MVC approves revised DRI checklist

Commissioners begin closed-door discussion over Meeting House litigation.

An Edgartown Great Pond algal bloom in 2018. Excessive nitrogen and phosphorus can stimulate a harmful, rapid, and extensive growth of phytoplankton or a "bloom." — David Welch

After a nearly 18 month process, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission gave final approval to a  sweeping set of changes to its Development of Regional Impact checklist Thursday night.

Commissioners voted 16-1 to approve the changes. Commissioner James Joyce was the lone dissenting vote.

Before holding the vote, commission chairman Doug Sederholm read from the MVC’s enabling legislation to give perspective on the commission’s statutory mandate in light of the Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association letter deriding the commission’s DRI checklist changes.

Every two years the commission reviews its checklist, a list of criteria that triggers referral to the commission for review. 

“[The commission was] established by the Massachusetts Legislature to preserve and conserve ‘for the enjoyment of present and future generations the unique natural, historical, ecological, scientific, and cultural values of Martha’s Vineyard,’” Sederholm said in part. “We are expressly mandated to protect those values from ‘development and uses that would impair them.’” 

Last month, the commission went through each of the checklist revisions at length and approved each of them — the culmination of a nearly 18 month process of public hearings, public committee meetings, and discussion with local boards and stakeholders.

Sederholm also touched on the commission’s decision to lower the threshold of review for subdivisions from 10 lots to five lots for nonrural areas, and six lots to three lots in rural areas. The change was proposed by the DRI checklist committee to recognize impactful developments on smaller acreage, particularly in regard to wastewater and housing.

“It is a fact that our coastal ponds, what many of us consider to be the crown jewels of Martha’s Vineyard, are impaired by excessive nitrogen. It’s a fact that septic systems are a significant factor in adding nitrogen to the ponds. It is a fact that we now have toxic cyanobacteria in several ponds and that nitrogen is a contributing factor to that bacteria. It’s a fact that climate has changed due to human activity,” Sederholm said.

One of the biggest controversies of the revised checklist was a placeholder for a future trigger to review large residential buildings. The checklist item sought to give the commission the mandatory review of residential buildings exceeding 8,000 square feet and discretionary review of homes over 4,000 square feet.

At Thursday’s meeting, commissioners voted 13-3 with one abstention to remove the placeholder from the revised checklist.

Commissioner Linda Sibley called the placeholder “confusing” and that she didn’t remember the commission ever having a placeholder during her tenure. She said the checklist needed to be updated to meet the development seen on the Island today.

“The additions are not major and what they are addressing is the kind of development that we have seen. 40 years ago there were certain kinds of development we weren’t seeing at all,” Sibley said. “This checklist is responsive to what we are seeing and that, frankly, it’s our duty to respond to all of those.”

Commissioner Fred Hancock, chair of the DRI checklist review committee, said the placeholder was meant to recognize large home construction as an issue and to be more transparent about the commission’s future intentions.

“I think there are a lot of commissioners who think this is indeed an area where we need to step up to the plate,” Hancock said. “I don’t see that there’s a problem putting it in as a placeholder as something we are going to address.”

Commissioner Joan Malkin, who was also on the checklist committee, said the commission has made its point and should remove the placeholder.

Commissioner Jim Vercruysse said it was obvious housing development was having an impact on the Island, but more discussion was needed on the commission’s place in regulating it.

“I don’t think we need to piss anybody off by putting a placeholder in that’s really doing nothing,” Vercruysse said. “I just want to keep our doors open.”

After the vote, commissioner Josh Goldstein expressed worries about the commission’s staffing and if it could meet the demand of more DRIs.

“Compared to a Menemsha dragger that has a net that is a certain size, our net is getting a lot smaller,” Goldstein said. “How is that going to impact the commission’s ability to staff and our budget?”

Executive director Adam Turner said he is worried as well, but said it was hard to say how many DRIs the new checklist would trigger. He added that even if the commission doesn’t review a DRI time is still spent on creating a staff report.

“I can tell you with the DRIs we have now, we’re working as hard as we can,” Turner said. 

The commission has three types of referrals for DRIs: mandatory referral, mandatory referral requiring concurrence, and discretionary referral. Mandatory referral requires the commission to review a project, but the other referrals allow the commission to vote whether they want to review a project or not.

The new checklist will be sent to Kathleen Theoharides, the secretary of the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, who then determines if the checklist is in accordance with the commission’s mission.

In other business, the commission closed out their meeting by going into executive session to discuss litigation in relation to the appeal filed by Meeting House Way LLC following the commission’s denial of the 54-acre, 28-home, and 14-townhouse project in Edgartown.

In a landmark decision in July, the commission denied the project 10-4. The project went through several public hearings. Throughout the DRI process, the project received heavy criticism from environmentalists, abutters, farmers, and other stakeholders about the size of the project and the potential impact on nitrogen loading and traffic. It also received some support from individuals noting the need for more housing, particularly for empty nesters and workers. Supporters also cited job creation.

The developers filed a 30-page appeal in Dukes County Superior Court claiming the commission overstepped its authority, created standards to fit individual commissioner’s agendas, and in some instances did not listen to its own staff.