Tisbury unveils master plan

The plan lays out several goals to help the town plan for the next 10 to 20 years.

A glimpse of Tisbury's future from the master planning process. —Town of Tisbury

Tisbury presented a long-awaited master plan to residents and officials at town hall on Monday. The document was unanimously adopted that evening by the town planning board.

The 300-page plan would help guide the town over the next 10–20 years on how to manage development, land use, and conservation. 

Some concrete recommendations include encouraging more upper-story apartments in downtown Vineyard Haven to address a lack of housing, building a new street that would connect Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road with State Road, partnering with other towns on traffic issues, and restructuring town government and zoning bylaws to be more effective in addressing residents’ needs.

Judi Barrett, of Barrett Planning Group consultants, presented the plan in seven parts, each representing a goal of the town. 

The seven goals deal with clarifying and reorganizing responsibilities of town departments, increasing affordable housing, adapting to sea level rise, and reducing traffic downtown.

Many of the plan’s recommendations will take over five years to complete.

Goal 1: Provide town government with the human and financial resources and facilities to implement the Master Plan.

The first of seven goals that Barrett presented deals with whether Tisbury’s government has the right structure to carry out its master plan.

Many of these changes were described earlier this year by town administrator Jay Grande, who is retiring next spring. Grande said that that Tisbury could benefit from switching his role to a town manager position with increased power over personnel and budget decisions. He also said that it could be beneficial to eliminate some of the town’s 26 committees and boards, and that Tisbury would consider these changes in order to enable efficient and proper implementation of the master plan.

Tisbury also recently formed a committee to review the town administrator job description. A document describing this new committee stated that the select board should be clarified as the town’s primary policy-making body, while the town administrator or manager would be in charge of implementing policy.

Barrett said on Monday that she has heard concerns about how quickly the town government responds to residents’ needs. 

“One of the first things we heard when we came here was, ‘Town staff don’t get enough things done,'” she said.

She largely attributed this to the government’s current structure. “The structure of your town government is very [much] what we call decentralized … If you want your town departments to be able to do the things they need to do, you need to give them the authority to get it done,” she said.

“Your town government is very much organized around a set of statues that go back to hundreds of years,” she added. “What we found remarkable about this town is not what you don’t do, but rather how much you can get done given the sort-of-decentralized framework that you have.”

The master plan also recommends completing a handbook to clarify the responsibilities of volunteers in Tisbury’s government, and providing more programs for local youth to get involved.

Goal 2: Act as responsible stewards for our natural environment and partner with other Island towns whenever possible.

Goal two focuses on drainage and stormwater management in town, and includes steps to protect natural resources.

In the short term, the plan recommends implementing Tisbury’s comprehensive wastewater management plan, as well as its 2018 drainage master plan. 

In the next three to five years, planners recommend addressing sea level rise by studying land fortification and weighing options for buildings to retreat inland. A land management plan could also lead to conservation restrictions on public land use, and help create a biodiversity inventory.

The plan also recommends further management of boating activities, including anchoring and mooring in major town water bodies and wastewater pump-out service for vessels in Lake Tashmoo.

Long-term strategies include studies and efforts to improve water quality, including managing fertilizers, insecticides, and septic systems.

Goal 3: Foster a beautiful, enduring and sustainably built environment.

The plan argues that the town’s zoning bylaws hinder the Town’s ability to “regulate land use and development effectively.” Particularly in the downtown business districts, Barrett underscored a need to update the town zoning bylaw so that Tisbury can properly respond to sea level rise, as well as improve traffic congestion and walkability.

“The phase one piece is getting the bylaw reorganized so it’s navigable. It’s a very frustrating bylaw to work with right now,” Barrett said. “And for someone coming into your community from the outside who may be that property owner or that investor … trying to understand how that bylaw works is challenging … There’s content in it that actually doesn’t even align with state law or judicial decisions.”

In the next one to three years, the master plan suggests completing one of two phases to update the town zoning bylaw. In the next three to five years, the plan recommends a second phase to increase the bylaw’s consistency with the master plan overall.

Barrett also recommended that Tisbury inventory its vacant, underutilized, and poorly maintained properties, and develop a community-wide preservation plan to protect buildings with significant architectural character.

Barrett added that the town should work to expand waterfront access and extend its trail networks each year going forward.

Goal 4: Encourage private investments and improvements to the business districts to drive the economy, while maintaining the character of the town and its harbor and being responsive to the impacts of climate change.

Goal four zeroes in on Tisury’s downtown business districts — a waterfront commercial district and the B1 (Beach Road and Main Street area) and B2 (State Road) business districts in Vineyard Haven. To protect the town from sea level rise, town government will have to work closely with local businesses.

Flooding in downtown Tisbury has long been a major concern, and businesses suffered losses from a series of strong storms just this winter. Last month, the town also announced an upcoming installation to improve drainage at Five Corners.

Sea level adaptation will also involve businesses near the town harbor. In the short term, the master plan recommends adopting an online harbor mooring and reservation system to process all reservations and fee-based activities, permits and licenses.

The plan also calls for more workforce development programs in the next three–five years.

Wayfinding signage is another approach to help pedestrians and local businesses. “Believe it or not, when you come here the first time, it can be a real challenge to figure out how to get around,” Barrett said.

Barrett added that every year going forward, the town should work to increase shared pedestrian and vehicular use of its streets, the expansion of aquaculture business downtown, and creating a creative economy in the Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District.

Goal 5: Develop a multi-modal transportation system that reduces congestion and dependence on automobiles and creates a safer environment for residents and visitors.

This goal involves significant changes to Tisbury’s roads and sidewalks. In the next three to five years, the plan recommends a new road connecting State Road and Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road to alleviate a car crash risk area. The plan also recommends creating continuous sidewalks and safe bicycle paths between the B2 district and downtown commercial areas.

Another goal also recommends creating a transportation plan to improve circulation and safety for all types of transit. A transportation advisory committee could be created as well.

Barrett added that an all-Island Task Force could be formed in the next three–five years to decide how to reduce the number of vehicles entering the Island through the Steamship Authority, as well as the number of vehicles that come with seasonal rental activity. Barrett did say that these steps should be taken without reducing the number of seasonal visitors.

Goal 6: Increase equitable and sustainable housing choices.

The master plan, said Barrett, will work to reduce the cost burden of housing for Tisbury residents. This will require significant alterations to the town zoning bylaw.

Tisbury has a ways to go to make housing affordable for year-round residents. According to the master plan, 5.76 percent of Tisbury’s year-round housing was listed on the Chapter 40B Housing Inventory last year as affordable — this is about 100 units short of the 10 percent state minimum. Even if Tisbury fixed the deficit, 515 of the town’s low- or moderate-income households are cost burdened, meaning that they pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income for mortgage or rent and utilities.

The town is also working to accommodate its senior population, as households of those aged 65–74 years will be the fastest-growing age group in town over the next five years.

Immediate steps include reviewing the as-of-right attached and detached accessory dwelling unit conditions in town zoning bylaws, and developing a bylaw to regulate short-term rentals. This may involve a ban on corporate-owned, short-term rentals.

The master plan also recommends immediately increasing its short-term rental registration fee and directing a significant amount of the resulting income to support housing for year-round residents.

In the next three to five years, the plan recommends encouraging mixed-use development with upper-story housing in Vineyard Haven, and encouraging multifamily housing and apartments in.

Adopting inclusionary zoning for apartment development is also on the table within that timeframe.

Other mid- and long-term steps include a tax incentive for affordable housing developments, an inventory of affordable housing units and updating historic preservation requirements.

Goal 7: Ensure our year-round residents, including our under- resourced populations, seasonal residents, and visitors have access to quality health services.

The plan’s final area focuses on the medical and wellness needs of a range of populations, for which the town will need to communicate with harder-to-reach residents. The plan mentions senior citizens, Portuguese-speaking residents, people with chronic illness, and low-income residents.

An immediate step, said Barrett, is to offer more translation services. Island-wide and state partners can also help Tisbury with outreach regarding food insecurity, substance abuse and mental health issues, as well as tick-borne illnesses.

Climate change will also bring its own health risks, including flooding, severe storms, drought and excessive heat.

Ben Robinson, who represents Tisbury on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said that residents will have to stay informed as the master plan is implemented. “[The plan] t is as much the ending of this process as the beginning of the work that this [master plan steering committee] is laying out for the town. And together we’re going to accomplish as much of that as we can. But it does mean the town has to pay attention.”


  1. Let’s applaud the efforts to improve the short-term rental market by increasing the registration fee. 👏👏👏
    Hope that the new zoning going forward is much stricter toward residential vs commercial properties so that every residential home doesn’t slowly turn into a short-term rental.

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