MVC Closes Hearing on Golf Plan; Developers Press for Immediate Vote but Agency Will Decide Wednesday

By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer

The developers of the Down Island Golf Club made their final chess move last night in the quest to win approval for a luxury golf and housing project in the southern woodlands, unveiling a hasty eleventh-hour plan for public play and urging the Martha's Vineyard Commission to vote on the project immediately.

"We deal in benefits and detriments, not carrots and clubs," said commission member Robert Zeltzer. You brought out public play to put it on the table and then you took it away. Is it a benefit to the community, and if it is, why not make it part of the proposal?" he added.

In the end developers Brian Lafferty and Corey Kupersmith did make a formal offer to allow public play, but not before a prolonged game of cat and mouse that drew exasperated remarks from more than one member of the commission.

"It's really very difficult to vote on something when the package isn't clear," said commission member Kate Warner.

The comments came at a third and final hearing on the golf club project that drew a crowd of about 150 people and ran for more than three hours last night. The hearing was marked by a fresh burst of public testimony against the golf club project and comparatively little testimony in favor of the project.

And for the second time this month, the commission resisted intense pressure from the developer to take a quick vote on the project, deciding instead to schedule a special meeting for next Wednesday night to vote on the long-running, controversial golf club plan. The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the commission office in Oak Bluffs.

The developers want to build a private 18-hole golf club and 30 houses - including 14 market-priced homes and 16 affordable units - on 277 acres in the southern woodlands section of Oak Bluffs. The land is owned by Mr. Kupersmith, a Connecticut developer who has been trying to win approval for a golf course project for the last two and a half years. The commission has turned down two plans; the third plan is now under review as a development of regional impact (DRI). Mr. Lafferty is a Bolton housing developer.

The project includes a plan for the state Department of Environmental Management to buy 12.5 acres of Mr. Kupersmith's property for use as a public camp ground, and a plan to sell 32.5 acres to the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank for conservation land, although the state and the land bank have not yet agreed to the deal. Another part of the plan that calls for the developer to buy the Wind Farm Golf Driving Range and convert it to conservation land is also now in flux.

Whether to allow public play on the private golf course has been the subject of some discussion in recent weeks. At a public hearing in September, Oak Bluffs selectman Todd Rebello urged the commission to require the developer to include some kind of public play at the golf course, suggesting the Farm Neck Golf Club as a model. Mr. Lafferty said he would go along, but only if the commission closed the public hearing that night.

The commission refused.

Last night the subject surfaced again. At the outset commission member Allen Schweikert, who is an open supporter of the golf club, brought it up. "If the applicant is willing to offer public play, then I suggest that we close this hearing tonight by 9 p.m. and vote it up or down," he said.

Mr. Schweikert tried to make a motion, but at that point the public hearing had been opened and a motion was out of order. "I'd like to hear more about this, but at this point we should go through the process," said commission member Michael Donaroma.

During the public testimony portion of the hearing more than one speaker expressed strong skepticism about the golf club plan and its constantly changing details.

Vineyard Conservation Society director Brendan O'Neill called the plan a "moving target," and submitted a lengthy technical review that condemned the project on a number of fronts. Among other things, he said the recent settlement agreement between the town and the developers sets up a cozy sale deal for a piece of town-owned land in the middle of Mr. Kupersmith's property, in clear violation of the law that prohibits collusion.

Tom Walsh, an Oak Bluffs resident and real estate developer, issued a stinging indictment of the plan with its long list of community benefits. "The only thing they left out was the door prize - this is all half truths and blatant lies," he said. "If, if, if - it's a lot of contingencies. We cannot afford to lose the lobster hatchery and the shellfish hatchery - these are the real economic engines of the town."

Paul Bagnall, the Edgartown shellfish constable and marine biologist, registered concerns about the impacts on Sengekontacket Pond from the project.

Oak Bluffs selectman Richard Combra reminded the commission of the support for the project in the town. "I would hope that the positions taken by the boards and committees of the town would weigh heavily on your decision," he said.

Michael Santoro spoke on behalf of the Oak Bluffs business association in support of the project. Mr. Santoro said the board for the business association had voted 9-4 to support the project. But Laurel Welch, a business owner on Circuit avenue, said business owners were not asked for their opinions. "I was never polled, I was never asked," she said.

Several speakers praised the commission for enduring enormous public pressure over the golf course project.

"Where has respect for the democratic process gone - this is government by intimidation," declared West Tisbury resident Barbara Day. "The Martha's Vineyard Commission was created as the only regional entity that can speak for the silent Island, that is the trees, the land, the water. We count on you," she said.

There were colorful moments, including one when Vineyard Haven resident Mev Good walked to the podium carrying a pair of antique golf clubs. Mr. Good declared that he is a golfer, but he expressed concerns about the sketchy details. "Where is the verification of all these things? Who will enforce it? Trust - without it you don't have anything," he said.

Also last night, the developers unveiled a surprise new plan to tie the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School into the golf course sewage treatment plant, although there were few details.

In the end the sparring resumed over public play.

Mr. Lafferty continued to press the commission for a vote. Finally Mr. Donaroma asked him to cut to the chase. "Let's say this gets voted in the next week, what is the public play you are putting on the table?" he said.

Mr. Lafferty then produced an outline of a two-part plan that would allow for a limited number of public tee times. The second part would relax the requirements for the turf management plan to allow the golf club to use more chemical products. Public play will mean more use, Mr. Lafferty said, so traditional methods will be needed to maintain the turf.

Mr. Lafferty waved the outline around but did not give it to the commission. Suddenly Mr. Kupersmith rose from his seat and announced: "I am officially offering public play." Mr. Lafferty then handed the outline to commission staff planner Jennifer Rand.

A similar exercise took place over the Windfarm Golf Driving Range. There were questions about whether Mr. Lafferty would reduce the number of houses in the project if the wind farm property was not included in the deal, but the answers were unclear.

"If the applicant wants us to expedite this process, at some point this moving target has got to stop moving and he has to get something on the table," said commission member Linda Sibley. "I agree. If you want to get this over with, what are you putting on the table?" said Mr. Donaroma.

"If we're approved within the next five days, we'll take off four houses - three for the wind farm and one for good measure," Mr. Lafferty finally said.

"I believe this proposal stands on its merits," he concluded.