The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) held its first public hearing last Thursday to discuss proposed changes to its development of regional impact (DRI) checklist. After a fruitful dialogue between the commissioners and members of the public, the hearing was continued to August 4 to allow for more time to fine-tune the document. Once the hearing is complete the MVC will deliberate and vote on the changes and then send them to the Massachusetts secretary of state for approval.
The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) is required to review and revise its checklist every two years. 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 development of regional impact, defined 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.
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.
The commission’s land-use planning committee (LUPC) oversaw the checklist review. At last week’s hearing, Mr. Turner explained the six-month review process, which included numerous public meetings to solicit comments; the production and review of a staff report that detailed historic DRI records and documents; and a detailed evaluation of each checklist item. The public comments were categorized by the staff and used as the basis for recommendations for possible amendments to the checklist.
Mr. Turner ran through the list of 16 proposed changes, the most significant of which is a 500-square-foot increase across the board in the thresholds that would trigger DRI review for building development.
LUPC chairman Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs, who chaired the checklist subcommittee in 2016, noted that Mr. Turner took a look at what kind of referrals the MVC has received over the past 10 years, and whether there are some checklist items that may not be useful.
“We were trying to do a little weeding while we did a little correcting,” Mr. Hancock said.
The commissioners heard some constructive comments from members of town boards and the public who attended the hearing.
Oak Bluffs planning board chairman and landscaper Brian Packish thanked everyone who participated in the checklist meetings. “I’m appreciative of the changes I see here, which are reflective of all the discussions we had,” he said.
Mr. Packish suggested that the MVC clarify proposed new language about parking lots and what defines a commercial lot.
Peter Temple of the Aquinnah planning board said he had two concerns for Aquinnah, one being an attempt to streamline the MVC’s concurrence process. “If something isn’t significant, it would be great to find a way to speed it up,” he said.
Mr. Temple said his second concern was a checklist item regarding critical open space. “If approved, Aquinnah will come quickly and ask you to look at our bylaws to see if they have sufficient power to protect open space, because over half of Aquinnah is in open space,” he noted.
Referring to the entire town’s designation as a district of critical planning concern, which provides for an overlay of MVC regulatory control, Mr. Temple added, “The commission has given the town extraordinary powers under DCPCs, which we think are sufficient to protect open space.”
Reid Silva of Vineyard Land Surveying and Engineering questioned the addition of checklist item 2.5, a trigger for referral of any development which proposes the division or subdivision of land that includes more than two acres of significant habitat. Mr. Silva said the MVC review would be superfluous given the broad authority now exercised by the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, an agency within the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Natural Heritage is responsible for the regulatory protection of rare species and their habitats, and has review authority for any work that would be done on properties that fall within the category of state-designated “priority habitat.” It is a designation based on the known geographical extent of habitat for all state-listed rare species, both plant and animal.
On Martha’s Vineyard, the state has designated about two-thirds of the entire Island as priority habitat for protected animal or plant species.
“You’ve included now another whole set of regulations, which as I see it Natural Heritage deals with that in their habitat areas,” Mr. Silva said. “They require referrals to them for any development, and they regulate it. And they’re qualified to regulate it; they’re scientists and biologists.
“How does the MVC have any capacity to review and judge upon any development in any form, unless you had someone that was, say, a scientist that had specific background in habitat assessments and developments within them?” he asked.
Attorney Eric Peters said he was very pleased to see things that are clear, not ambiguous, in the checklist. “It’s nice to see thresholds that have been increased,” he noted. “Sometimes thresholds are incentives to do things in a certain way without having to come to you.”
He also pointed out a few items in need of better wording.
After discussion by the commissioners about some possible changes, MVC chairman Jim Vercruysse of Aquinnah concluded the session with a reminder that there would be another opportunity to resolve any remaining issues when the hearing resumes on Thursday, August 4.