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"High Impact Housing" MVC Testimony

The following testimony was presented by VCS Executive Director Brendan O’Neill at a public hearing of the MV Commission on regulating “high impact” houses

The Vineyard Conservation Society is an advocacy organization. Our focus is on environmental, land use, and growth and development issues on this Island. We have over 1,000 seasonal and year round members, and we have been doing this work for nearly 50 years.

What I am here to advocate for this evening is some version of tightened plan review for high impact residential development. We urge you to weigh whether the Development of Regional Impact (DRI) checklist – now or in the future – is the best way to accomplish that. That is what we urged in testimony before you in January, March, and June of 2011.

We have been receiving increasingly urgent and frequent calls for better, more creative plan review, particularly for high impact residential development. Whether it is concern about actual changes, or fear of the unknown – but likely substantial – changes in the future, it is clear that a significant portion of the community is unhappy with the current trajectory of development.

We know a few things: We know that the Island Plan data shows that thousands more houses can be built on Martha’s Vineyard under current zoning. That represents a huge amount of product in the pipeline.

We know that the conservation groups working to set aside more open space won’t have a significant impact in reducing that future density, particularly if we have to buy all or even some of that product in the pipeline. That is because the rate at which land is being developed is far outpacing the rate at which land is being conserved through gift and purchase. No foreseeable combination of public and private dollars will stop that.

We also know that south of here – 130 miles as the crow flies – on Long Island, local zoning permitted a 110,000 square foot residence to be built on 63 acres of land.

We cannot know for sure if that’s our current trajectory. We witnessed development of half a dozen new houses over 9,000 square feet over a five year period just in Edgartown – 10,000 square feet at Wasque ten years ago, 15,600 square feet on the Oyster Pond, and currently 22,000 square feet at Oyster Watcha. And the Vineyard still has more than 100 private properties left of 20 acre or more that are not conserved.

But we are also seeing a wave of much smaller, smarter, near-zero-energy houses being built. From our perspective as a group advocating for conservation of energy, and materials, and land, that is a hopeful trend.

But the fact is that any kind of development puts pressure on the Vineyard’s land and water resources. So, if we’re going to see a lot more building – and we will – it makes sense that we should do everything we can now to make sure it is done in a smart way. That’s the responsible thing to do. Protection is clearly not assured through existing regulations.

Better plan review can at least attempt to weigh the impacts on land and water resources of proposed development. From our perspective, the concept of “community character” refers not only to how well a new house fits in aesthetically with existing homes, but also how it impacts the natural environment. Prized by year-round and seasonal residents alike, an expectation of clean air and water, unspoiled vistas of open space, and human development that blends with the surrounding nature instead of dominating it, is part of the community character of our Island. Let’s remember why this is a desirable location, and why so many people want to live, visit, and yes – build – here in the first place.

And there is no question that plan review yields a better outcome. It isn’t something to fear. As I testified last year, we have repeatedly heard from potential new landowners who just want to know the “rules of the game” for Martha’s Vineyard. We can and we should provide that.

There are plenty of good ideas out there. Forty years ago, the Vineyard Open Land Foundation planning study identified different development tolerances in eight different categories of landscape type on Martha’s Vineyard – for example, how the wooded western moraines are different from the moors; how there are design techniques that can minimize visual intrusion of new development in more exposed areas of the island. The Island Plan explored many of these ideas. Now, we hope you can take it to the next level. We are confident in your ability to secure our shared natural assets against new development threats.

I doubt there is any disagreement in this room about the goal of actually protecting what we need to protect. It makes good economic sense and good ecological sense. No one wants an outcome where Martha’s Vineyard becomes just another formerly unique and desirable place. So, the Vineyard Conservation Society is grateful that this conversation is happening.

I’ll close with a favorite quote from the late Land Court Justice Robert Caushon that captures nicely what we are trying to communicate to you. Commenting 15 years ago following the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court landmark decision validating 3-acre zoning on Martha’s Vineyard, he said, “This is an Island for goodness sakes! This is different.”
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