A spirited and at times testy Martha’s Vineyard Commission approved its updated DRI checklist on Thursday night, but not before shelving a controversial clause in response to last-minute concerns from Island builders.
The DRI checklist review process has come under heightened scrutiny this year, with two town planning boards and recently a group of Vineyard builders mounting vocal opposition to the changes.
The Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association, which represents more than 120 contractors, took umbrage with a so-called placeholder clause that indicated the commission’s future intention to consider regulating very large home construction.
In all, in the checklist changes give the commission slightly more discretion to review certain subdivisions, commercial and mixed-use developments. The changes have been widely discussed at public hearings over a period of many months, with a vote set for last night at a commission meeting.
The checklist sets criteria for determining whether a development has regional impact.
At the outset Thursday, commissioners responded to eleventh-hour concerns from the builders group, fiercely defending both the process and purpose of the checklist changes.
In lengthy remarks, commission chairman Doug Sederholm noted the yearlong process that included multiple public hearings and revisions in response to concerns. He said the process was neither done in secret nor “in a vacuum,” and that the new checklist addresses issues that would pose a grave threat to the future of the Island if left unmitigated, including climate change, affordable housing and nitrogen.
“Size is not the only factor,” Mr. Sederholm said, referring to the decision to add smaller subdivisions to the review criteria. “You can have a regional impact with a smaller development.”
“It’s a fact that septic systems are a significant factor in adding nitrogen to the ponds. It’s a fact that we now have toxic cyanobacteria in several ponds . . . it’s a fact that the climate has changed due to human activity. So yes, this revision has lowered the thresholds for some developments because those developments can have impacts on water quality, climate change and affordable housing issues. It is a fact that the commission has greater ability than the towns to address water quality and affordable housing issues that are raised by a development project.”
Commissioner Fred Hancock, who has spearheaded the DRI checklist changes, defended the so-called big-house placeholder clause.
“I’m a little taken aback that some people think that this is an underhanded way to achieve this, when we are actually being very up front, and saying this is something we’re going to address in the future,” Mr. Hancock said. “And, yes, it has absolutely no effect at present, but it does I think set out our intent.”
Other commissioners disagreed. Commissioner James Joyce, who has been a vocal critic of the checklist changes, requested bluntly that the big-house placeholder clause be struck.
“It doesn’t serve any purpose,” he said. “It’s just taking up space.”
There was lengthy debate among commissioners about whether to strike the clause. Mr. Hancock, Kathy Newman and Richard Toole argued it was important to keep.
“It feels a little bit like being bullied, to take something off that, that we think is important,” Ms. Newman said.
Commissioners Christina Brown, Joan Malkin and Jim Vercruysse said the intention of the clause was reasonable, but they felt it wasn’t worth angering the building community, and advocated for its removal.
In the end that view won the day.
“I would like to leave doors open to people in the community to continue the discussion,” Mr. Vercruysse said. “There may be reason to look at large houses . . . [but] I don’t think we need to piss anybody off by putting in a placeholder that is really doing nothing.”
The vote to remove the clause was 12-3, with Ms. Newman and Ernie Thomas abstaining. Commissioners Rob Doyle, Mr. Toole and Mr. Hancock voted no.
The commission then voted 16-1 to approve the checklist as amended. Mr. Joyce cast the lone dissenting vote.
Changes to the checklist will now be sent to the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs for review, and will take effect starting in 2021 if approved.
A full document enumerating the changes can be found here.
In other business Thursday, Mr. Joyce criticized commission executive director Adam Turner for not informing commissioners at their prior meeting that the Meeting House Place subdivision applicants had filed an appeal of the commission’s decision to deny the project.
The appeal was filed in Dukes County Superior Court on Sept. 29 and the commission was served with court papers on Thursday, Oct. 1, hours before a regular meeting.
“We knew we were getting sued by the developer of the Meeting House subdivision, and it wasn’t mentioned at the meeting,” Mr. Joyce said. “When we get sued, that’s a pretty big update, and it should have been mentioned promptly instead of waiting until the next day.”
Other commissioners and Mr. Turner disagreed.
“It was delivered on 3 o’clock Thursday. I hadn’t seen it. I was preparing for the meeting. It’s litigation,” Mr. Turner said. “I don’t want to mention it and have a discussion in open forum. I don’t want to do that. I’m not going to do that.”
The commission ended the meeting by voting to go into executive session to discuss the litigation.