Middle Line Housing Project Goes to a Hearing in Chilmark

By MAX HART

A third and final public hearing is set for next week on Chilmark's first town-sponsored affordable housing project, when residents will have the chance to discuss the details of the Middle Line Road plan.

But debate on the hot-button topic of the day - whether to build rental units or resident homesites - will have to wait until the project comes before voters at a special town meeting next month.

Instead, the housing committee and selectmen will present to town residents on Tuesday night the latest - and final - design for the development. Also at the hearing next month's warrant articles will be introduced.

The hearing is set for 7:30 p.m. in the town hall meeting room. The special town meeting will be held three weeks later on June 13 at the Chilmark Community Center, when voters will decide whether to give the project a green light - or not.

The Middle Line Road plan has been the subject of much discussion in town, some of it heated. The development is planned for 12 units spread over 21 acres of town-owned land located off Tabor House Road.

In recent months, however, there has been increased debate over what the makeup of those 12 units should be.

Selectmen and the housing committee disagree over whether the units should be all rentals, or a mix of rentals and resident homesites. The housing committee has expressed a desire to keep the project mixed, as was originally envisioned. Selectman J.B. Riggs Parker has been a staunch advocate for rental units.

The final design for the project is the result of months of meetings, including two public hearings. The plan calls for three clusters of units spread out over the property, and unlike an earlier version of the design handed out at town meeting, the final plan calls for a mix of homesites and three duplex rental units.

At the regular selectmen's meeting Tuesday night, board members spent over an hour hashing out language for the special town meeting warrant articles. In the end they agreed on a 13-article warrant - with 10 separate articles relating to the Middle Line project.

The housing articles will fall into three general areas, including:

* Whether to limit the development to rental units;

* Whether to use Community Preservation Act funds to finance some of the project;

* Whether to adopt guidelines currently spelled out in the housing committee's resident homesite program.

The housing committee and selectmen have worked on the plan for over a year. Last fall selectmen hired South Mountain Company as a consultant to conduct a feasibility study and develop conceptual plans. That study, which called for an even split between rental units and resident homesites, was based on a survey of the town conducted last year by the housing committee where 67 per cent of respondents favored the mixed use.

But on Tuesday night there was sharp division over the language and content of warrant articles that did not mirror the consultant's report.

"Why are we having a discussion on rentals?" asked Candace daRosa. "The survey to the town showed that an overwhelming majority wanted the project split between rentals and home ownership. I am baffled as to where this question is coming from," she added.

"These are planning matters, and they have not been accepted by the town," Mr. Parker replied. "The housing committee has done good work, and now we need to take this to the voters," he said.

Housing committee member Zelda (Zee) Gamson called the warrant confusing.

"I think the issue is doing this right and having articles written in a way voters understand, not leading them down some path that is obscuring," Ms. Gamson said. "I'd look at it and say, ‘What is all this?' It's an obscuring document, not a clarifying one.

"I think it is very irresponsible of you to present this at town meeting," she added.

Mr. Parker replied: "I have to really disagree. It was designed so there will be an ordered discussion on these issues. To not have it separated out will result in confusion."

The discussion turned heated at times. Housing committee chairman Steve Schwab protested the decision to include articles relating to the housing committee's guidelines for resident homesites.

Mr. Schwab said the guidelines were established by the housing committee and presented to the public at an earlier hearing.

"To change the process, to bring them before the town for a vote, changes how we created them originally, and that concerns me," he said.

Mr. Parker said the guidelines were originally drawn for privately owned land and may not even apply to this project.

Mr. Schwab and Mr. Parker debated the issue for some time. Finally Mr. Parker ended the discussion.

"I'm not prepared to debate these articles or throw some out if that is what you are talking about. I don't want to be obscure about that," he said.

The meeting and the discussion went on, but the housing committee's protest faded.

The following day, Ms. Gamson aired her frustration.

"One very good design, one very good plan that is respectful of the land and will help 12 households is being complicated by various maneuvers by the selectmen," she said on Wednesday. "I just don't know what their plan is."