Advocate for Summer Housing Pushes for Property at Airport

By ALEXIS TONTI

A leader in the push to build group housing for summer workers on the Vineyard is calling for the Martha's Vineyard Airport commissioners to reconsider a plan to site the housing on county land near the airport business park.

"This is a great Island initiative and it shouldn't fail because of shortsightedness," said Norman Rankow, chairman of the Summer Workforce Housing Task Force. "I plan to do whatever I can to bring the airport commissioners on board."

The project was first introduced more than five years ago, as the housing problem for summer workers was reaching a crisis level. Task force leaders envisioned dormitory-style housing for 150 to 200 employees of Island businesses and organizations, with beds sold to those businesses via a lottery. For their site they targeted seven acres in the southwest quadrant of the airport property, near the Hot Tin Roof.

The proposal had the support of the airport commission in the early phases of the airport master plan - the then unfinished long-term development plan for the airport and surrounding property. The airport commissioners both formally approved the concept and agreed to include the project as a line item in the airport master plan.

But when the master plan was finally adopted in December 2002, it concluded that the housing proposal should not be pursued. The consultant group noted that the airport was not appropriate as a neighborhood, lacking a quiet environment, residential setting and the convenience stores to support full-time living.

Then in July the airport commissioners voted to ask the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to release the same seven acres for a new county jail. At that time, airport commission chairman Jack Law offered a raw alternative: move the dormitory housing into the present jail building once the jail relocates to the airport.

Siting a new county jail on airport land has been a source of contention since last year, when the Dukes County commissioners clashed with the airport commissioners over the proposed site. The county commissioners wanted to put the jail and a training facility for emergency personnel on 24 acres in the northeast quadrant of the airport. (All told, the airport property comprises more than 600 acres.)

Ultimately the master plan did not support the jail in that location, saying the area needed to be kept open to accommodate the growth of the airport beyond 2020.

"The airport commission chose the easier route by saying, let's put the jail [in the southwest quadrant] and bump dormitory housing. It is irresponsible on their part," said Mr. Rankow, who attended the July meeting.

"The bottom line is the airport commission needs to have a change in their opinion on the importance of this housing. It can work in their environment," he added.

"The airport is not passing judgment on the importance of these issues," airport manager Bill Weibrecht said of both the jail and workforce housing. "Aviation needs always come first. This is about good planning and making sure that we are not in crisis 20 years from now."

Mr. Weibrecht added that any proposals for development - related or unrelated to aviation - also must take into account potential land use restrictions (a rare species of moth may preclude building in a particular area) and the cumulative impact of development on the property as a whole. A commercial business, for example, cannot be built where a runway will be extended five years from now. "It's very easy to say this spot looks good and has good access, but there is a lot more to consider," he said.

"We have to make sure all the [proposed] uses are allowed and are compatible with the future needs of the airport," said Mr. Weibrecht. "The FAA is always concerned about noise, safety, security. And from a needs standpoint we have to make sure the airport can handle the impact - the additional vehicles, the wastewater. That all has to be handled on site."

He added: "We helped by taking a lot of the business development out of downtown, but not everything that people don't want in their backyard is compatible with the airport."

"It's evident that a dormitory of some 150 to 200 people is not going to be readily accepted in a residential community or abutting a residential community," said Mr. Rankow. "Its intensity is something we must be sensitive to. The best place to put something like this is a business park industrial setting. It's only seasonal.

"We had targeted that piece because that was what was there on the ground. We could certainly go in another area, and we could do it on less land. Not half an acre, but maybe two to four acres," said Mr. Rankow.

The summer workforce housing plan began to take shape in 1998, when the town of Edgartown approved a zoning bylaw to allow dormitory housing on the airport property. Public officials, the chamber of commerce and business owners rallied around the idea, and by 2000 through fundraising and matching state grants the group had more than $50,000.

And then the task force took a back seat until the master planning process was complete, said Mr. Rankow, who at the outset knew the project needed final approval from both the FAA and the airport commission.

The master plan was completed under the direction of the FAA and serves as a blueprint for the airport to use when requesting grants from the federal agency. It outlines 22 projects to be completed through 2009 including the construction of more hangars and a larger main terminal and the lengthening and widening of runways.

Before the state or the FAA will approve any part of the capital improvement program, the airport must prepare a draft environmental impact report, an effort now under way. The report will take into consideration the cumulative effects of all proposed development at the airport. It will include endangered species surveys as well as detailed studies of noise, traffic and wastewater issues.

The FAA also will not consider releasing airport land for use as a jail - or for any other purpose - until the draft environmental report is done, which Mr. Weibrecht said likely will be some time next summer.