Commission Begins Islandwide Planning

Three-Year Initiative Starts in January as MVC Updates Comprehensive Plan with Eye Toward Deep Study of Issues

By IAN FEIN

The Martha's Vineyard Commission will kick off a three-year Islandwide planning effort in 2005, hoping to develop a comprehensive set of guidelines by which the commission and individual towns can manage future growth on the Vineyard.

"It's long overdue and it's needed desperately," said commission member Nathaniel Orleans, who introduced the idea last spring.

The commission's enabling legislation requires that it serve as the planning agency for the Island. But Mr. Orleans and other commission members say that in recent years the commission's extensive review responsibilities have eclipsed its planning efforts.

"For the last 15 years the commission has not, in an organized fashion, taken a look at the Island as a whole on a comprehensive basis," Mr. Orleans said.

The commission's last comprehensive plan - the Martha's Vineyard Regional Island Plan - was written in 1991 and is now largely out of date.

With the new planning effort the MVC hopes both to update the Island Plan and make it more complete, delving more deeply into key issues and identifying links between them.

"We need to look at the issues we have to face and what the relationships are among those issues," he explained. "We can talk, for example, all we want about affordable housing. But we have to remember that it has an impact on other areas, such as transportation, economic development, the environment - you name it."

A preliminary list of topics that the plan will address includes: growth management, housing, economic development, water quality, transportation, open space and natural resources, cultural resources, public services and infrastructure.

The MVC wants to draft a background document for each topic, explaining its historic and geographic context, noting the current status, projecting a future scenario and presenting ways that similar communities have dealt with them.

The commission would then work with the Island towns to identify objectives for each topic and develop policies to achieve those goals. Once adopted as the official regional plan, the objectives and policies would provide a road map to the towns and the commission regarding regulatory decisions.

"It would be like a toolbox of potential strategies for each issue, so that towns will have an opportunity to choose the strategy that they feel best fits their character," Mr. Orleans said.

Much of the information to be included in the Islandwide plan has already been gathered by previous planning studies, but never has it all been assembled into one comprehensive document.

The first year of the planning process will be spent mostly collecting all the data already available. The commission can then determine what additional information is needed and commence research on topics that may not have been adequately studied such as the Island economy.

In its draft budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which has not yet been approved, the commission envisions spending an additional $120,000 on the planning process. The commission wants to raise two-thirds of that - or $80,000 - from grants and contributions before asking the six Island towns to cover the remaining $40,000 in costs.

MVC representatives will meet with Island selectmen and other town boards in January to introduce the planning effort and try to rally support.

"A lot of its success is going to depend on what kind of cooperation we're able to solicit from the towns and people across the Island who are interested in seeing this done," Mr. Orleans said.

The completed plan would not be subject to town approval, nor would it bind the towns in any way. The commission wants the plan to reflect the opinions of residents and leaders of each town.

"The plan will not have teeth in it in the sense of having an enforcement code," Mr. Orleans explained. "But we all hope that it will have enough common sense and agreement in it that it's something the towns will go ahead and do as they see in their best interests."

To develop a regional consensus, the commission will try to enlist the involvement of town governments, community organizations and the general public through outreach efforts.

However, Mr. Orleans expects the planning effort will be met by some opposition.

"There are people on the Island who are not enthusiastic about planning - whether it be planning for their own towns or the Island as a whole," he said. "They feel more comfortable dealing with issues on a case-by-case basis, which is not unusual, and in some cases understandable. But we need this comprehensive plan. We've already waited too long."