Hearings Open on Luxury Golf Club Plan; Public Packs Hall for Hours of Testimony

By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer

Torn down the middle, their emotions rubbed raw after two years of bitter debate, an irascible crowd of Oak Bluffs citizens gave the Martha's Vineyard Commission a new earful on an old subject this week: the Down Island Golf Club plan to convert the southern woodlands to a luxury golf and housing project.

"This plan is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The result is still the same, and I urge you to deny it, and don't make people go through this again," said Paul Strauss.

"In 1948 Oak Bluffs was the first town on the Island to adopt zoning. They were very smart, our forefathers, because they knew that developers would come and spoil it all. So you do the right thing," said Geraldyn DeBettencourt.

"We have reached out to this developer, and I see this project as an economic engine for the town," said Oak Bluffs selectman Todd Rebello.

"The majority of the people in this room are against this project, but they are in the minority," said Eric Williams.

"I guess it just boils down to the fact that many of us feel we don't need another golf course," said John Wilbur.

The comments came during six hours of back-to-back public hearings on the golf club plan on Wednesday night and again last night. Held in the cafeteria of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, the hearings drew about 150 people each night. The crowd on the first night was somewhat larger and also more civil. Last night frayed nerves were evident at every turn, and the meeting was marred by personal attacks and testy exchanges. Even the commission appeared to be infected by the dark mood of the evening, and among the 17 members tempers flared more than once.

The Down Island Golf Club plan has been turned down twice by the commission in the last two years. The third plan is now under review as a development of regional impact (DRI), and after being buffeted by lawsuits and an array of hardball tactics, the commission is under enormous pressure to approve the plan. Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith and his partner, Bolton developer Brian Lafferty, want to build an 18-hole private golf club and 30 units of housing on 273 acres owned by Mr. Kupersmith in the southern woodlands.

Four of the five Oak Bluffs selectmen are working so closely with the developer that they appear to be functioning as partners.

On Wednesday the hearing began with a two-hour presentation by the applicant. Oak Bluffs selectman Michael Dutton and special town counsel Mark Bobrowski spoke first, describing the recent settlement agreement signed by town officials and the developer. Ostensibly aimed at settling a lawsuit between the town and the developer (the town in fact has already won the central portion of the lawsuit), the agreement is in reality an outline of the development plan.

The project calls for a private 18-hole golf course with a clubhouse and a dormitory for employees plus 30 housing units. The housing is a new addition to the plan. The developers plan to build 14 upscale homes situated around the golf course and 16 units of affordable housing in the back of the property near the Martha's Vineyard Ice Arena and an access road for service vehicles. The main entrance to the golf club is planned off Barnes Road. All of the housing is planned as condominiums. Mr. Lafferty said nine of the market-priced homes will be restricted to seasonal residences through deed restrictions. The affordable housing is planned as rental apartments.

Mr. Kupersmith's property lies in the watershed for the Lagoon and Sengekontacket Ponds and the property is affected by four districts of critical planning concern (DCPCs). A complicated nitrogen mitigation plan includes offsetting the impact on the ponds from the golf course by tying the Island Elderly Housing Project into the golf club sewage treatment plant. The turf management plan for the golf course is described as organically driven.

The plan calls for a conservation package with the state and the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, although the state and the land bank have not yet agreed to the deal. The state portion of the package calls for the Department of Environmental Management to buy a small portion of the old Webb's Camping Area and return the site to use as a family camp ground. The original camp ground was about 80 acres; Mr. Kupersmith is proposing a sale of about 12 acres to the state. If the conservation package does not pan out, the settlement agreement calls for allowing the developer to build more houses on the property.

The developers are also proposing to buy the Windfarm Golf Driving Range off the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road and convert it to conservation land.

Much of the information presented at the hearings this week was rehash, but not all of it. On Wednesday Mr. Rebello floated a new idea, urging the commission to require some kind of public play on the golf course, using the Farm Neck Golf Club as a model.

"I agree that a private club doesn't fit the mold for Oak Bluffs. . . . What we need is a real public benefit," Mr. Rebello said.

"This is a big deal, a big deal," declared golf club supporter Tim Dobel.

Last night at the outset commission member Kate Warner read a statement, asking the developer to provide the commission with information that illustrates in real terms the need for another private golf club on the Vineyard. The statement drew applause.

The settlement agreement between the town and the developer was forged almost entirely behind closed doors, and the selectmen were singled out for sharp criticism more than once.

"I'm not for or against golf. But the selectmen have never done a poll or come to the people in the town of Oak Bluffs and asked us. The selectmen are not working for the people because they haven't asked the people," said Janice Rose.

"The chairman of the board of selectmen spoke about reaching out. They never reached out to me, they never reached out to the people who are sitting here tonight. They reached out to the people who have the bucks, and they did it behind closed doors," said Linda Marinelli.

"Each time they say they represent the people of Oak Bluffs, my views are excluded and it infuriates me. Something that is so crucial to the town should be put to a ballot," said Renee Balter.

"Total disenfranchisement for the people of Oak Bluffs," said Ann Margetson.

"The board of selectmen have let us down. They have not come to us and said, what do you want?' said Peggy Amos.

"It's unfortunate when representatives of we the people fail … but you the Martha's Vineyard Commission stand for we the people. And when you make your decision on this, know that we stand behind you," said Sam Low. "It's not your job to weigh the popular vote or swing toward it or to be intimidated by bullies. I am concerned that you brush aside blandishments and threats," he added.

But for the commission it was not so easy.

Richard Toole, a commission member who presides over DRI hearings, ended the session just after 9:30 last night. Hands were still in the air among people who wanted to speak, but a third hearing had been scheduled for Oct. 10 and Mr. Toole began to tell the audience to return on that date. Then Mr. Lafferty threw a quick curveball, requesting that the hearing be closed in exchange for a promise from Mr. Kupersmith that he would take Mr. Rebello's suggestion to heart and allow some kind of public play on the golf course.

Mr. Lafferty said the offer was only good if the commission closed the hearing and agreed to vote on the project by Oct. 15. "We will agree to introduce a public golf component, if we can get this thing approved and get it done," he said.

Commission chairman James Vercruysse took the gavel from Mr. Toole and suspended the public hearing so the commission could discuss the issue. After a testy discussion about schedules, there was little in the way of consensus, and and the commission agreed to stick with Oct. 10 as the third hearing date. Commission member Robert Zeltzer suggested that the commission stay as long as it takes on Oct. 10 and vote on the project, but at that point acting executive director Bill Veno stepped in. "I think that you can only confirm when the next meeting will be," he said.