Selectmen Delay Middle Line Vote to Address Questions, Concerns

By MAX HART

The Chilmark housing committee this week unveiled a revised design and a $3.5 million price tag for the ambitious Middle Line Road affordable housing project.

But with the new details came more questions, and the town selectmen ultimately put the brakes on the project, which until now had been on track for a vote at annual town meeting in April.

At a joint meeting with the housing and finance committees Wednesday, the selectmen decided to schedule a special town meeting on the issue later this spring, saying the extra time would allow for thorough planning and discussion.

The project is the first affordable housing development commissioned by the town. It is slated for a 21-acre parcel of town-owned land off Middle Line Road, a dirt road off Tabor House Road adjacent to the landfill.

The new plan combines elements of the two designs first introduced at a hearing in late February. At that time residents raised concerns on everything from project costs to density and a potential study of alternative sites.

"We tried to incorporate the considerations and input from the public hearing in [the third plan]. It's a good plan," said John Abrams of South Mountain Company, the project consultant.

The latest plan calls for six rental units and six set aside for home ownership, with the rental units grouped in the southwest corner of the property. The new plan also has a bit more air in it, with homes spread out over the southeast and northeast quadrants of the parcel.

The public will get a chance to sound off on the latest proposal at a public hearing scheduled for March 30.

"People say they want something that they are used to," Mr. Abrams said. "But none of these plans are like what we are used to in Chilmark. However, [the third plan] does spread the houses out as much as possible."

The latest plan was submitted to the housing committee at its March 9 meeting.

In a memo to selectmen after that meeting, the housing committee recommended the town pursue the latest plan. The committee also urged the town to lease the property to a nonprofit group for development, designate a nonprofit agency to manage the rental units and create a budget for the next phase of the project.

In addition, the committee recommended that the town consider tapping into more than $500,000 available through the town Community Preservation Act (CPA) fund. Money from the fund would go to architectural and engineering costs, remaining survey expenses and some projected legal expenses.

On Wednesday uncertainty reigned regarding the direction of the project and many questions were left unanswered. Both selectmen and finance committee members had numerous concerns about the details of the development. Questions ranged from who will qualify for the housing, to the feasibility of future additions, to how will it be funded.

"This is a complex plan, with a lot of issues to be worked out," selectman J.B. Riggs Parker said. "I think this plan has to be marketed properly and effectively, otherwise you're going to have problems. I think we need to be confident that we did this right."

The board of selectmen then postponed a project vote until a special town meeting sometime in June.

Mr. Abrams did lay out several scenarios for financing. Until this week there had been no official estimate for the project cost.

Mr. Abrams said about half of the costs could be recouped by the sales of the homesites, which would net approximately $1.4 million. Another one million dollars would be covered through mortgage loans for the rental units and contributions from the town through the clayrights purchase and a feasibility and survey grant. The final $1.3 million funding gap could be covered by money from the town CPA fund and a state affordable housing trust.

"We're close to doing this without asking for a big chunk at town meeting," selectmen chairman Warren Doty said.

Mr. Abrams even suggested the funding gap could be small enough to be bridged through private donations.

Housing committee member Zelda (Zee) Gamson concluded the discussion by reminding finance committee members and selectmen how far this project has come.

"We've gotten farther than we ever have," Ms. Gamson said. "And we need the people to remember this is a great deal for the town."

In other business, selectmen agreed at their meeting Tuesday to back the Massachusetts Estuaries Project, a three-year state effort to research nitrogen levels in and the overall health of Chilmark's ponds, beginning with Tisbury Great Pond and Menemsha Pond.

The cost of the project, which is slated to start sometime this summer, is $165,000. Half of that cost will be paid by the state, and the remaining sum will be split with West Tisbury and paid out over three years. The result - an appropriation of $13,750 per year - would need town approval at a special town meeting in the fall.

Selectmen also agreed to recommend a 25 cent-per-foot increase in transient dock moorings in Menemsha harbor. Harbor master Dennis Jason said the issue will be taken up at a public hearing scheduled for April 2. And they appointed Janet Widener to the planning board to replace the late Annabel Dietz, a longtime member.