Changes Could Threaten Plan for Housing, MVC Is Warned

By MANDY LOCKE

As the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) concluded its review of a 60-unit affordable rental development in Edgartown, town leaders warned commissioners that tampering with the proposal would jeopardize the project.

"Some conditions placed on this could delay or kill the project," Alan Gowell, a member of the Edgartown affordable housing committee, told commissioners Thursday night.

This town-driven project relies on a delicate balance of factors, Mr. Gowell explained, as he ran down a list of about a half-dozen stipulations which he described as unacceptable.

The Pennywise Path project - slated for 12 acres bordered by the Vineyard Golf Club, conservation land managed by the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank and the Arbutus Park neighborhood - would offer affordable apartments to low and moderate-income Islanders. The town will lease the land to The Community Builders (TCB), a nonprofit affordable housing development corporation based in Boston. TCB would construct the units and manage the 60 units in the future.

Access roads, density, local preference for residents and alterations to conservation restrictions have been sore points throughout the MVC review. Mr. Gowell warned that drastic changes in any of these areas could sabotage the proposal.

The project, as proposed, relies on a single access road along 12th street. Edgartown leaders are working on another access to share the traffic burden, but they urged commission approval without a backup in place.

Town leaders have been trying to arrange for another route off Metcalf Drive, but creation of this new road involves changes to a conservation restriction. The town has proposed swapping a conservation restriction over a narrow strip of land, 1.4 acres running between the Vineyard Golf Club and land bank property, for a conservation restriction over seven acres of land which includes an environmentally sensitive frost pocket. The swap relies on a vote of the state legislature. While town leaders are confident that approval will come, they cannot guarantee the matter will be taken up before the end of this current legislative session, set to close later this month. In addition, the access relies on final negotiations between the town, the golf club owners and land bank officials.

"It appears it's going to pass. We may still be negotiating with the Vineyard Golf Club a year from now, and we don't want to stop this project while we wait for that," said Mr. Gowell in a phone conversation yesterday.

Forcing a decrease in the number of units will upset the budget for the project, developers said. Knocking 10 units off the total of 60 will force the developers to find $500,000 more in funding.

"Right now, we feel we're using every available dollar," Mr. Gowell said.

If commissioners demand the 60 units be phased in over months or years, the developers will pull out of the project. Also, if the project as approved by the MVC varies significantly from the parameters town leaders set in their initial request for proposals last year, it could be another setback for the project.

"We can't stray too far from the advertised RFP or we start the project all over again," said Mr. Gowell. Under state bidding laws, the town is constrained to develop a project described in an RFP.

Requiring a conservation restriction over the seven acres surrounding the frost pocket would delay the project as well. Conservation restrictions require a town meeting vote, and convening such a meeting at this stage would delay the project.

Mr. Gowell also urged commissioners to not specify exactly where the sewer lines connecting the project to the town wastewater treatment plant should be installed. Mr. Gowell said that one of three paths for the sewer line - along a new Metcalf Drive access road, across the Vineyard Golf Club or through the Edgartown Meadows neighborhood - is likely.

The Pennywise Path Project is being applied for under Chapter 40B, a state law which allows developers to bypass certain local zoning requirements if a quarter of the stock is affordable. The Martha's Vineyard Commission has full review power over Chapter 40B projects; the land use agency must sign off on the project before it can be reviewed on the town level.

A certain level of tension between commissioners and Edgartown officials has been evident since the beginning of MVC review. Edgartown leaders have been working on this project for more than three years. MVC members are accustomed to scrutinizing developments of regional impact intensely, and to attaching conditions to projects before they are built.

The fault lines were evident again Thursday night.

Regarding the town guidelines for determining Edgartown residency, MVC chairman James Athearn asked: "Where's the commission's guarantee that [the guidelines] won't be perverted in the future?"

"This is a town issue," responded Edgartown selectman and former MVC member Michael Donaroma. "If the committee couldn't come to an agreement, the issue will come to selectmen to decide."

A longtime Island advocate for affordable housing, Juleann VanBelle, took aim at the project Thursday night.

"I believe people have a given right to have housing that's decent and affordable," said Ms. VanBelle. "I'm not really certain this will be desirable for people actually living there."

Ms. VanBelle also criticized the plan to alter a conservation restriction for the sake of an access road, saying: "It's disrespectful to pit these community commitments against one another. I'm concerned that affordable housing has become the sacred cow, that we're asking for affordable housing at any cost."

In closing, Ms. VanBelle urged commissioners to improve this project.

"I don't want the MVC to deny this project; I do want people to wake up," she said. "We live in a community with people wealthy enough and creative enough to make a project better than this."

The MVC closed the public hearing Thursday night, but left the written record open until noon on this Thursday. The commission's land use planning committee will meet to discuss the project on July 12.