Report Calls for Changes to Strengthen Future Role of Island Planning Agency

By JULIA WELLS

Overhaul the review process for developments of regional impact. Encourage districts of critical planning concern. Forge better working relationships with the Island towns. Improve staff work. Improve public relations. Planning, planning, planning.

These are the central themes in a comprehensive report card on the Martha's Vineyard Commission released this week by commission executive director Mark London.

Entitled Looking at the Commission, the 44-page report is an unusual self-evaluation of the Vineyard's unique regional planning agency that is the result of extensive interviews with an array of Island residents and public officials. A former longtime planner with the city of Montreal, Mr. London was hired to step into the top post at the commission last October. He spent his first five months on the job largely listening and speaking quietly with a wide range of people.

The report released this week is the result of his work.

"The commissioners gave me free rein to carry out this process as I saw fit, to write a full analysis of the commission, warts and all, and to make the recommendations that I felt appropriate," Mr. London writes in an executive summary that accompanies the the report.

In clear language unfettered by bureaucratic jargon, the report examines virtually every aspect of the MVC, from its regulatory side to its planning mission. At the outset Mr. London underscores the important role the commission has played on the Vineyard in the last 27 years.

"The Island towns and the MVC have done a lot of positive, creative things to ensure generally high quality, compatible development and to provide good amenities. Since 1974 the commission has played a key role in limiting the number of lots in subdivisions, in preserving open space, in planning bike paths, in protecting scenic vistas and special places, in preventing unacceptable development and in obtaining contributions for affordable housing," Mr. London writes.

In the introduction to the report, Mr. London remarks on growth and change:

"The forces challenging the Vineyard have intensified; they include the pressure for growth and the pressure to change. The pressure to grow comes from the fact that the population of the United States continues to grow but the size of the Vineyard does not, so land is an increasingly precious commodity. The pressure for change comes from new lifestyles that many fear could lead to the ‘suburbanization' of the Vineyard."

The complete report is available for reading in public libraries and free copies may be obtained by contacting the commission office. The report also has been posted on the Vineyard Gazette website at www.mvgazette.com.

Mr. London's report comes at a time of political turmoil over the role of the commission in some corners of the Vineyard. A petition to withdraw from the commission will come before voters in Oak Bluffs at a special election on May 13, and a small group of disgruntled developers is trying to breathe life into a petition in the town of Tisbury to withdraw from the MVC. Much of the funding for the commission comes from town assessments, and these assessments are expected to come under extra scrutiny this year against a backdrop of state budget cuts and tighter reins on town spending.

The report also comes just a few days after two Cape and Islands legislators called for the appointment of a task force to conduct an independent review of the commission.

The report includes 38 specific recommendations and 131 possible actions to achieve them. Mr. London notes that some of the recommendations are already in place, 28 could be put into effect over the next few months, another 75 could be done over the next two years and 19 are more long-term.

A large section of the report is devoted to developments of regional impact (DRIs). Mr. London lays out a detailed set of recommendations for streamlining the DRI process to make it more efficient and also more understandable for applicants and the public. Among other things, he recommends that the commission consider reviewing fewer DRI projects but making the reviews more comprehensive. "The net for referring projects to the MVC is too fine and requires referral of too many projects that don't have a significant regional impact," Mr. London wrote. "This is partly because there is no differentiation between built-up and rural areas: For example, a 2000 square foot project in a town center might be of little consequence, but the same project could have a very significant impact in a rural area," he wrote.

Calling the present DRI system "a hit-or-miss process," Mr. London suggests a series of changes.

But he also makes it clear that any changes in the DRI process are not intended to detract from the ultimate authority of the 21-member commission to vote for or against a development project. "The MVC must make clear that meeting standards does not, per se warrant approval and that, after a weighing of benefits and detriments, the MVC could still deny a project that meets standards or approve one that doesn't meet all criteria," the report says.

The report takes a hard look at the work of commission subcommittees, especially the land use planning subcommittee, and recommends changes to make the work of the committees more effective. Many of the suggested changes are in fact practices that were in place a decade ago or more, but have gradually changed.

The report also covers many subjects beyond DRIs. It includes strong words of praise for districts of critical planning concern (DCPCs), calling them "among the most effective tools of the MVC" and noting that there are 24 DCPCs on the Vineyard and only six on all of Cape Cod.

Other recommendations include:

* Refocusing the efforts of the commission on planning, including updating the Island plan. "The plan should not just be a theoretical vision of an ideal future. It should confront the real problems associated with growth and focus on practical solutions. . . . The plan could in many respects have two modes, one for the three months of the year when the Vineyard is an almost urban place, and one for the rest of the year when it is rural," the report suggests.

* Forging partnerships with each of the Island towns. "The only way that the commission can effectively contribute to good growth management and a sustainable economy on the Island is to work closely with the towns to do comprehensive, proactive planning in the best interests of the people and the land," Mr. London writes.

* Monitoring commission finances and finding new sources for funding, including outside private contributions.

* Improving the work of staff by developing a more balanced team, doing better outreach with the towns and the public and eventually hiring staff with more expertise in economic planning, legal and zoning issues.

* Refurbishing and modernizing the patched-together physical plant that houses the commission office in the Olde Stone Building in Oak Bluffs, including updating the computer system and creating clean space for document storage.

* Doing more collaboration with other regional planning commissions, especially the Cape Cod Commission and the Nantucket Planning and Economic Development Commission.

In brief remarks about the report this week, Mr. London deflected any pride of authorship.

"In a way it's not my report, it's a report of all the people I talked to. It's partly my comments, but it's very much a pulling together of what a lot of people said to me. And what I found was that the critics and the supporters were not very far apart in the things that they said," he said.

Mark London's summary of his report.

To read Mark London's report, Looking at the Commission, click here
Adobe Acrobat required