Oak Bluffs Approaches Buildout Deadline

By MANDY LOCKE

It all happened without too much fuss.

Now, that's all the town of Oak Bluffs and Island residents can manage to do as the town gets down to the wire - down to the last unspoiled expanses of developable land in the 4,555 acres that make up Oak Bluffs.

"It snuck up on us," said Oak Bluffs resident Renee Balter. "But we've had a steady stream of development. Buildout is occurring at a rapid, rapid pace."

That rapid pace has left Oak Bluffs with the smallest piece of remaining undeveloped land of all six Island towns. According to the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs in a final buildout analysis delivered to each Massachusetts community this spring, Oak Bluffs could hold only 820 more homes on 1,014 acres. That raises the potential for 1,120 new residents who would drain 50,223 more gallons of water a day from the town's supply and add nearly 10 more miles of roadway in Oak Bluffs.

"People understand the tax burden, but they really don't understand the issues and pressures on infrastructure," conservation commission member Bob Ford said. The burden on emergency services and schools caused a spike in taxes to over $12 per $1,000 assessed value in 2000. That figure resettled in the $7 range this year.

It was easy not to pay attention.

Of the 28 definitive subdivisions approved in the last decade, none was larger than six lots. Only two of those projects warranted a development of regional impact review by the Martha's Vineyard Commission. Moreover, only 17 subdivisions were substantial enough to receive review by the commission since 1976. Commission review kicks in when proposed subdivisions are larger than 10 lots or when 30 acres are divided into more than six parcels that could be divided further.

In fact, often residents were surprised by construction starts on lots thought to be unbuildable.

"We were damned by 5,000-square-foot lots left over from the 1800s. On one hand, it gives Oak Bluffs its character, but it's rough on septic and town resources," planning board chairman John Bradford said.

In Oak Bluffs fashion, development came patchwork style as residents picked off their one-eighth-acre lots. As recently as the mid-1980s, residents were still securing building permits for those cramped lots. Even today, if a resident has no other fragments of land to join with the substandard lot, the town will issue a permit.

While Oak Bluffs is celebrated for carving out spots for folks short on housing choices, that flexibility has forced Oak Bluffs to carry the bulk of the Island's lower-cost housing opportunities for the better part of a decade. Median house prices hang just around $275,000 - the cheapest on the Island by about $75,000.

"We've been the bedroom community for the rest of the Island. It's put an awful lot of pressure on our infrastructure," Mr. Bradford said.

Yet, the town continues to carve out options for folks holding on to the lower rungs of the ladder. At the annual town meeting, residents voted to seek clearance from the state Department of Environmental Protection to "credit" the town's nine and a half acres within the Zone II area so that citizens with 10,000-square-foot lots may build. The teardrop-shaped Zone II surrounds the town well, and the state declared the area unbuildable on less than 13,000 square feet because of nitrogen-loading limits. Under stringent state guidelines, a 13,000-square-foot lot can only support a two-bedroom home with a $16,000 advanced septic treatment system.

"When the crunch is on, people get creative. And people think this can go on forever," Mrs. Balter said.

While the 2000 United States census recorded only 3,700 year-round residents in the town of Oak Bluffs - making it the smallest of the down-Island towns - many residents are convinced those numbers don't reflect all those living within the town's borders. The thought of adding another wave of development makes most shudder.

"If we become a larger year-round community, how will we handle it? I'm not sure we have the answers," Mr. Bradford said.

The town tried to slow development in 2000 when it adopted a building cap at six per month. Conservation proponents thought the limit was lax because it matched the actual rate of building in the town. But permits have slowed significantly in the last year, down to 32 in 2001 - only one-quarter of the number of permits issued in any given year in the late 1980s.

While new construction appears lighter in the town of Oak Bluffs, a new wave of residents is turning to renovation and restoration work. Anecdotally, a teardown or fix-up occurs on nearly every town street.

"I can see three such projects from my front steps," said conservation commission member Paul Strauss.

Most of the town's energy appears invested in battles over the southern woodlands these days.

Battles wage over the future of the southern woodlands - a chunk of land representing 40 per cent of the town's 1,000 remaining buildable acres. Two hundred seventy-six or roughly 75 per cent of those acres are in the hands of Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith. That property is currently the proposed site for a luxury golf course, 30 more dwelling units, a campground and conservation land. The property - twice rejected by the MVC as proposals to build a luxury golf course and another aborted plan to build a 366-unit affordable housing complex - is currently again under review by the Martha's Vineyard Commission with the latest mixed-use proposal. The plan has the stamp of approval from four out of five Oak Bluffs selectmen, the planning board, zoning board, building inspector and the board of health.

"I don't understand how the water department can tell us not to water our lawns, and the town can consider another development project," Mrs. Balter said.

The town's other large remaining chunk of undeveloped land is Goodale Construction Company Plant - about 100 acres of land holding a large gravel and sand pit as well as an asphalt manufacturing facility.

Subdivision control laws protect the town from large-scale developments on many other substantial pieces of property. Lack of road access or easement is the biggest roadblock to development.

"There could be several substantial subdivisions, but there's not access. It's not a pressure for the town," Mr. Bradford said.

Some residents worry town government has no leash on runaway growth and sets priorities erratically.

"There is basically no planning for growth in the town of Oak Bluffs. The board of selectmen seems to be occupied with planning a golf course," Mr. Strauss said.

But Mr. Bradford said the planning board is in the initial stages of evaluating current zoning laws in town. How quickly changes arrive and how well it manages pressing issues is unknown, but Mr. Bradford said he is hopeful.

Even critics remain hopeful that the fate of Oak Bluffs is not as dark as the shades of gray that color developed land on the state's buildout map for the town.

"Buildout could happen if nothing else changes. But this analysis is not a finishing point, but rather a starting point. We can use these tools to get to where we want to be," Mr. Strauss said.

"Oak Bluffs has had a difficult time figuring out what it wants to be. It hasn't been possible for the town to agree on its future."