Select board slams MVC

The Oak Bluffs select board raises concerns over the Martha's Vineyard Commission's mounting lawsuits. — Lucas thors

Upon reappointing Brian Smith as Oak Bluffs’ representative to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Tuesday, the Oak Bluffs select board discussed some of the issues currently facing the regional planning and permitting agency. 

Oak Bluffs joins Edgartown, which also recently mulled over how to move forward with its participation with the commission, following a series of lawsuits that have caused the MVC to seek additional funding from Island towns

“If you’d have asked me a month ago if I was going to stick it out, I would have said no,” Smith said to the select board prior to his reappointment. “There’s a lot going on, as you know … but I think some changes need to be made, and I can’t make them from the outside.” 

Smith said he’s particularly concerned about the increased complaints filed against the commission, in addition to the overall attitude. “Previously, it was more of a collaborative process with applicants, and now I feel as though we start at no,’’ he said, adding that he hopes to “clean some things up” within the review processes. 

Select board member Gail Barmakian said that what she’s noticed is that there has been an increase in “very aggressive applicants with a lot of money,” who choose to immediately sue when the commission doesn’t vote in their favor. Similarly, commissioners can often “dig their heels in” during deliberations on a proposed project, furthering tension. “It’s on both ends,” she said. 

Select board member Brian Packish, who formerly served on the commission, said the environment of the MVC has “become hostile … if you don’t go in with your elbows out and guns blazing, you don’t stand a chance of surviving the process.”

Packish said that the MVC review process is not only costly to applicants, but is “harm[ful] to the community.”

He called for more collaboration,“with a greater understanding of what is a real regional impact, [for] a chance of bringing back a really important process.” The commission has “lost its way,” he said. 

“As an applicant, you have no idea in what arbitrary or capricious manner you’re going to be treated,” Packish said; “there’s no baseline.” 

He said the Oak Bluffs select board operates with consistent policies and procedures. “You’re not afforded that luxury at the MVC,” he said. 

The various policies adopted by the commission, Packish said, “have massive effects across the Island … and they’re voted nowhere other than that body.” The commission’s decisions on policies, he stated, stem from a “because I said so” mentality. 

Select board member Ryan Ruley said the town’s local government, such as its planning and zoning boards, would “do a better job” in permitting, planning, and regulating within Oak Bluffs. The MVC has “outlived its use,” he said; “at some point I will be asking this board to potentially support putting a question on the ballot asking how most residents feel about the commission, and if it’s something we should stick with.”


  1. Nice to see the towns starting to wake up and slow down this runaway train called the MVC. Edgartown a few weeks ago pointing out the increase hiring which adds to the budget. And now Oak Bluffs worried about the costs and stating the obvious that most towns can handle development by their own boards. Great to see some of the current commissioners speak out and let us know that they see the same problem we do. Applicants do not sue because they did not get approval they sue because there is no standard. We all have seen special treatment to a few and then no to others. Time to rethink the MVC. You are lucky if you do not live in Edgartown as we spend over $500,000 to hear the word no.

  2. Finally someone within the organization is stating the obvious! Its a bunch of out of touch people on a power trips! OB needs to back out of this commission and let the town regulate itself. If people want to make a real effort to bring down the cost of housing on the island they need to start with holding this body accountable.

  3. Bob, I agree with you. With no clear guidelines and/or written process and procedures as to what the commissioners can follow regarding their decisions than everything as is becomes too subjective. Commissioners can vote something down just “because”. In addition, putting conditions on projects just because it is what “they” think would look better and making people contribute money to organizations as part of a condition isn’t right. If they were objective and listened to testimony, before they made up their mind, then there wouldn’t be so much litigation. Just because they believe it shouldn’t make it so, facts and regulations should be the source of their decisions. People are afraid to have their project go to the commission because it will cost them money in one way or another and the feeling is that it is a “no” up front and then you have to appease their whims to get something passed.

    However Bob, and don’t get this wrong, I do think the towns should have the say on what is happening in their towns but I strongly believe that there are people on town boards who have the same problem that the commissioners have. Their private agenda overrules the facts and town statues when it comes to making their decisions when it should be the other way around. Those on town boards should have an open mind when hearing cases in front of them and not have their minds already made up, for what ever reason they have to deny a plan/project.

    I believe those in government need to be objective and follow the factual evidence in front of them and apply that to the laws of the town. They represent all the people, not just the few they happen to share the same opinion with. Unfortunately, these positions take time out of your day and often there is no one else who has the time and inclination to run for these positions. Because of this, our elected town selectpersons need to have some degree of responsibility for what happens within their towns and should be allowed to interject when they believe that maybe a given town official may have not followed town bylaws of the town. That may minimize the litigation towns are experiencing. Just a thought.

  4. I am part of a team repurposing an existing barn in West Tisbury as community space for classes, conversation, and contemplation. Our project is called Stillpoint MV ( This fall we have been before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission in the process of gaining permits to allow our work for the community to begin this spring.

    My experience with the MVC has been very much in line with the views expressed by Brian Smith, Gail Barmakian, and Brian Pakish in this article. I have felt that the commissioners as much as the applicants are caught in a process that has become antagonistic and coercive rather than collaborative. When the structures of power are coercive rather than collaborative, it is not only those on the receiving end who are hurt, but also those in the positions of power.

    Although I do have specific concerns about how the Stillpoint process at MVC has gone, rather than air all of those publicly, I will wait to bring those up in a constructive setting. For now, I want to underline that the work the MVC has done over decades to protect the human and ecological community of the island has been a crucial element of what has kept this island so special. Town boards will not have the same ability to stand up to developers with deep pockets on behalf of the year-round community. And there is no other governmental body with the scope to address island-wide issues in the many ways that are urgently needed. In my view, it is crucial that the MVC be reformed so that it can play the role we need it to in facilitating careful, collaborative development on our island.

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