Sharply Divided Camps Face Off Over Affordable Housing Plan

By IAN FEIN

Island residents packed a Martha's Vineyard Commission meeting last week to offer impassioned pleas both for and against an unusual affordable housing subdivision proposed for Watcha Path Road in Edgartown.

Proposed by a group of Vineyard residents who want to build 11 homes on 10.9 acres, the project is under review by the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI).

At a standing-room-only public hearing last Thursday, the proposal pitted affordable housing advocates and family members of applicants against environmental conservationists and neighbors.

Those in favor argued that the project could serve as a model grass roots effort that would allow working class residents to stay on-Island. Those opposed to the project warned that it could set a dangerous precedent for development density in such an environmentally sensitive area.

After two and a half hours of public comment, the commission continued the public hearing until June 23.

The project aims to create 11 one-acre lots in a three-acre minimum zone by using chapter 40B, a state law that allows affordable housing projects to skirt most local zoning regulations.

This chapter 40B proposal is unusual in that the applicants intend to occupy most of the subdivision.

Island electrician William Bennett in May 2002 formed a nonprofit organization, called Cozy Hearth Community Corporation, with some of his family members and employees who could not afford to buy their own homes. The intent was to create a housing development modeled after Island Cohousing, a 16-home subdivision on 50 acres in West Tisbury spearheaded by South Mountain Company president John Abrams.

Together Cozy Hearth members in 2002 purchased three lots on Watcha Pond Road totaling 10.9 acres. The purchase price was $1 million.

The group now wants to subdivide the land into 11 lots and live on eight of the lots. Chapter 40B requires that the other three units be offered through a lottery to families earning less than 80 per cent of median income - which would translate to an annual income of roughly $53,000 for a family of four. The units would be designated for qualifying Edgartown residents.

Proponents called the project a model 40B plan because it was started by families looking for housing, instead of a profit-seeking developer. On more than one occasion Mr. Bennett told the commission that the Cozy Hearth group is about housing, not about making money.

A video recording of the meeting shows that a number of Cozy Hearth members brought their family members to the public hearing. Boat builder Nat Benjamin, who is also a Tisbury affordable housing committee member, spoke on behalf of his daughter and infant grandson, who both attended the meeting.

"To me this may be the paradigm of affordable housing projects because it's not subject to the bottom line of a developer," Mr. Benjamin said.

Mr. Abrams, who helped inspire the project, also attended the hearing to speak in favor. He agreed that this proposal was different than most affordable housing projects on the Island.

"It doesn't come from housing advocates, it doesn't come from a town, it doesn't come from a developer. It comes from a guy who is trying to find a way to provide housing for his family and employees," Mr. Abrams said. "This is really a cultural story, a big story, an ongoing story that's going way too slow."

The public hearing at times turned emotional, and people on both sides teared up while speaking.

Project opponents - many of them neighbors - cited potential negative impacts to groundwater, traffic, wildlife and property values. Other concerned citizens asked the commission to consider the precedent such a project could set for development density in the neighborhood and for other 40B projects on the Island.

"Unlike past DRIs approved under 40B, this project exceeds by several times the density allowable under zoning in this area of Edgartown," Vineyard Conservation Society executive director Brendan O'Neill said in a letter to the commission. "It is certain that future applicants intent on using 40B primarily as a tool for making substantial profit from the lucrative market in Vineyard real estate will use such a decision as a precedent."

Mr. O'Neill also noted that Watcha Path Road is located within the coastal sandplain outwash ecosystem - an area of the Island that conservation organizations have identified as one of the most important to preserve by limiting development.

Watcha Path Road resident Linda Dewitt, who this spring stepped down as Edgartown's appointed member to the commission, asked the MVC to take into account the other buildable lots nearby.

"This whole area is prime for development," Mrs. Dewitt said. "I would like the commission to plan for the future of this neighborhood."

An early commission staff report estimated the development would surpass wastewater limits for the Oyster Pond watershed and increase traffic on Watcha Path Road by 65 per cent.

But not all of the abutters at the meeting spoke against the project. Island attorney Benjamin Hall Jr., who is part of a trust that owns a neighboring lot, said any talk of pristine groundwater in the area is a joke since the nearby solid waste transfer station opened in June 2001.

Mr. Hall also suggested that affordable housing initiatives should be no less important than environmental ones.

"What good are all the beautiful birds if no one's here to see it?" he asked.

In terms of density, Cozy Hearth members said that the project needs all 11 lots to remain economically feasible for the families, and that any reduction in number will eliminate one of the members from the housing pool.

"If a lot goes away, a family goes away," Mr. Bennett said.

As proposed, five of the Cozy Hearth member lots would have resale restrictions for 30 years while three would be unrestricted. The three 80 per cent units would remain affordable in perpetuity.

The Edgartown affordable housing committee has indicated that it would prefer perpetual restrictions on all of the lots.

Cozy Hearth members will hold an informal meeting with the Edgartown planning board and other interested town committees on June 7. If approved by the commission, the project would still need approval from the Edgartown zoning board of appeals.