Road Plan Hits a Raw Nerve

Edgartown Neighbors Question Access to Pennywise Project, Selectmen Cut Short Debate and Look to Town Meeting

By IAN FEIN

A handful of Arbutus Park residents are fuming over a plan by Edgartown officials to build a road over Tenth street south as the second access to the Pennywise Path affordable housing project.

Tenth street residents said they recognize the potential merits of the plan, but feel betrayed by the way the town has pursued it. Town officials signed off on the proposal in October, but news of the plan surfaced just last week.

"It feels like they snuck underneath us," said Michael Jackson, an Edgartown gas fitter who has lived at the end of Tenth street for 30 years. "They're not talking to the people who actually live in the area. They're talking among themselves, throwing it out one night and trying to jam it down our throats. I'm not saying I don't want this to happen, but that lack of communication sucks."

At a special town meeting next Thursday voters will take up a series of articles - authored by selectmen and the town affordable housing committee - that intend to take the paper road by eminent domain and appropriate almost $130,000 to pave and construct it.

The town will also seek voter approval to appropriate $310,000 to bring water, sewer and electricity to the Pennywise Path project. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Old Whaling Church.

Access has long been an issue for the 60-unit affordable housing development, which will be located on 12 acres of town-owned land behind Arbutus Park, south of Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. As of now, Twelfth street south will be the only way in and out of the project.

When the Martha's Vineyard Commission and Edgartown zoning board of appeals approved the Pennywise Path development this summer, both agencies expressed concern about the impact a single access would pose to residents of Twelfth street, and asked the town to explore other options.

At the request of the zoning board, selectmen appointed an access committee in September to look into the issue. The committee concluded that Tenth street was the best alternative, and asked selectmen in October to begin the eminent domain process and place the appropriate articles on the special town meeting warrant.

Town officials acknowledged this week that no efforts were made to inform the public about the Tenth street plan until mid-December, when a state-mandated notification letter was sent to the 20 abutters.

As required by state law, selectmen held a public hearing about the plan this week. Almost 50 people packed the Fred B. Morgan Jr. meeting room for the Tuesday hearing.

Affordable housing committee member Alan Gowell and access committee member Dennis Rogers of Twelfth street both spoke in favor of the plan, while three Jernegan avenue residents voiced concerns about putting the second access so close to the first.

Selectman and board chairman Margaret Serpa cut the discussion short to move on to the next agenda item. A number of people who attended the hearing felt the allotted 15 minutes was insufficient.

"Maybe I'm missing the point of having a hearing, but I thought there would be more time for discussion," said seasonal Jernegan avenue resident Robert Fresher, who drove up from Connecticut to attend the hearing. "I guess I was looking to them for a little more explanation. It all seemed pretty abrupt."

Mr. Gowell had a different view.

"I thought there would be more discussion for the number of people who were there, but apparently they were all in support," he said. "So I'm going to interpret that as widespread support for this proposal, but we'll find out next Thursday."

More than one Tenth street resident said they were not properly notified about the hearing.

Mr. Jackson, who grew up on Tenth street and bought his parents' home there 10 years ago, arrived at the town hall at 4:45 p.m. on Tuesday only to find that the selectmen had already closed the hearing. He said he only learned about the hearing that evening when he came home from work to find a number of telephone messages from concerned neighbors.

"I've maintained the back section of that road for 30 years. I've fixed all the potholes, dug myself out in the snow, and the town never cared to help," Mr. Jackson said Tuesday, his hands still covered in grease. "Now they want to put a highway through my front yard, where my five children play every day."

Mr. Jackson said he was not necessarily opposed to using Tenth street as an access, but feels that the town should have included the neighbors in the process earlier.

"If I was notified properly and understood what their direction was, I probably would have worked with them," Mr. Jackson said. "But the way they're doing this makes me feel like they're putting the natives on the back burner and walking right past us to do their project."

Manuel Sylvia, Mr. Jackson's uncle and neighbor who has lived on Tenth street for 18 years, said he learned of the hearing when he found a notice nailed to a tree near his home.

"I think they should have had a big public meeting, let people talk, and let the selectmen themselves answer people's questions why they're doing this," Mr. Sylvia said. "Instead it feels like they're sneaking behind our backs without speaking to us."

Town officials said this week's public hearing and Thursday's special town meeting will provide ample opportunity for people to be heard.

"We've made a proposal, the first public hearing was held, and from this point we'll see if the townspeople approve. If we have the townspeople's agreement here, then we have to go back to the Martha's Vineyard Commission," Mr. Gowell said.

The commission required that any access other than Twelfth street return for additional review.

Some question why the town did not approach the MVC before trying to take and pave Tenth street as the second access. It remains unclear what the town will do if voters approve the plan but the commission rejects it.

Other residents questioned the decision to pursue the Tenth street taking at a special town meeting, instead of waiting for a larger turnout at annual town meeting in April.

"I have a bit of concern about the timing of this," Samuel Warriner said at the public hearing Tuesday. "It always seems like the town is trying to rush into things at special town meeting. Why not wait until April? This seems to be an extremely important issue, so let's hold it for annual town meeting."

Selectmen called the special town meeting to keep the Pennywise Path project on schedule, but in fact the Tenth street plan does not affect the timeline.

The three articles on the warrant to bring water, sewer and electricity to the project must pass for the town-contracted private developers to receive state funding in February. If the articles fail, the developers must wait until September for another chance at the money.

The Tenth street articles have no effect on the funding.

"The plan is to get into the ground late this summer - assuming we are awarded our tax credits in the February round," Mr. Gowell said. "And ideally I would like to see our construction traffic use Tenth street too."