Deep discussion was far from the minds of Edgartown voters this week, who skipped lightly through their annual town meeting in less than two hours, pausing only briefly for a bit of discussion before approving a plan to allow building on substandard lots in the name of affordable housing.
"It's an oxymoron to say it is satisfactory to build on a substandard lot," declared town resident Walter Burns.
"We're talking about young people that can't afford to live in this town," returned Edgartown selectman Fred B. Morgan Jr.
The exchange took place in the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown on Tuesday night when 245 voters gathered to conduct the annual business of the town. Moderator Philip J. Norton Jr. presided over the session with characteristic humor, but there was a lackluster mood to the evening that appeared to affect even Mr. Norton's usual seamless style. He fidgeted with his podium, which was too low for his height, and at one point he found himself speaking to the crowd while the microphone was buried inside his suit coat at about waist level.
"Maybe I'm getting too old for this," muttered the venerable town moderator, although he recovered in time to take his traditional good-natured shots at town counsel and longtime peer Ronald H. Rappaport on the subject of legal expenses.
The meeting began with a large round of applause for town treasurer Gail Avakian, who has served as an elected official for 22 years. As a result of a vote by the town last year, the town treasurer will change to an appointed post this year, and Mrs. Avakian will leave the job.
In just over and hour and a half, voters disposed of 52 articles and approved a $16 million operating budget for the coming year, including a four and a half per cent cost of living increase for town employees.
The only real discussion of the evening centered around a package of articles aimed at creating more opportunities for affordable housing in town.
One called for dedicating 12 acres for affordable housing on a 60-acre piece of town-owned land off Pennywise Path; another called for a zoning change on property near the airport to allow for the construction of dormitory-style housing for summer workers.
Both were approved.
But the most unusual request was a proposed zoning change to permit building on lots of 10,000 square feet or less for owners who qualify as town residents and affordable housing candidates. Currently any use of a substandard lot requires a variance from the zoning board of appeals. Under the new zoning bylaw, an owner of a substandard lot could obtain the right to build on the lots through a special permit from the planning board, providing that a long list of requirements are met, including income guidelines and residency requirements set by the town resident homesite committee. The lot would also need to meet board of health requirements.
Alan Gowell, a member of the town resident homesite committee, said the idea is to allow people of low and moderate income to strike a deal to buy a substandard lot for less than market value.
Opinion was divided over the wisdom of allowing such a zoning change.
"I find this somewhat ambiguous as written," said Malcolm Reed, who suggested the bylaw needs more requirements for design specifications.
"The concern I have is speculative fooling around with this sort of thing," said the Rev. Robert Edmunds.
But Mr. Gowell said the bylaw would include a requirement for deed restriction giving the town the right of first refusal if the lot is sold in the future.
"Then I'm for it," Mr. Edmunds said.
"The effect on our sole source aquifer and coastal ponds needs close attention if we vote this," warned Christina Miller.
"This is a radical change to the town zoning bylaw," observed Mr. Burns.
Mr. Morgan bristled.
"I'd like to remind you that no one has any concern about those trophy houses that have been going up around here in the last few years," the longtime selectman said.
"Mr. Morgan, with all due respect, those people who are building trophy houses are conforming to existing zoning. We are asking for something here that is nonconforming, and there are few towns anywhere today that allow building on lots of less than a quarter acre," Mr. Burns replied.
In the end voter sentiment strongly favored the change, and the new zoning bylaw was approved 160-27.
In other business, voters also approved a long list of spending requests, including some $50,000 for shellfish programs, $28,000 for a new pickup truck and snowplow for the highway department and more than $200,000 to continue a dredging program in the town ponds and harbor. Voters also said yes to spending $5,000 for a town share of a new skateboard park near the Martha's Vineyard Arena, and they agreed to spend $7,150 to buy new bullet-proof vests for the town police department. Voters also agreed to accept gift of $300,000 from the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation for the purchase of conservation land.
School spending has been a subject for hot debate in Edgartown over the years, but this year a statement of protest from the town financial advisory board on the subject of local school spending generated no discussion.
Financial advisory board member Robert Chapman told voters that spending at the Edgartown School has gone up 25 per cent in four years, even though enrollment is down 11 per cent for the the same period.
"When the enrollment was rising, the budget was increased and explained as necessary to accommodate it. We accepted that rationale. But when enrollment decreases substantially, as it has, we would expect a change in the budget to reflect that," Mr. Chapman said.