Affordable Housing Bylaw Passes at Tisbury Meeting

By JONATHAN BURKE

Tisbury voters approved an affordable housing bylaw at a special town meeting Tuesday night.

Questions surrounding overall administration of the housing plan, and an amnesty program within it, almost defeated the motion. In an hour-long debate proceeding the vote, speakers suggested again and again that the proposal - encouraging the creation of accessory apartments - needed more work.

One example of their concern: Language in the proposal calling for applicants on an affordable housing project to get a "site approval letter" from the town in order to proceed. "Where does the site approval letter come from?" asked Ned Orleans, a planning board member.

Many were not satisfied by town administrator Dennis Luttrell's response, that site approval would probably come through his office.

"Who is going to give authorization to say that site is approved?" asked Ken Garde, a member of the Tisbury Board of Health.

Mr. Luttrell was unable to provide specific details, other than to say that the provision authorized the board of selectmen to pass additional criteria.

Another criticism was launched at an amnesty provision in the bylaw that provides a way for owners to legalize currently illegal accessory apartments. Critics said existing illegal apartments failed to live up to existing plumbing, electrical and building codes and that it would be impossible to fully inspect them now.

"We're actually allowing substandard housing to come in and pass for affordable housing," said Marie Laursen.

"This article is not ready at this time," declared Tom Pachico, a selectman.

The momentum seemed to favor the critics. But a number of the town's planners spoke in support of the article.

"I'm a little disconcerted that this hasn't been developed and presented to you more thoroughly ... I have mixed feelings about passing the law and then polishing it up," said Tony Peak, chairman of the planning board.

But in the end, Mr. Peak said he was sure the bylaw would be cleaned up enough so that sub-standard housing would not be legalized, and he threw his support behind the article.

Mr. Orleans said his misgivings would be addressed if members of the planning board, the board of health and the zoning board of appeals were included in the next step, creating regulations to guide the administration of the bylaw.

Following defeat of a motion to table the article until next year, it passed in a close voice vote.

Also at the three-and-a-half hour meeting, which was attended by a few more than 100 of the town's 2,531 registered voters, with 100 representing a quorum:

- Town voters refused to legalize a teachers' professional enhancement fund that has been in existence since 1988. According to the state's enabling legislation, the fund was supposed to be affirmatively approved by all member towns. Though all Island towns have paid into the fund on an annual basis, none of the Island towns have ever voted on it.

Suzanne Kennedy, town accountant, led the charge against the fund. She said she was not against paying for continuing education for teachers but was against a special fund that was allowed to hold over surpluses.

"What it means is that anything that is left over does not get returned to the town," Ms. Kennedy said.

"It doesn't have anything to do with the school. I'm just not in favor of that," she later told the Gazette. "The teachers will still be entitled to be reimbursed."

The town meeting vote means that the fund will be abolished, Amy Tierney, assistant to the superintendent for business affairs, said. Money earmarked for professional enhancement will continue to be paid by the towns on an annual basis to the office of the superintendent. But any amounts left over at the end of the fiscal year would be returned.

"There is no change, other than the fact that at the end of the year the town gets the money back," said Ms. Tierney.

Ms. Tierney said an inability to create a surplus will be a problem when a teacher is granted a sabbatical, which can cost $36,000 a year. This year $88,000 has been reserved for professional enhancement.

The article to approve the fund is on all the town warrants this year except Edgartown's.

- Articles to obtain official bonds, elect a fish committee, authorize certain actions by the treasurer, adjust property exemptions for senior citizens and amend sections of the bylaws passed without debate in most cases.

- Articles to decriminalize the abandonment of motor vehicles, while instituting civil fines, raise certain pay scales, and stockpile thyroid-blocking agents, a prescription to combat exposure to radiation, also passed with little comment.

- An article to adopt a new vehicle rotation policy and place administrative control in the Capital Program Committee was voted down amidst criticism that department heads knew their vehicle needs better than the program committee.

In spite of all the business accomplished, the special town meeting was not completed. Article One - To Hear or Receive Reports - was not taken up because the reports are at the printer.

To handle that, the special town meeting was continued to next Tuesday, to immediately before the annual town meeting in which town voters will take up the fiscal 2003-2004 budget.