Middle Line Project Moves Into Next Phase

By JAMES KINSELLA

After settling key questions about the Middle Line Road project at a special town meeting Monday, the town of Chilmark now must sort through a number of financial and regulatory questions as it turns the $3.5 million affordable housing development from an ideal into a reality.

Town leaders have yet to establish a schedule for permitting the project, which will require approval from town boards and also from the Martha's Vineyard Commission. In addition, the town must secure funding, which will be drawn from at least four sources including the town's Community Preservation Act funds.

The Middle Line Road development, the first affordable housing project commissioned by the town, is slated for 21 acres of town-owned land off Tabor House Road.

On Monday voters approved a plan that will include 12 affordable housing units - six houses with deed riders to ensure permanent affordability and three duplexes, each containing two affordable rental units.

Chilmark voters also approved using $212,000 in Community Preservation Act funds for engineering and architecture plans. The town will issue a request for proposals to provide those plans.

The timeline for breaking ground and completing construction remains open.

"Who knows?" said Steven Schwab, chairman of the Chilmark housing committee. "We're asking the same question. We have to come together and work that out."

Speaking for himself, Mr. Schwab said he would hope to see ground broken by this fall, with construction under way by next spring.

But another advocate of the project, Chilmark selectman Warren Doty, said he considered that time line quite optimistic.

"The architecture and the engineering will take quite some time," Mr. Doty said. "We have a lot of process to sort out. We just can't jump ahead and start to build next week."

The Middle Line train, Mr. Schwab agrees, is yet to start rolling down the track.

"We just realized we have a train," he said. "We're looking to load up the coal. We're taking a breather."

A laundry list of tasks now await the town, Mr. Schwab said. In addition to permitting, the tasks include:

* Advertising for applicants for the housing;

* Establishing a list of qualified applicants;

* Launching a planning board review of Middle Line Road itself;

* Working with the board of selectmen to determine whether the town should lease the land to a nonprofit corporation as a prelude to the development; and

* Hiring an architect and a contractor.

More decisions on the project lie ahead for Chilmark voters. They will be asked to review the design for the homes and to decide whether to steer more community preservation funding to the project.

While the town housing committee has led the effort to create affordable housing at the Middle Line parcel, Mr. Schwab said the work now facing the town may require the creation of a subcommittee to work solely on the Middle Line project, or a separate group to oversee the project.

Chilmark executive secretary Timothy Carroll said he hopes the housing committee will continue to take the lead on the Middle Line project.

The bulk of funding for the remaining cost of the Middle Line development will come from the purchase of the six homes by private owners, more community preservation funding, a mortgage loan on the rental units and a contribution from a state entity known as the Affordable Housing Trust.

As outlined in a conceptual design and feasibility study prepared by South Mountain Company of West Tisbury in association with Keen Development Corp. of Cambridge, estimated development costs total $3,539,700.

Those costs would be covered by estimated revenues that include $1,400,320 from the purchase of six homes by private buyers; $715,000 from a mortgage loan to be repaid through rents at the six rental units; $839,380 of community preservation act funding; a $300,000 grant from the state Affordable Housing Trust; $240,000 to buy the clay rights at the parcel, funded by the town through a bond passed last year by Chilmark voters; and $45,000 for the feasibility and survey grant, from funds previously voted by Chilmark voters.

Chilmark has yet to apply for or receive the $300,000 grant from the housing trust, although Mr. Doty said he believes the town likely will receive the grant.

The feasibility study comments that if the housing trust funds are not available, or if development costs exceed estimates, "the resulting shortfalls could be made up with town funds, private donations, increased use of CPA funds or any combination of these sources."

The pro forma prepared by South Mountain and Keen includes a range of home prices and monthly rents, depending on the income of the occupants and the size of the structure.

The proposal would set aside a two-bedroom house for $161,500 and two three-bedroom houses for $194,300 each for households making less than 100 per cent of the Dukes County median income ($66,100 for a family of four in 2004). The proposal also would set aside a two bedroom-house for $260,700 and two three-bedroom houses for $308,950 each for households making less than 150 per cent of the county median income ($99,150 for a family of four in 2004).

Rents would range from $938 for a one-bedroom unit for a household making less than 100 per cent of the county median to $1,938 for a three-bedroom unit for a household making less than 150 percent of the county median.

Going forward, the wild cards sitting on the table include the use of community preservation funding to help pay for Middle Line. That funding may include strings that could affect the continued affordability of the homes, as well as the desire of the town to target the development at local residents.

Town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport consulted on the issue with Joshua Davis, an attorney at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo P.C., a law firm in Boston. In a letter dated June 10, Mr. Davis provided thoughts on the issue, though not a legal opinion.

Community preservation funds under state law are to be used for so-called low or moderate income housing, Mr. Davis wrote.

"Thus, if the project includes for-sale units, use of CPA funds would mean that heirs who do not meet eligibility requirements could not legitimately own affordable units," Mr. Davis wrote.

That would open two possible paths to diminishing town control over the units: one from heirs seeking to overturn the restriction, the other from housing advocates looking to ensure continued affordability.

Mr. Doty said the town may target the CPA funding at specific units, so as to avoid restrictions on the remaining units.

Also, Mr. Davis wrote, state agencies may look askance at residency restrictions, given the use of CPA funds.

Mr. Schwab said the town hopes to use residency preferences rather than restrictions in selecting who will occupy the units.

Another question concerns whether South Mountain - which has worked on other affordable housing developments on the Vineyard - could develop the Middle Line project, given its authorship of the feasibility study.

Mr. Doty said the company has told him that the state ethics commission has cleared the way for the company to seek the job, so long as South Mountain does not participate in drafting the request for proposals to build.

The company will not be involved in drafting that request, Mr. Doty said.

While not diminishing the Middle Line tasks that are ahead, housing advocates this week remained grateful that one of the wealthier towns in the state has voted to build affordable housing.

"We're just very pleased and very proud of what the town did," Mr. Schwab said.