Chilmark Plan Draws Scrutiny

Selectmen Affirm Commitment to Middle Line Road Proposal; Resident Comment Continues on Details of Project Design

By IAN FEIN

There are no affordable housing roadblocks in Chilmark, town officials declared this week.

"I think our decision not to push for an April meeting is not a roadblock, but an intelligent decision," selectman Warren Doty said Wednesday at a public hearing on the Middle Line Road housing project. "I think what we found here is that we need to proceed carefully. The devil is in the details, and we need to get it right so it doesn't fly apart on town meeting floor."

The $3.5 million Middle Line Road 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.

Three separate designs for the 12-unit development have been proposed by the consultant South Mountain Company, the most recent at a meeting two weeks ago. But with the latest revision came more questions, and the Chilmark selectmen ultimately delayed putting the project to a vote at annual town meeting.

On Wednesday, the selectmen pledged to schedule a special town meeting on the project later this spring. Some Chilmark residents urged selectmen to move forward expeditiously.

"We've been focused for four years on Middle Line, and I think it's now finally on the table," Abel's Hill resident Edward (Tip) Kenyon said. "I'm sorry this isn't coming up in the April town meeting, and I don't want it put off for too long. I beg you - there are people waiting. This has been on the back burner for a long time. Let's keep it on the front burner."

Housing committee members said they are ready to take their plan to town meeting and are simply waiting for selectmen and other town boards to give the okay.

They also said that they have no problem with a special town meeting in May or June, and committee member Josh Scott said he felt the complexity and importance of the project warranted a special meeting separate from the annual town meeting on April 25.

Debate also ranged over the project design, which calls for a mix of six rental units and six set aside for home ownership. The tension was palpable between housing committee members - who advocate an even mix of rental and home ownership units - and selectman J.B. Riggs Parker, who has long pushed for all rental units.

Mr. Parker maintains that the town should keep all 12 units as rentals so they can be used as affordable housing in perpetuity. He told committee members that given their position, they should be prepared to answer how they will meet the ongoing need for affordable housing beyond Middle Line.

"There we need the cooperation of the selectmen on Peaked Hill, and we can't really say that much without that," committee member Zelda (Zee) Gamson responded, referring to the unused 15 acres of town-owned land called Peaked Hill Pastures. "We can make proposals, but they're nothing more than that without the selectmen's cooperation and understanding."

Housing committee members then defended their preference for homesite units. Not only did most residents want ownership opportunities, they said, but homesite units also would have less financial impact on the town than rental units, which require long-term maintenance and management.

Mr. Doty also said he supported homesite lots in the Middle Line project.

"It's in the tradition of the town that people own their own homes and are proud of their homes," Mr. Doty said at the public hearing. "It's not as if selling these will take them away. They're still going to be affordable housing 10 years from now, and 20 years from now."

Trying to move away from arguments over rentals versus ownership, the housing committee refocused the hearing on project finances.

Town voters have already appropriated almost $300,000 for the project, and South Mountain Company consultant John Abrams has said the rest could be secured without asking the town for any money beyond the Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds.

Mr. Abrams estimates rentals and sales would cover $2.1 million of the $3.5 million project cost, with the remaining $1.1 million gap bridged through a state affordable housing trust and CPA funds. The Chilmark CPA oversight committee has allocated 75 per cent of its funds for affordable housing. The money has been accumulating since 2002.

On Wednesday residents expressed doubts about the preliminary budget that predicted no funding shortfall. But Mr. Abrams assured them that if the project did need more money, additional funding could be secured through the CPA committee or private donations.

"There seems to be an assumption that this project will go over budget, and that's probably a good assumption," Mr. Abrams said. "But lots of Chilmark summer residents come in and ask if they can donate to a Chilmark project. There would be no problem in raising several hundred thousand dollars to augment any additional costs."