What is Island character anyway? It’s not something easily defined, or even consistent from one place on the Vineyard to another. Yet it is exactly what the voters of Dukes County and the Massachusetts legislature sought to protect nearly forty years ago when they created the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and charged it with finding a way to preserve the Vineyard’s “unique natural, historical, ecological, scientific and cultural values” while promoting “the enhancement of sound local economies.”
Finding that balance is a tall order and has repeatedly made this unique regional planning agency a lightning rod for criticism over four decades.
As pressure builds in some quarters to regulate very large houses on the Vineyard, the commission is taking heat once again for proposing a new section titled Community Character in the commission’s checklist for referral of developments of regional impact (DRIs).
The commission is weighing either requiring or suggesting that towns refer for potential commission review any proposed building that is more than 50 per cent larger than the median size of structures in the immediate neighborhood. The commission, which specifically declined to set a threshold size for review of big houses, says the provision has a broader purpose.
“Our core economy is tourism and the building trades are as vibrant as they are because of tourism, because people fall in love with this place and want to come here,” said commissioner Linda Sibley. “If they decide that this is an ugly place and they don’t want to come here, there will be no building trades.”
But a group of Island builders who attended a commission public hearing last Thursday to vigorously protest the section say it’s a slippery slope.
“Here’s what bothers people,” said commissioner Leonard Jason Jr., summing up the builders’ concerns. “We started out with what, a four-page DRI checklist. And all we hear is we’re trying to loosen things up, and the exact opposite is occurring . . . [builders] see everything that has to come here as an impediment to them earning a living.”
This week, the Edgartown selectmen piled on, criticizing the commission for being overbearing and overly intrusive and firing off a letter to the commission asking it to extend the public hearing on the DRI checklist. The sharply-worded note said the commission’s plan to close the hearing “appears to deny due process,” even though the commission had held two public hearings on the issue. After receiving the letter from the selectmen, the commission agreed to hold another public hearing next week so critics and supporters will have another chance to express their views.
The debate over development, including very large houses, their impact on the Island environment and on its character, is a critically important one. It shows that people care about the place where they live and are willing to engage in healthy, thoughtful discussion about the best ways to keep the Vineyard on a sustainable track for living, working and supporting its economies.
The building industry obviously needs to be a part of that discussion, and we credit the commission with taking an extra step to be sure all voices on this issue have their say.
We are sorry to see the Edgartown board of selectmen inveigh against the commission, and worry that some members may be allowing their business interests to cloud their public judgment.
Two years ago the Edgartown selectmen tried to withhold the town’s mandatory annual assessment to the commission, calling it a symbolic gesture of their dissatisfaction over the commission’s performance. In the end it proved to be an unpopular move that cost the town money and showed that the selectmen were out of step with the wishes of the voters, who ultimately voted to pay to restore the assessment.
The commission is an independent decision-making body with a very specific charter and a largely thankless task. It is doing what it was created to do, and deserves respect and support as it grapples with the latest manifestation of the Island’s perennial point of conflict.