Oak Bluffs master plan gets rolling

Participation of the people is paramount, say consultant and town officials.

Creating a master plan for Oak Bluffs will require community participation, according to town leaders and a consultant for the project. - Gabrielle Mannino

Citizens of Oak Bluffs — Oak Bluffians, Oak Bluffers, whatever moniker you prefer — if you want a say in the future direction of your town, your opportunity is at hand. The creation of a new master plan has begun under the aegis of the Oak Bluffs planning board, and the master plan committee wants you.

The most recent Oak Bluffs master plan was done in 1998. Underscoring the need for an update, it states “there appears to have been adequate vacancy in year-round housing, at moderate prices, so that most needs should have been met.”

“For years we’ve been trying to fund a master plan, and we were unable to,” Oak Bluffs selectman and planning board member Brian Packish said. “I don’t think people were as open and willing to do it as they are today. We had a lot of participation and outreach with the streetscape committee, there were a lot of people involved that typically don’t show up at a selectmen’s meeting. We’re looking to build on that.”

The mission of the Oak Bluffs streetscape committee was to take the temperature of the public on how the area within a five-minute walk of downtown could be improved in the coming years. The streetscape committee initiated public outreach in a variety of ways, from the Internet to pollsters posted outside the Post Office. The committee, with consultants Horsley Witten Group, put out a downtown streetscape master plan in 2015. The project cost $205,000.

The master plan committee is looking to do more, with a lot less. “The master plan takes plans that were more or less done in isolation — the housing production plan, open space plan, streetscape, wastewater, and melds them all together into a comprehensive plan, that you hand to the board of selectmen and say, ‘Here’s our roadmap,’” Mr. Packish said.

Oak Bluffs taxpayers took the first step when they approved a $100,000 expenditure for master plan consulting at town meeting this past April. After putting out a request for proposals, the town received five bids from consulting companies, with workforces ranging from 17,000 to one.

It chose the latter, Planimetrics, based in Simsbury, Conn, and run by Glenn Chalder. Over 20 years, Planimetrics has consulted on master plans for a diverse clientele, including Oxford, Greenwich, Conn., and Pinehurst, N.C. “I like places with a sense of place, and Oak Bluffs certainly has that,” Mr. Chalder said. “The town has a very distinct character, which has been well preserved over the years. This process will be about opening people’s eyes to the community as it exists today, which is the product of many decades of what brought us to where we are, and then where do we go from here? To do that, first and foremost, we want to involve people in an organic way.”

When the master plan is finished, in roughly a year and a half, it will also have a functional benefit, making the town more competitive when it comes to winning grant money.

“Grants are extremely competitive,” Mr. Packish said. “They usually have a point system, and a master plan always gets you a point. It shows there’s a degree of consensus in the town.”

The first step in building consensus is enlisting people on the master plan committee. Oak Bluff residents can sign up at planningboard@oakbluffsma.gov. The current deadline is Jan. 22.

“If you’ve got an hour, we’ve got a place for you,” Mr. Packish said. “The biggest gain with a master plan isn’t the document, it’s the process. Our No. 1 priority is getting engagement from the community. We want to hear from a lot of people, especially the ones we don’t usually hear from.”

Once the master plan committee is assembled, subcommittees will be formed to focus on such areas as economic development, open space and recreation, and zoning.

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) will support the master plan effort by providing Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping services.

“For economic development, we’re looking to lean heavily on the Friends of Oak Bluffs, the Oak Bluffs Association, and business owners,” Mr. Packish said. “We’re hoping people from different businesses will come together across the board.”

“A big question is, ‘Do we have the right zoning in place?’” Mr. Chalder said. “Most of Oak Bluffs was subdivided in the 1800s. What do we want in the future in our neighborhoods and other places?”

“Do we get to the point where we start allowing duplexes so that people aren’t in unsafe basement apartments with mold and without means of egress?” Mr. Packish said. “Currently you can convert an old house into a duplex, but you can’t build a new one.”

“You also have to look at what development your infrastructure can handle,” Mr. Chalder said. “Do we have the wastewater capacity? Do we have water? Are certain locations served by transportation? Then there are issues like coastal resilience and sea-level rise that are going to play a bigger role down the road that might not be as apparent today. You obviously need to plan for it.” In addition to coastal resilience, subcommittees can also be formed to examine areas that may be particularly germane to Oak Bluffs, such as regulations for home-based businesses, a growing source of conflict in the town. “I can talk about how other communities I’ve worked with have dealt with this; maybe it’s zoning, maybe it’s special permits,” Mr. Chalder said. “In the end, it’s up to the people of Oak Bluffs to decide.”

“We find what the people want, we look at what we can realistically afford,” Mr. Packish said. “We find the low-hanging fruit, we look at short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals. Our end goal is to unite the community and come up with a document for the next 10 years. People can help by serving on a committee or by serving at a booth for a couple hours for public outreach night at the library. We’ll take what you can give us.”

After the master plan committee endorses the new plan, it will be forwarded to the planning board for an official vote. The goal is to also have the plan endorsed by the board of selectmen, and approved at 2019 town meeting.

Maybe there will even be a consensus on the official moniker for Oak Bluffs residents.