Commission Rejects Gas Station Proposal on Busy State Road

By JULIA WELLS

Questioning the need and citing possible negative effects on the mom-and-pop gas stations up-Island, the Martha's Vineyard Commission voted without dissent last week to reject a plan for a new gas station on State Road in Vineyard Haven.

"I don't think we should be building any more facilities to accommodate the automobile, and this is going to rob Peter to pay Paul," said commission member Tristan Israel.

"I am persuaded by the arguments made by the owners of the small stations up-Island," said commission member Richard Toole.

"I have come to the conclusion that there is a substantial risk of losing one of the stations up-Island," said commission member Linda Sibley.

The comments came on Thursday night just before the commission voted 11-0 to deny the Gervais-Goldsborough Fueling Center project. It was a busy night for the commission, which later in the same meeting also voted to reopen a public hearing on the Fairwinds affordable housing project after an unusual and somewhat emotional exchange with the developer.

Planned at the site of the old Coca Cola bottling plant off the busy State Road corridor in Vineyard Haven, the gas station project was under review by the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI). It was the third gas station project for the same site to come before the commission in the last two years. Earlier plans included more facilities, but the latest plan was reduced to a simple, three-pump filling station.

The current owners of the property are Thomas Gervais and Robert Goldsborough. The property has been the subject of a series of complicated ownership issues, and some of the former owners are now proposing their own two-pump gas station at a site on High Point Lane adjacent to the old Coke plant.

The Tisbury Fuel Services project is expected to come up for a vote at the commission meeting this Thursday night.

Traffic and economic impacts are the two central themes for both projects. Both project proponents claim that they will help to lower the exorbitant gasoline prices on the Vineyard by introducing competition.

During public hearings on both projects, the owners of Up-Island Automotive in West Tisbury urged the commission to deny the projects, predicting that they will hurt business.

"I put my faith and hopes in the Martha's Vineyard Commission to help protect local businesses run by local Islanders from being run out of business by big promises and cheap prices," said Pat Jenkinson in impassioned remarks during one hearing.

As they prepared to vote on the first gas station project, commission members appeared to take the comments to heart.

"I was pretty well convinced that the traffic situation on State Road is not going to be aggravated by a gas station . . . . Most of my concern is about the impact on the up-Island gas stations. It's very important for up-Islanders to have a gas station," said commission member James Athearn.

"I keep coming back to the fact that I am so frustrated by the price of gas on Martha's Vineyard, and if I thought this would do something about that I would overlook all these other concerns. But I really don't think it will change anything," said Mr. Toole.

"I agree with Richard; if I believed this would lower the prices, I might vote the other way. But I am a retailer and I know something about the relationship between prices and sales volume," said Mrs. Sibley, who is the owner of the Vineyard Electronics Radio Shack store on State Road. She continued: "The notion that competition per se brings down the prices is simply not true. What we have here on the Vineyard is a boutique market. It's about volume. And when the volume goes down, people have to raise their prices or go out of business."

Other commission members questioned the need. "I look at this situation and think if there was truly a need for another gas station, this would be the one. But I don't think there is a need," said Andrew Woodruff.

The commission found far less harmony when it came to the Fairwinds housing development. Planned for a 4.9-acre piece of property at the intersection of Greenwood avenue extension and Herring Creek Road in Vineyard Haven, the project is now planned as 16 three-bedroom condominium units. Four of the units are planned to be sold as affordably priced homes, four are planned to be sold as moderately priced homes and four are planned as market-priced homes. Affordable pricing is determined by using a complicated state formula that takes into account income, family size and other factors.

The project was filed under Chapter 40B, a state law that allows affordable housing projects to skirt many local zoning rules, but on the Vineyard Chapter 40B projects are not exempt from DRI review by the commission.

The proponents of the project are Tom Richardson, Jim Stevenson and Ed Herczeg, partners in JE&T Construction.

The project was first proposed as 24 units but was later scaled back to 20 and then reduced again to 16 units, in response to concerns from neighbors and commission members about density.

The site for the project is considered somewhat problematic, because it is small with an uneven grade.

The 11 commission members who are eligible to vote on the project are deeply divided, and in a land use planning subcommittee meeting two weeks ago, commission members could not agree on a recommendation for the project.

On Thursday, just after the vote on the gas station project, the MVC turned its attention to Fairwinds. A vote was considered likely, but before the commission began its discussion, Mr. Richardson requested permission to speak and commission chairman James Vercruysse assented.

Mr. Richardson then unleashed a heartfelt monologue about the commission's arcane process, as seen through the eyes of a developer.

"We have struggled and the problem here is the process, and we are not being treated fairly. We have tried to get involved in the give and take but it hasn't really worked. This is a 40B project, whether you like it or not, and we have nowhere to turn," he said.

After a moment of stunned silence, there was mixed reaction among members of the commission. "I think this process has been extremely fair and I think this board acted properly," said Mr. Israel.

"I think it's a scolding that perhaps we need," countered Mr. Woodruff.

"I think the applicant has made some valid points about the process," said Mr. Toole. "And I think the applicant has shown in spite of what he said that the process does work - he has gone from 24 units to 16, and I think the applicant is willing to work with us."

As the discussion wore on, the division among members of the commission about the merits of the project surfaced again.

"If I was to vote on this project tonight, I would vote it down because I feel that it does not fit the landscape and it does not fit the neighborhood," said commission member Roger Wey.

"If I was trying to develop this project, the first thing I would do is try to find another site. But I think they have worked hard to meet the needs of the neighborhood; I feel the benefits do outweigh the detriments and I think it can work," said Mr. Vercruysse.

Commission member Christina Brown went to the heart of the dilemma, reading from a recent report about housing needs on the Vineyard.

"There is such a need right now and there is such a need to maintain a lively community - 257 households that have been here for more than 10 years and could afford a house in the $150,000 to $175,000 range - and there aren't any," Ms. Brown said.

"So far there hasn't been a perfect project. But I think we have a responsibility to take this real seriously, and I think the application in front of us is probably a pretty good balance between benefits and detriments," she added.

In the end, Mrs. Sibley returned to both the process and the merits of the project, and the suggestion surfaced that the applicant could ask to reopen the public hearing.

"I'd like to see if we could try to make something productive out of this - there is always a tension in our process and there is also a laudable goal here which is to create affordable housing," Mrs. Sibley said.

Others agreed, and the commission voted 9-1 to reopen the public hearing on the project after Mr. Richardson formally requested the move.

A land use planning committee meeting is now set for Nov. 4 on the Fairwinds project, and the public hearing will reopen Nov. 7.

"It's obvious that you have struggled the way we have struggled, and I think this is in everyone's best interest," Mr. Richardson concluded.