were treated fairly and understood the rules and procedures.
Last fall, Mr. Turner began visiting town boards to solicit views on the checklist. At meetings of the Edgartown planning board on Nov. 4 and the All-Island Planning Board on Nov. 11, he got an earful from local officials, who said the checklist often encompassed projects that were of questionable regional impact, and ought to be left to the purview of local boards.
About 50 private-sector individuals in various development disciplines including design, landscaping, and building also spoke with Mr. Turner and the subcommittee to weigh in on the checklist review.
“We had a variety of comments,” Mr. Turner said. “Many revolved around letting town boards handle more routine commercial projects in commercial zones. We did respond to that in several sections. Other comments were more technical in terms of language, and we tried to more accurately reflect projects that merited review. The mixed-use section, for example, we revised to be clearer but to provide increased flexibility.”
There are 16 annotated changes on the proposed revised DRI checklist. The majority of them fall under Section 3: “Development of Commercial, Business, Industrial, and Mixed Use Land and Buildings.”
Ms. Sibley said in a phone conversation with The Times she thinks the single biggest change in the checklist is a 500-square-foot increase across the board in the thresholds that would trigger DRI review for commercial, active storage, and office and industrial development in Section 3.1.
“The whole mindset early on was to try to keep stuff small, try to prevent massive commercial development, and it probably makes sense, but things have really changed,” Ms. Sibley, an MVC commissioner since 1992, said. “We are not making new commercial land. And so my thought is that the reason why we felt the desire to raise these thresholds was the realization that we have to encourage people to build somewhat bigger, because there really isn’t any choice.”
Ms. Sibley commended Mr. Turner for doing a lot of research and being very thorough in his review of the checklist. “We’ve recommended taking some things out, because nobody’s come to us with a project under those items,” she said.
Mr. Turner said the subcommittee also sought to fine-tune the MVC’s concurrence referral process, to offer quick judgment on whether a project merits full public hearing review or can be sent back to the town.
Mr. Hancock, who spoke with The Times in a phone call, agreed with Ms. Sibley that the biggest checklist change this time around is the increase in commercial development thresholds. Another change he thinks will improve clarity is that MVC terms will be italicized, to prompt readers to look them up in a definition section at the end.
Checklist improves process
Over the years, numerous projects have generated complaints that the MVC review process is costly and lengthy. Mr. Turner said his review found no cause in the checklist.
“Complex projects in any jurisdiction require site plans and other materials, and take time to review and make conclusions,” he said. “For projects that were complete and had addressed all of the various development issues, the process was roughly a month or two from the time the application commenced. It was developments that had various pieces missing that took up a larger amount of time.”
Mr. Turner said the MVC has tried to improve its process to ensure that project review does not begin until all required documentation is complete.
“Sometimes we have been more successful than other times in terms of requiring that,” he added. “In terms of cost, the commission has not raised their fees in several years. I think development reviews are less costly here than on the mainland, where signed engineering plans for drainage, completed landscaping plans, and other materials are required.”
Mr. Turner said he hopes the MVC will continue to refine and amend the checklist to reflect current conditions and issues, and to make the document more clear so everyone understands what projects are being referred. Since the full commission hasn’t reviewed or voted on the proposed revisions yet, the subcommittee also sought to make sure the commissioners understand them as well, he added.
“The subcommittee worked hard and held many meetings, as well as staff developing different forms of data,” he said. “We made presentations to parties that regularly utilized the checklist, such as planning boards and building officials. We strove to understand each viewpoint. It took a while, but I think we did succeed in gathering meaningful public input.”