A formidable Islandwide transportation planning project and a slew of fresh development proposals are expected to keep the newly configured Martha's Vineyard Commission busy in the months ahead.
"I expect this year will be a meaningful experience for everybody," observed MVC executive director Charles W. Clifford, who spoke briefly with the Gazette this week about the agenda for the coming year at the MVC.
Completion of one study project and the launching of another topped the list.
"My agenda is basically finishing the study work on the critical resources of the Islands - namely the Great Ponds - and then we are looking at a major effort on the transportation DCPC," Mr. Clifford said.
On Wednesday morning, the MVC executive director was seated in his corner office on the second floor of the Olde Stone Building in Oak Bluffs, surrounded by haphazard stacks of reports and papers, the pale January sun slanting through the windows behind him. A stack of thick blue folders occupied the corner of one table, each folder neatly labeled with the name of each member of the commission. Inside every folder was a copy of Chapter 831 (the MVC enabling legislation) and several chapters of indexed material. Nearby was another stack of duplicate guides to the open meeting law, prepared by the League of Women Voters.
Six new members were elected and appointed to the 21-member commission late last year. There is also a new chairman: James Vercruysse, a member of the commission from Aquinnah, who will preside over the MVC in the coming year.
But any ceremony associated with the first meeting of the new year was abruptly postponed this week; a commission meeting scheduled for last night was canceled late in the day on Wednesday. Instead, last night the commission finance committee was scheduled to meet, followed by an orientation session for commission members.
The first meeting of the new year is now set for Thursday, Jan. 11. No public hearings are scheduled until Jan. 18.
But if the last two years are any indication, the agenda for the year promises to be active.
Among other things, this year the commission is expected to take up a detailed set of bylaw changes, including changes in the criteria for DRIs.
And much work lies ahead - especially for commission staff - on the highways and harbors district of critical planning concern (DCPC). The DCPC was designated three weeks ago by the commission for all the major roads and all harbors on the Vineyard.
The broadly drawn goals of the Islandwide planning district include a directive to develop standards to protect the rural and visual qualities of the Island roads, and secondly to evaluate the carrying capacity of the infrastructure around each port and harbor area on the Vineyard.
Mr. Clifford said the DCPC will include extensive staff work, some of it in-house, some of it outside contract work including work by either a graduate student or a retired university professor. He said the commission will also likely appoint a committee to help develop guidelines for the project.
The DCPC will be in effect for one year.
Among other things, Mr. Clifford said the commission will shortly send a letter to the Steamship Authority asking for its cooperation in the DCPC process. Ordinarily, DCPCs are accompanied by an automatic moratorium on all building permits in the district. This could include a freeze on any new ferry service proposals, although the SSA, which has licensing authority over all new ferry service within its routes, is exempt from MVC review. At a recent boat line meeting, Vineyard SSA governor J.B. Riggs Parker said the board would cooperate with the DCPC, but he said the boat line also had received no formal request on the subject of new ferry license requests.
Mr. Clifford said a letter will go out next week.
"We will formally ask the Steamship Authority to participate by asking them to consult with us before they approve any requests for licensure or ferry expansion," Mr. Clifford said.
He said the harbors portion of the DCPC will include a thorough evaluation of the carrying capacity in and around every harbor, from Menemsha Basin to Memorial Wharf in Edgartown. He said MVC planners will measure car, pedestrian and boat traffic. He said one clear goal of the study is to try and develop a program to limit automobile traffic coming to the Island - especially short-term traffic.
Mr. Clifford said the rural roads portion of the DCPC is really the completion of a piece of work that began two years ago when a group of landscape architecture graduate students from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst came to the Vineyard and began to document the rural roads with photographs.
"Now we really need to develop our own standards to protect the scenic qualities of our rural roads," Mr. Clifford said.
Near his elbow was a book titled Views from the Road, a handbook for land planning agencies on preserving rural and scenic landscapes, published by the National Trust for Preservation and the Trust for Public Lands.
Mr. Clifford said in the end, the DCPC recommendations could challenge some of the conventional wisdom on transportation here. "There could be some change, and I'm not saying it's going to be easy to do," he said.
In two weeks the commission is also expected to approve a $767,000 operating budget for the coming fiscal year. The proposed operating budget is a 15 per cent increase over last year, and it will include higher town assessments across the board.
If the budget is approved, town assessments in the coming year will be $501,159, up from $422,171 last year. The remainder of the MVC operating income comes from state grants and contracts.
Increased salaries, benefits and legal expenses are the main reasons for the projected increase in spending in the coming year. More than half of the commission's operating budget is devoted to salaries and other payroll items like retirement and health benefits. The commission employs an executive director, a bookeeper/administrator, a secretary and six staff planners, one of them part-time.
There is currently an opening for one staff position, and the commission is expected to hire an additional staff planner in the coming year. The budget for legal expenses has been nearly doubled - from $35,000 to $60,000.
MVC administrator Irene Fyler said the increase is prudent. "Our DRI activity has escalated, and there is every reason to expect that will continue," she said.
Commission assessments apply to all seven towns in Dukes County and do not require approval from town voters. Town assessments are based on equalized valuations and are levied the same way as county assessments.