Proposed changes to DRI checklist see pushback

Planning boards, stakeholders concerned about MVC overreach.

This map shows projected development on Martha's Vineyard.

Proposed changes to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s (MVC) development of regional impact (DRI) checklist drew opposition from local planning boards, developers, and builders at a public hearing Thursday night.

Every two years, a committee reviews the MVC’s DRI checklist. Commissioner Fred Hancock ran through the changes. Two major changes the committee is proposing are to the division of land and residential housing sections of their DRI review.

For divisions or subdivisions, the review threshold would be changed from 10 lots to five lots for nonrural areas, and six lots to three lots in rural areas. In its summary, the committee states the changes are to recognize impactful developments on smaller acreage, particularly in regard to wastewater and housing.

For residential development, the committee proposes to reduce the threshold of review from 10 or more units to five or more. This change would allow the commission to review housing developments and require mitigation where appropriate. A threshold for affordable and community housing remains at 10 or more units.

The commission closed out the public hearing, but not before taking testimony from a variety of stakeholders.

In a letter to the commission, members of both the Edgartown and Oak Bluffs planning boards requested that no changes be made to the DRI checklist.

The letter claims there is “insufficient justification for expanding the current scope” of the DRI checklist, and that the proposed changes are “less of an effort to protect Island interests, and more an unnecessary expansion of the commission’s authority over local development.”

The letter recommends the commission engage local land-use boards, committees, developers, and builders. It also says the MVC should be clear about its DRI triggers, and that “character” should not be the basis nor the reason for denial of a DRI. 

The letter also calls for an expedited DRI process by establishing a list of objective criteria, allowing for electronic transmission of DRI referrals, scheduling more frequent commission meetings, and allowing staff to direct whether or not concurrence referral will have regional impacts.

The commission has three types of referral: mandatory referral, which requires an application be referred and reviewed by the commission; concurrence referral, which requires the application be referred, but the commission may or may not concur with the referral; and discretionary referral, which lets any municipal agency in the town, board of selectmen, or Dukes County Commissioners ask the commission to review a project, and with which the commission may or may not concur.

Executive director of the Island Housing Trust (IHT) Philippe Jordi also wrote to the commission and asked for affordable and community housing for any development of nine or fewer dwelling units to be exempt from review. The letter also asks to have affordable and community housing exempt from the MVC water quality policy for multiple residential units as long as the development utilizes state Department of Environmental Protection approved denitrification septic systems, or is connected to town sewer.

Jordi detailed IHT’s recent developments, such as nine rentals in West Tisbury and seven rentals and six townhouses in Tisbury. He wrote those projects would have been unnecessarily delayed up to six months under the proposed checklist changes.

“The proposed changes to the DRI checklist are not only inconsistent with the plans and policies developed and adopted by the MVC and Island towns, but further discourage development of critically needed small-scale multifamily housing Island-wide,” Jordi wrote in part. “A lower threshold will increase the number of DRI applications requiring review annually; the increased regulatory function will impact the MVC’s ability to provide general planning assistance, including assistance to towns in implementing their [housing production plans].”

Edgartown planning board clerk Douglas Finn requested that the proposed checklist be given to MVC staff for review. He also felt there were lots of developments being missed, especially near the Island ponds. “We still have large houses with large septic systems being built on the shores of our great ponds that aren’t being referred to the commission,” Finn said. “There’s a lot being missed because you’re focusing on the details and not the bigger picture.”

Conversely, in a letter to the commission, Virginia Jones of the West Tisbury planning board wrote that the MVC provides “teeth” to certain projects that need to conform to the Island, and that the checklist should be strengthened.

“We appreciate that there are concerns about the amount of time and money required to process applications. However, as climate change, sea rise, and the loss of land diminish the amount of land for development (and the result in profound rises in value), if anything not only should the the DRI requirements and criteria have been sharpened up, I feel that projects need to receive more, rather than less review and professional attention,” Jones wrote.

The committee is also proposing changes to a variety of other sections of the DRI checklist.

The 50-seat threshold for restaurants in a B-1 district would be changed to an 80-seat threshold for restaurants. The committee felt town regulation is adequate enough to support the higher threshold.

Currently all restaurants outside a B-1 district require review, but the new checklist would change that to only 50-seat restaurants.

Commissioner Josh Goldstein asked if a study was conducted on how many more DRIs the proposed changes would create. Hancock said there was no study conducted, but that while applications for restaurants would be reduced, applications under the subdivision proposal would likely increase.

Review would be required for any commercial, storage, office, or industrial mixed-use development 5,500 square feet or less that has more than a 1,400-square-foot residential portion — a change from the current 2,000-square-foot residential portion. The committee felt that a large mixed-use development might have “potentially significant regional impact.”

The proposed checklist removes the 4,500-square-foot threshold for town area development plans, and instead has towns suggest their threshold as part of an area development plan.

The committee proposes to change language under transportation that would allow the commission to review construction, expansion, or alteration of “principal roads.”

Under natural and cultural resources, the committee added triggers for DRI review if there is alteration of any significant historic exterior detail or relocation of a historic structure. The committee also changed its trigger cutoff to structures built before 1920 to maintain the 100-year standard. Also with the threat of climate change and increased development, the committee proposes to review any development that proposes the alteration of more than one acre of significant habitat, a change from the current two-acre threshold.

The proposed checklist also eliminates a land division trigger for parcels 10 acres or more, since the number of parcels triggering DRI review was reduced; requires parcels created by approval not required (ANR) within the past five years to be counted in the threshold number count; adds a minor change to allow incidental use by other Island residents of municipal buildings to not trigger review.

The committee would also review ground-mounted solar arrays with a footprint of 25,000 square feet, which the committee writes is to enable review to mitigate potential visual impacts. This is a reduction from the current 50,000-square-foot threshold.

The committee also left a placeholder to decide in the future what a “large house” trigger might look like. The proposed “large house” trigger saw strong pushback from the Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association last year when the organization sent a letter to the commission detailing how the commission would “overreach” and undermine local town authority. 

Builder Ted Rosbeck asked the commission to strike the large-house placeholder from the proposed checklist. “Why even put that there?” Rosbeck said. “Wait until you have it ready, wait until you have agreement … just leave it out for now.”

Commissioners closed the hearing, and left the written record open for another week. Commissioner Douglas Sederholm said the committee would meet and go over concerns from the public hearing before coming back to the full commission. He added that they could hold another public hearing if necessary.