The Martha’s Vineyard Commission, heralded as a unique and powerful regional planning organization, often the source of controversy, celebrated a quiet 40th anniversary this year. At the Olde Stone Building in Oak Bluffs, commission staff continue their planning work, and on most Thursday evenings the lights are on well into the evening hours as commissioners gather to wrestle with issues of the day. Exhaustive development reviews, both commercial and residential, detailed planning initiatives, both sweeping and small: these things are the bread and butter of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

The best way to observe the commission’s impact on the Vineyard, some said this week, is to note what can’t be found: strip malls and development along the roadways. There is open land where there could have been golf courses and large-scale subdivisions, and a largely undeveloped coastline.

“I think that we don’t have commercial strip malls because of the MVC. We would look much more like the commercial areas of Cape Cod if it were not for the commission,” said longtime commissioner Linda B. Sibley. “When you look around . . . we just don’t look like the Cape.”

The commission was born out of concerns about development on the Vineyard and reports predicting rapid growth. In 1972, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy introduced the Nantucket Sound Islands Trust Bill that would have placed Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in a protected federal trust much like the Cape Cod National Seashore. There was intense public debate about the broad reach of the so-called Kennedy bill, and in the end a state bill setting up a land use commission for the Vineyard was introduced as a compromise. The state bill was endorsed by a referendum vote in all six Island towns in March 1974.

Herring Creek Farm was site of development debate in 1990s. — Mark Lovewell

An Act to Protect Land and Water on Martha’s Vineyard was signed into law on July 27, 1974 by Gov. Francis W. Sargent at the Katharine Cornell Theatre. The commission replaced the

Dukes County Planning and Economic Development Commission and was said to be a land use planning agency unlike any other, with broad regional powers.

These included reviewing developments of regional impact (DRIs) and designating districts of critical planning concern, ecologically or culturally sensitive areas that are protected from inappropriate development. Today DCPCs have been enacted for Island roads, the coastline, the saltwater ponds and the entire town of Aquinnah, to name a few.

“The island of Martha’s Vineyard possesses unique natural, historical, ecological, scientific, cultural, and other values and there is a regional and statewide interest in preserving and enhancing these values,” the legislation, often cited in the last 40 years, said.“The purpose of the commission created by this act shall be to further protect the health, safety and general welfare of island residents and visitors by preserving and conserving for the enjoyment of present and future generations the unique natural, historical, ecological, scientific, and cultural values of Martha’s Vineyard which contribute to public enjoyment, inspiration and scientific study, by protecting these values from development and uses which would impair them, and by promoting the enhancement of sound local economies.”

In 40 years, the commission has had six different executive directors — one returned for two separate stints in charge — and more than 100 different commissioners. More than 30 areas have been designated as DCPCs and more than 600 projects have been reviewed as DRIs.

In the commission’s early years, debates were mostly about the commission itself, including who should serve and how towns should be assessed for their share of commission costs. In 1977 Edgartown withdrew from the commission over concerns about the commission’s power, followed in 1978 by the town of Tisbury, which was angry about commission efforts to block a second Steamship Authority slip in Vineyard Haven. Both towns rejoined the commission in 1984. Later in the 1990s an initiative in Oak Bluffs to withdraw from the commission failed.

Some commissioners and commission observers said this week that the agency seems to have moved into a quieter phase, but remains unique in its powers and its impact

In forty years, commission has worked to safeguard Island's unique character, like this view at Moshup Trail. — Mark Lovewell

“The Martha’s Vineyard Commission . . . is probably the most powerful — in terms of the scope of its powers — land use planning agency in Massachusetts,” said Ronald H. Rappaport, an attorney who serves as town counsel for five Island towns. He also said the commission’s decisions through the years “have had an immeasurable but extremely positive impact on what the Vineyard looks like.

“The first commission, the first members, were incredibly far-sighted,” Mr. Rappaport said. He added: “We’re obviously coming to the end of what we’re going to be regulating through the DCPC process because there are only so many regulations that we need. Development has slowed. The number of large projects that go through the commission obviously has significantly diminished.”

But part of the reason is the MVC itself, Mr. Rappaport said. “The commission has played the role that the creators envisioned . . . so its role almost by necessity has changed and become now more of a protective role to address the projects that aren’t as large and controversial as we had in the early years.”

The commission has been at the center of more than one landmark court ruling. Mr. Rappaport, who has argued many land use cases, said the court decisions have stressed that the role of the commission is not just local, “but that the legislature determined that the commission is in charge of protecting the Vineyard because of the statewide and regional and local interest in the preservation of the qualities of the Vineyard, and that’s a very broad and powerful role.”

Some commissioners said developers now consider their projects more carefully.

“People just don’t often come before us with stuff that’s utterly wrong,” Mrs. Sibley said. “Because they know that they’re going to have to meet some standards.”

Mrs. Sibley, who joined the commission in 1988, recalled proposals for three high-end golf courses in the early 2000s. One large swath of land where a golf course was planned is now mostly conservation land on the Edgartown Great Pond. Another proposal for a golf course at the Southern Woodlands in Oak Bluffs that would have cleared hundreds of acres of trees, was turned down by the commission in a close vote in 2002. Today that land is now largely owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank.

The commission did approve a single course during that period: the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown. “It’s a nationally recognized environmentally sensitive golf course, which is great,” Mrs. Sibley said.“I am 100 per cent certain that this Island couldn’t have supported [the additional] two golf courses. There was a lot of friction and a lot of anger, but I think that’s certainly one of our major accomplishments in the time that I’ve been there.”

Another Vineyard golf course, far older, also stands as a symbol of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. In the 1970s what is today Farm Neck Golf Club was planned as a large subdivision of some 850 homes on more than 500 acres. The Strock subdivision led to a court case that tested the powers of the commission to supersede grandfathering under state zoning laws. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the commission, and the landmark Island Properties case has been frequently cited through the years in court disputes involving the MVC.

Saved from development: Southern Woodlands in Oak Bluffs. — Mark Lovewell

In the 1990s, the owners of Herring Creek Farm in Edgartown spent years in front of the commission and the town in their efforts to develop more than 200 acres of Great Plains farmland at Katama. There were expensive lawsuits, and in the end a complicated deal involving The Nature Conservancy and a handful of private landowners kept most of the land out of development.

E. Douglas Sederholm, a commissioner since 2003, said the commission provided a community forum for the design of the new Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and more recently expansion plans for the Vineyard Haven Stop & Shop store.

“I think the commission has been the single most important governmental body in protecting the Island from overdevelopment,” he said. “What the commission does on a project-by-project basis is try to help the developer make the project better so that it preserves the values that are set forth in the preamble to the legislation. So we don’t end up like the Cape, for example.” He continued:

“It’s an impact in that we don’t see strip malls and we don’t see houses right up against the beach, which you do see in a lot of other parts of the country.” He cited climate change and the health of coastal ponds as future areas of focus for the commission.

Commission chairman Fred Hancock said the planning agency is charged with balancing the various parts of the enabling legislation. “There’s a whole part of it that talks about preserving the history and culture of the Island and then at the end it says by providing a sound local economy. I think it’s a wonderful kind of balance that came,” he said. “[The Vineyard is] not preserved under glass. It has to be a working place or it’s not going to work. And everything we do, I certainly see those kind of trade-offs between wanting to preserve things absolutely as they were and saying, you know, we really need to do this.”

The legislation “has done a very good job to keep the Vineyard a very livable place to work and to live,” said Jim Vercruysse, a commissioner from Aquinnah. Mr. Vercruysse served on the commission in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and then after time away rejoined the commission this year.

He and others said the Island will likely face future challenges from rising sea levels and increased storms, citing the erosion of Oak Bluffs beaches. “That’s a big debate, how do we keep the roads and the beaches workable, yet keep the sound and the ocean healthy,” Mr. Vercruysse said. “That’s going to be a big challenge for us and I’m not sure what the right answer is. That’s what the commission can do, it can bring all these different voices together and then the commissioners, of course, have the tough job of making the decision of what is best considering the impact,” he added.

“I enjoyed every minute that I was on that commission,” said Marie Allen, who served as a governor’s appointee on the commission from 1979 to 1999.

She said in the years that she has been visiting the Island, she has seen the Island go from an extremely rural place to becoming more suburban, and the commission is there to try to preserve that original character. “They haven’t always been successful, but that’s been their focus,” Ms. Allen said.

The commission has often faced criticism over the years, including from former commissioners. “I don’t think it’s lived up to its potential by any means,” said Everett Poole, one of the earliest members of the MVC. “It’s becoming very picky. And that was not the original intention. I am disappointed,” he added.

As the commission moves into its 41st year, it will also start a new chapter. Executive director Mark London, who has been with the commission since 2002, has said he will step down by the end of next summer.

“People on Martha’s Vineyard realize that Martha’s Vineyard is a wonderful place that’s pretty different from the rest of America, and don’t necessarily appreciate the extent to which this is because of the unique role the MVC has in guiding development, directly or indirectly,” Mr. London said.

He highlighted the work of commission staff and planners, who are involved in everything from creating a wind energy plan for the Island to looking at bike paths, affordable housing and sea level rise, and noted that the agency provides valuable planning resources for the towns.

“And there’s a lot more to be done,” Mr. London said.

He said projects are often divisive, pointing to the recent plan by Stop & Shop to expand and remodel its Vineyard Haven store. The project was a lightning rod for controversy, and in the end after months of public hearings Stop & Shop pulled the plan just before the commission was slated to vote. Whether the project was approved or denied, Mr. London said, “half the people would have been upset with the commission.

“And in a way it’s sort of no-win, but if you step back from the individual decisions and look at the overall impact, it’s been tremendously positive for the Island.”