Martha's Vineyard Commission Approves Hillside Village Housing, with Conditions

By MANDY LOCKE

The Martha's Vineyard Commission is wrestling a new kind of development animal these days.

The regional planning agency managed to mold one such project into an acceptable form last night - unanimously approving a five-unit housing building for low-income elderly. The newest addition to the Hillside Village complex on Edgartown Vineyard Haven road had been stalled in the deliberation phase after commissioners deadlocked 5-5 just two weeks ago. The failure to approve Island Elderly Housing's project seemed to surprise even the commissioners, and the vote stirred a passionate protest from IEH leaders and supporters.

Unresolved planning complications - an added traffic burden for Clover Hill Drive neighbors and nitrogen loading that exceeded the commission's standards for nutrient contribution in the Lagoon Pond watershed - sent commissioners back to the discussion table this week. The MVC granted approval to IEH last night, ordering at least one potentially cost prohibitive condition to help pacify some commissioners.

"To challenge this project was the right thing to do. Just because it's a good affordable housing project doesn't mean it didn't need to be challenged and made better," said commissioner Tristan Israel, who voted against the project two weeks ago.

To construct Hillside Village III, IEH must now install a denitrifying filter on seven additional units in Hillside Village I. IEH already planned to install such a mechanism on Hillside Village III's septic system. Engineers estimate the additional filter could tack on at least another $20,000 to project costs, likely pushing the nonprofit agency beyond the $572,000 federal grant allocation for the building.

During Monday evening's land use planning committee meeting, where commissioners tried to find conditions that could ease the concerns of hesitant commissioners, one member asked jokingly: "We have a new way of voting now. It's, ‘Can you live with it?' "

The tongue-in-cheek comment flirted with a genuine fear some commissioners register as the commission continues to review altruistic projects aimed to help people marginalized by the Island's steep housing market.

"If this were private, would we accept it? Probably not. It's because it's philanthropic. It's a good idea, but they come in telling us how much money they have and what parameters there are. It's a different kind of animal," Mr. Israel said during an LUPC discussion about IEH's project, referencing another Chapter 40B affordable housing project now before the commission.

Bridge Common, a Chapter 40B development that would bring 15 affordable duplexes to eight acres of farmland of State Road in Tisbury, remained undecided by the end of last night's deliberations. The work of Bridge Housing, an ecumenical nonprofit group, this partnership plan with the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank has been before the land use planning agency since late January. Sixteen abutting acres of this farmland will be perpetually conserved for the public - a more than reasonable compensation for a densely packed third of the entire property, proponents argue. A for-profit Chapter 40B project could technically develop the entire 24-acre site and only offer a quarter of the units as affordable, supporters point out.

Last night, commissioners methodically ticked through a long list of benefits and detriments - often getting hung up on aspects of the housing plan that commissioners, in other cases, are inclined flatly to reject.

"Even if we accept that the benefits outweigh the detriments, we must soberly acknowledge that we are approving something that is out of character on this Island," said commissioner Linda Sibley last night.

"You will know the Island is becoming more suburban because of this project," said commissioner Andrew Woodruff during LUPC Monday night.

Neighbors flooded the public hearings for Bridge Common, complaining of a dense development being planted in an otherwise pastoral community, an extra load of cars in an already congested area and possible threat of water contamination due to the northeast flow of septic discharge from the area. Bridge leaders have already added a denitrifying septic system, monitoring wells, town water hookups, a reconfigured plan which eliminated one duplex and additional landscaping to help shield the closest neighbors.

When a member nitpicked one of the plan's drawbacks, others steered the discussion back on course - pointing to the 300 Island households without affordable year-round rentals.

"We're addressing a character question here. Will the Island become a place just for the wealthy? These residents will be year-round people instead of the weekend warriors and seasonal residents," said commissioner Richard Toole during Monday's subcommittee meeting.

While some might argue the MVC is graciously accepting planning complications in projects like Bridge Common and Hillside Village III, stalled approval for the new elderly housing units left the director of Island Elderly Housing critical of the MVC review process.

"The MVC, acting as the local board reviewing this 40B, must also keep [affordable housing] in the forefront so as not to discourage it," said Carol Lashnits, IEH's executive director, criticizing the MVC for scrutinizing nitrogen loading from the Hillside Village complex even though it contributed the same amount of nitrogen as a single family home once IEH offered to install a denitrifying filter.

"They MVC must learn how to balance conservation and people. If they can't do that, they're dangerous for the future of Martha's Vineyard," Ms. Lashnits continued.

Meanwhile, Bridge directors patiently wait another week for the commission to continue deliberations of their project.

"We've worked for two and a half years to this project to be perfect and workable. This is not the time to give up. We have too big an investment in doing it right for the community," said Barbara Shriber, a Bridge Housing director.