Pennywise Path Development: Pressure from Many Directions


Neighbors are pleading for restraint, Edgartown officials are urging confidence and regional planners are demanding more answers.

Pressures are coming from many directions as Martha's Vineyard Commission members scrutinize the Pennywise Path Project - the most ambitious affordable housing project proposal to hit the Vineyard.

The Pennywise Path project, 60 units of affordable rental units slated for 12-acres of town-owned land, brings many firsts to the Island. For starters, town officials are driving this rental development. Pennywise Path, if approved, would bring the largest family apartment complex to an Island with more than 15,000 single-family homes. At 60 units, it's double the size of the largest family affordable housing development previously proposed for the Island.

Town officials have partnered with The Community Builders (TCB), a Boston-based nonprofit development company. Twelve acres of town land will be leased to TCB, and the company will finance, build and manage this $11.3-million project. The town and TCB are applying for permits under Chapter 40B, a state law which allows developers to skirt certain local zoning restrictions if a quarter of the housing stock is affordable.

This project has been in the town's incubator for more than three years. It all started in 1999, when Edgartown leaders, along with the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, purchased 180 acres of rolling woodland in the town's northwest corridor for $2.7 million. The town owns the entire tract, and the land bank has a conservation restriction over 118 acres of the property. In 2001, Edgartown voters designated 12 acres of the remaining town land for development of affordable housing.

The units will take the form of traditional New England-style buildings resembling farmhouses and barns. Three clusters will surround central green space, and a five-acre recreation area will be constructed between Pennywise Path project and their residential neighbors in Arbutus Park.

Flanked by conservation land, a private luxury golf course and a thickly-settled neighborhood, Pennywise Path project would chip away at the town's pressing affordable housing shortage, officials said. Edgartown residents get first call on 70 per cent of the units. Once those units are filled, residents of all six Vineyard towns can apply for the remaining 30 per cent.

The degree of local preference Edgartown officials can guarantee has been a sticking point. Because the project relies on a number of state and federal subsidies, federal and state officials can exert some control over occupant selection.

"I feel like this project is potentially fatally flawed if it doesn't provide for local preference," said James Athearn, MVC chairman to Edgartown leaders and TCB officials last Thursday night at a commission public hearing review, asking for selection criteria. "It could quickly fill up with nominal residents instead of really serving the needs of the community if the residency requirements aren't deep."

"Jim, we are not prepared to give you that right now. You have to make a certain leap of faith that we'll take care of our own. This project hit a stall not so long ago when we weren't certain we could [enforce local preference]," Alan Gowell, a member of the town's affordable housing committee, told commissioners Thursday night.

State housing officials, however, gave town leaders the go-ahead this spring to fill the units with Vineyard residents, and more specifically, Edgartown citizens.

"We told them that little communities like ours are not going to build affordable housing unless we can take care of our native children first," Mr. Gowell affirmed in a phone conversation with the Gazette yesterday.

Neighborhood Concerns

Twelfth street will serve as the gateway to the Pennywise Path project, and Arbutus Park residents aren't quite ready to roll out the red carpet.

They want a toned-down version of the project: fewer units, more than one road into the project, and some ownership units mixed in with the rentals.

And they don't want to hear any excuses about limited financial means.

"In a town with a beautification committee which can find people willing to pay to put utility poles underground and gentrify the whole town, we can't find enough money to build an affordable housing development that works for the town," said Steve Ewing, a resident of 16th street. "This development could pit the same working class families you are trying to serve against one another."

Other neighbors echoed that refrain.

"The residents of Arbutus Park don't have a real estate lawyer on retainer or a trained public relations department. We don't have working relationships with environmental scientists, traffic or groundwater experts," said David Montambault, a resident of 14th street. "Our hope is that the Martha's Vineyard Commission will look past the window dressing of playgrounds, nonprofit and community building and review the long-term impact of this development on affordable housing and the communities of Martha's Vineyard."

Mr. Gowell described the challenge of how addressing one neighbor's concern can exacerbate the complaint of another.

"This whole project is one of trying to reach compromise. We're trying to make this palatable to the neighborhood while addressing this pressing need," said Mr. Gowell.

Officials abandoned an earlier version of the project which relied upon Jernegan avenue as the sole access to the project after those residents "pressed upon [officials] how densely settled the street is and how many kids live there."

The town is now pursuing a second access road to the project along Metcalf Drive, which runs off Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. About a mile down Metcalf Drive, a new road would be created to run behind the Vineyard Golf Club, along a preserve managed by the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank.

Because that land is permanently protected by a conservation restriction, the town will need permission from state legislators to use it.

In exchange for lifting a restriction on 1.4 acres of protected land, the town will place a conservation restriction over seven acres of land near the development site. This seven acres encompasses an environmentally sensitive frost pocket.

While town leaders say they have full confidence that state legislators will sign off on the modification, a Vineyard conservation leader has urged commissioners against altering the restriction.

Brendan O'Neill, Vineyard Conservation Society executive director, said it's a matter of principle: "Converting permanent conservation land creates a bad precedent which no amount of compensatory offset of additional land can cure. As an organization whose mission includes drafting these MGL Ch. 184 conservation restrictions, we can testify that such bad precedents detrimentally affect our ability to protect land using [conservation restrictions]."

Mr. O'Neill also warned that the Metcalf Drive access will entice neighbors to cut through the Pennywise Path neighborhood from Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road to the West Tisbury Road in order to avoid the congested Triangle area. Residents of Dodgers Hole know that temptation all too well. Their neighborhood has long been a shortcut for Island drivers, and residents this past winter discussed installing a gate to curb the abuse.

TCB said they are ready and willing to install traffic mitigators - stop signs, speed humps and the like - to address any cut-through motorists.

"It would be foolish to stymie this development and this access because of a bad precedent," said Mr. Gowell.

Environmental Concerns

The Pennywise Path Project would sit right in the middle of an area deemed a priority habitat in a 2003 map produced by the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

The implications of this are not quite clear, but ecologist Wendy Culbert told commissioners that the most sensitive areas of the property occur in pockets and are not stretched across the land.

"Instead of making a map that looked like Swiss cheese, they included the entire matrix in which [these areas] occurred," said Ms. Culbert.

Ms. Culbert, who reviewed the property in 2002 for the town, said she does not imagine the development will infringe on rare or endangered species.

The state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs awarded a certificate of the environmental notification form and waived the requirement for an Environmental Impact Report.

"We've been given the green light from state to proceed on an environmental basis," Mr. Gowell said yesterday.

Economic Factors

The financial viability of this project relies on a balance of state and federal funding. This drives the density of the project and also has forced the developer to eliminate one of the income brackets previously served in the project outline.

"The darn economics of rental housing is why we need so many units. We're a nonprofit developer - you are not going to see the developer kickback that you hear about so often," said Peter Freeman, counsel for TCB.

Last week, the developer stripped the project of units reserved for those Islanders earning between 60 and 110 per cent of county median income. Now, the project serves those earning below 60 per cent of median income, $39,660 for a family of four, as well as those families earning between 110 and 140 per cent of median income, or $72,710 to $92,540 for a family of four.

Monthly rents, which include utilities, will range from $252 to $1,785 for a two-bedroom unit.

Mr. Gowell said yesterday that the town's affordable housing committee will work to reinstate units for those families in the middle economic bracket.

The Martha's Vineyard Commission has continued its public hearing review on Pennywise Path to July 1.