The following policy statement was adopted by the Board of Directors by unanimous vote on March 11, 2022

VCS Policy Statement on Residential Development, Including Affordable Housing

Summary

  • VCS recognizes that housing affordability is a serious problem on Martha’s Vineyard.
  • To be sustainable, efforts to address this problem must prioritize protection of the Island’s environment.
  • To this end, VCS believes all residential development should adhere to certain values and practices, as described below.

Background

The Vineyard Conservation Society is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to preserving the environment of Martha’s Vineyard through advocacy, education and the protection of the Island’s land and water. Since its founding in 1965, VCS has directly conserved land through outright ownership of a few parcels (mostly in Aquinnah), and through the recording of numerous conservation restrictions that ensure permanent protection of the land. However, VCS is also fundamentally an environmental advocacy organization, actively engaged in legal defense, public testimony, education, and other activities to ensure the protection of the Island’s natural resources. 

Those natural resources – clean air and drinking water, coastal ponds and ocean waters, biodiversity and its habitats, open space and the scenic beauty that enriches the human experience – are increasingly threatened by the twin forces of climate change and overdevelopment. These issues, while globally important, are especially potent forces on our Island. By definition, islands have limits, and the pace of development and climate change together are rapidly drawing us closer to that limit. To ensure a sustainable future, our community must acknowledge that much of the development fueling economic growth also has negative impacts on natural resources. We must act on this knowledge and wisely steward our natural resources so as not to destroy the qualities that define this special place.

VCS has embraced several local plans that are consistent with those goals: the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s Island Plan (2009), their Climate Action Plan (currently in development), Town Open Space plans, and others. VCS asks that those organizations and individuals working in development, whether for the creation of market-rate housing, affordable housing, or other business activity, join us in adopting and advocating for the principles laid out in those plans. We are all living together on an island surrounded by eroding shorelines and rising seas. To thrive, we must come together to live within those boundaries.    

VCS recognizes that housing affordability is a serious problem on Martha’s Vineyard.

The cost of housing on the Island has skyrocketed over the past 25 years and economic indicators predict that these costs will continue to rise. A number of public and private organizations are working to make affordable housing available to those who live year-round on the Vineyard but cannot afford the costs of renting or property ownership.

The primary cause of the high cost of housing is the worldwide demand for second homes and vacation rentals in one of the world’s most beautiful places. Much of this demand comes from wealthy individuals, and increasingly, corporations and other entities purchasing properties for investment and/or short-term rental purposes (the “Air B&B problem”). Another issue is that the actual production cost of housing is higher due to being an island: building materials, design and construction labor, etc. Finally, the overall cost of living is higher. Island geography (supply side) and the tourism/seasonal home economy (demand side) drive prices for everything (food, fuel, services, etc.) higher, which further contributes to the challenge for the year-round population in making ends meet.

To be sustainable, efforts to address this problem must prioritize protection of the Island’s environment.

In all new development, including that done specifically for affordable housing, the Vineyard Conservation Society advocates for “smart growth” principles, defined as planned economic and community development designed to curb development sprawl and consumption of habitat, and to mitigate environmental harm due to degradation of natural resources. VCS holds that a critical part of smart growth is the protection of open space, farmland, natural beauty, and especially the fragile, delicate, and priority environmental areas of the Island.

To this end, VCS believes all development, including affordable housing, must adhere to the following values and practices:

A)  No new development of any kind should be sited on mapped prime agricultural soils, ancient woodlands, or otherwise harm important habitat for flora and fauna. These include priority lands identified by state agencies tasked with biodiversity preservation, outlined in the Appendix. One example is the Gay Head moraine, where VCS is working to preserve globally rare Coastal Heathlands at the Moshup Trail Sanctuary. 

B)  All new construction, including affordable housing, should follow the principles of low-impact development, defined as: “a planning and design approach to maintain a building site’s pre-development ecological and hydrological function through the protection, enhancement, or mimicry of natural processes.” (Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation)

C)  Development should be undertaken in the already-built environment, to avoid contributing to suburban sprawl and undermining natural resources and climate resiliency. Ideally, affordable residential development should target existing structures, for example office buildings, old housing in need of renovation, and “top of the shop” housing in business districts. Such new housing construction should be placed in town centers, near schools, transportation, shopping, etc., (and should not itself expand the definition of town/village centers, allowing for further sprawl in the future).  

D)  VCS opposes the use of fossil fuels in all new construction and renovation, whether for market rate or affordable housing. New developments should demonstrate Net Zero Ready performance standards. To encourage the transition to renewable energy, electric heat pumps should replace oil and propane furnaces/boilers.

E)  To mitigate impacts on water pollution, all new construction (and renovations that increase occupancy) should either be tied into central sewer systems or use nitrogen-reducing septic systems, so no new nitrogen will be added to the watershed (and no other net harm to the environment from their use).

F)  A priority should be to reduce dependence on private automobiles when planning new development. Access to VTA lines is a minimum standard here; a better goal in keeping with smart growth principles is the creation of walkable communities on our Island. Affordable housing has the potential to contribute positively to this ideal.


Appendix: Definitions and other background on habitat protection 

Links and information drawn from outside sources, including Commonwealth of Massachusetts website

Under the MA Endangered Species Act (MESA):

Habitat means an area which, due to its physical or biological features, protects or provides important elements for the growth and survival of plants or animals such as food, shelter, or living space, and includes without limitation, breeding, feeding, resting, migratory, or overwintering areas. Physical or biological features include to: structure and composition of the vegetation; faunal community; soils; water chemistry and quality; and geologic, hydrologic, and microclimatic factors.

Significant Habitat to Support a Population of Endangered or Threatened Species means those biological or physical features in an area which could be utilized by an Endangered or Threatened plant or animal or play a role in the survival of an Endangered or Threatened species. Components of the capacity of a Designated Significant Habitat to support a population of Endangered or Threatened species include space, food, shelter, nesting and foraging sites, overwintering sites, host plants, soils, vegetation, hydrologic regime, substrate, degree of exposure to sun or shade, water temperature, and water quality.

Priority Habitat means the geographic extent of Habitat for State-listed Species as delineated by the Division pursuant to 321 CMR 10.12. Priority Habitats are delineated based on records of State-listed Species observed within the 25 years prior to delineation and contained in the Division's NHESP database.

Estimated Habitats are a sub-set of the Priority Habitats, and are based on the geographical extent of habitat of state-listed rare wetlands wildlife codified under the Wetlands Protection Act (WPA), which does not protect plants. State-listed wetland wildlife species are protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act as well as the Wetlands Protection Act.

The MV Commission Island Plan identifies about 65% of the Island (37,225 acres) as Priority Habitat for rare and endangered species of plants and animals. The MVC also identifies five MV “EcoRegions”, the minimum viable landscape areas of which should be protected and restored to preserve the Island’s biodiversity The EcoRegions are: the Central Sandplain, the Coastal Sandplain, the Western Moraine, Aquinnah, and the Eastern Moraine. The aim in these areas is to protect the remaining areas of native vegetation and to restore these areas to ecological health. They consist of:

1.      Critical Source Habitats: areas, such as scrub oak frost bottoms, barrier beaches, streams and valleys that are particularly rare and vulnerable, and cannot absorb much human-based impact.

2.      Source Areas, Intact: conservation lands and other areas where the habitat is still intact.

3.      Source Areas, Lightly Settled: areas that are settled at a low enough density that native vegetation is, or could be, largely intact.

4.      Source Areas, Heavily Settled: areas within the overall Minimum Viable Landscape of the Eco-Region that are largely developed and fragmented.

5.      Interface Areas: areas of significant habitat located between the main Source Areas and the main down-Island towns.

BioMap2 is generated by the state Department of Fisheries and Wildlife MA Natural Heritage Program and is designed to guide strategic biodiversity conservation in Massachusetts. Detailed maps have been prepared for WT, Edg, AQ, Tisbury, OB, CH.  

Its terminology defines:

Core Habitat as key areas needed to ensure long-term persistence of species of conservation concern, exemplary natural communities, and intact ecosystems across the Commonwealth.

Its components are:

  • Species of Conservation Concern - including native species listed under the state Endangered Species Act or listed in the State Wildlife Action Plan
  • Priority Natural Communities- including natural communities with limited distribution and the best examples documented of more common types of communities
  • Aquatic Core- identifies core habitat for fish and other Species of Conservation Concern
  • Forest Core - identifies the best examples of large, intact forests least impacted by roads and development, providing critical "forest interior" habitat for numerous woodland species
  • Wetland Core - identifies the most intact wetlands within less developed landscapes
  • Vernal Pool Core - identifies the highest quality most interconnected clusters of Potential Vernal Pools and the habitat between them