Island Plan Moves Ahead with Forums to Provoke More Public Involvement

By IAN FEIN

Roughly 200 new homes are built on the Vineyard each year, many of them out of scale with surrounding neighborhoods or sprawling into once rural and open areas.

Eelgrass beds, which provide breeding habitat for fish and shellfish, have nearly disappeared from Edgartown Great Pond and Sengekontacket Pond in the last decade, and have decreased alarmingly - by over 50 per cent - in Tashmoo and Lagoon Ponds.

In that same time, the median home price on the Island has more than tripled, while the gap between home costs and what families can afford has more than doubled in the last few years alone.

With these thoughts in mind, the Martha's Vineyard Commission is asking whether the Island should adjust course.

And the commission is now drafting an Island Plan which will attempt to chart that course for the coming decades. A primary goal is to find ways for the Vineyard to manage its economy and resources in a manner that better sustains its environment, character and quality of life.

Active work groups made up of more than 100 Island residents met frequently over the course of the year to tackle five different topics: housing, water resources, natural environment, energy and waste, and livelihood and commerce. Each group recently drafted a four-page discussion paper on its topic, framing the main challenges, laying out long-term goals and also identifying immediate actions that can be started now.

The commission will host a series of forums this summer where each group will present its findings and try to generate discussion and feedback from the community. Housing will be the topic of the first forum, to be held Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Tisbury senior center.

Some of the initiatives listed in the discussion papers are provocative and highlight many instances where past Island zoning and land use efforts have fallen short.

"The Vineyard lags far behind many communities across the nation and the globe that have taken more aggressive steps to confront the challenges facing us all," the energy and waste work group wrote in its discussion paper.

Noting that the Vineyard this year will burn the equivalent of more than 750,000 barrels of oil in energy consumption and ship nearly 40,000 tons of trash to the mainland, the work group nonetheless believes that the Island could become completely energy and waste neutral by 2050.

"Achieving this ambitious target presents complex challenges that would take a significant commitment to deal with," the work group wrote. "But if the community chooses to do this, it is within our reach."

There are areas where the goals of different work groups overlap. Additional agricultural opportunities will benefit the year-round economy, as well as Island character and open space. The use of native landscaping will preserve important habitat and protect vital water resources at the same time. Increased zoning density in appropriate locations would allow for more affordable housing, while also protecting environmentally sensitive areas and reducing overall energy use.

All of the initiatives will also help the Vineyard be more self-reliant and prepared for the coming effects of climate change and peak oil.

An overarching theme throughout the Island Plan is growth and development, the topic of a special sixth public forum to be held near the end of August.

Today, roughly 20 per cent of the Island remains as unprotected, buildable open space. So the Vineyard will have to decide in what manner it should be developed, farmed or preserved for recreation and habitat.

Any new ideas will likely require a change in zoning. There are currently 16,000 homes on the Vineyard, and another 6,000 new houses could be built under existing zoning laws, which would result in a population growth of between 50 and 300 per cent depending on how many of the homes are occupied year-round.

Public participation is crucial for the Island Plan. Although it will likely be adopted by the Martha's Vineyard Commission as the official regional plan, the designation will not be binding and the success of the plan will depend largely on whether the end product is embraced by Island voters and town officials.

Some critics of the Island Plan question how useful or effective it will actually be.

Through previous surveys and various plans, a clear consensus has emerged that the vast majority of Island residents strongly agree that preserving the Vineyard's environment and character is a high priority, while a small minority say the same about promoting new development and growth.

The commission adopted its last Regional Island Plan more than 15 years ago. Though many of the initiatives currently proposed by work groups are new and more up to date, the 1990 regional plan largely echoed many of the same principles.

Just last week James Athearn of Edgartown took his fellow commission members to task for not voting in line with that previous regional policy plan. Mr. Athearn, also a chairman of the current Island Plan steering committee, noted that some 6,000 homes had been built on Martha's Vineyard over the last 30 years.

"I guess the commission has had a hard time saying no over those years," Mr. Athearn said.

"Now we're entering a time with the Island Plan where we have all these nice thoughts, but some of them do have conflicts and we are going to have to choose one over another. We have to make these hard choices because the Island is finite, and we can't go on this way forever."