Questions Continue to Pile Up for Cozy Hearth Housing Plan

By IAN FEIN

The Martha's Vineyard Commission last week stepped up its scrutiny of an unusual affordable housing subdivision proposed for Watcha Path in Edgartown.

After taking almost two hours of testimony in its third public hearing session on the project, the commission sent applicant William Bennett of Chilmark away last Thursday with a growing list of questions and asked him to return with more detailed answers at another public hearing next month.

The project is under review by the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI).

"I think this is an ample demonstration that the angel, or perhaps the devil, is in the details," said commission member Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs, who asked Mr. Bennett to better address wastewater and traffic concerns raised by the project. "It needs a resolution that we can live with. Because I don't see clear solutions that enable me to support the project as currently designed."

The project aims to create 11 one-acre lots in a three-acre minimum zone through 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 - led by Mr. Bennett as president of the Cozy Hearth Community Corporation - intend to occupy most of the subdivision.

The Cozy Hearth corporation is composed of Mr. Bennett's friends and family members - five potential homeowners that live on the Vineyard and three that presently do not.

At previous public hearings in May and July, supporters of the project called it a model grassroots effort that would allow working class residents to stay on the Island. Opponents warned that it could set a dangerous precedent for development density in an environmentally-sensitive area.

Commission members last week aggressively questioned Mr. Bennett about the financial aspects of the project and any potential for profit. Some questioned whether the project is actually an affordable housing development.

As required by Chapter 40B, three of the 11 lots will be set aside in perpetuity for qualifying Edgartown families earning less than 80 per cent of median income. The project also proposes to put 30-year resale restrictions on five of the remaining eight lots, but Mr. Bennett explained that the original occupants will not have to qualify under the income restrictions.

"Families moving in initially are not necessarily affordable housing candidates," said commission member Carlene Condon of Edgartown. "If they sell - and only if they sell within 30 years - would those lots be affordable. So initially this is not necessarily an affordable housing project."

In response to the questions, Mr. Bennett also reaffirmed that the corporation is not at this point willing to extend the resale restrictions on the five lots beyond 30 years.

Commission executive director Mark London queried Mr. Bennett about the three unrestricted lots, wondering who they are for and why they are not restricted.

Mr. Bennett replied that he wanted the overall Cozy Hearth community to reflect the variations in the overall Vineyard community.

"Here's the thing: there's two ways to do these projects," Mr. Bennett said. "If you're a nonprofit, you have someone give you a big subsidy and make them all restricted. In this case, three individuals made this whole thing possible - two people with money, including myself."

Mr. Bennett acknowledged that the three unrestricted lots could be sold for profit soon after the project is approved.

"There could be a windfall there," he said. "But all of us want to live here."

Mr. Bennett said he intends to keep his unrestricted lot for his daughter, while another unrestricted lot will go to his father-in-law, and the third is for his friend James Tuck, who grew up on the Island but practices medicine in Ontario, Canada. Mr. Tuck gave $100,000 to the Cozy Hearth corporation early in the project development stage.

While much of the discussion on Thursday focused on the complex financial aspects of the development, chairman Linda Sibley noted that the commission's review up to this point may have overlooked some of the more standard project details - such as parking, landscaping and other ways to reduce visual impact.

"The financial stuff is so confusing and we have become so bogged down, myself included, that we seem to have forgotten about other issues," Mrs. Sibley said. "For other high-density affordable housing projects we have had a lot more detail about a lot of things."

Two of the commission's major concerns with the project so far - traffic and wastewater - resurfaced at the hearing again last week. The commission staff report notes that the project would increase traffic by 65 per cent on Watcha Path and the dangerous intersection with Edgartown-West Tisbury Road; the staff report also found that the 11 homes pose a nitrogen-loading threat to the Oyster Pond watershed.

The Cozy Hearth corporation has proposed to set aside $5,000 to go toward traffic intersection solutions if the project is approved, and to use composting toilets in at least eight homes. But some commissioners appeared unappeased by the offers.

"I want to return to your comments about your so-called solution to the intersection," said commissioner Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark. "What have you done to explore actual solutions? Have you had conversations with [property owners near the intersection]?"

"I have not," Mr. Bennett said.

"So you've got the money, but you're not sure whether it's going to do anything?" Mr. Sederholm asked.

"Well, I'm hoping it will," Mr. Bennett replied.

Mr. Sederholm then questioned Mr. Bennett about the wastewater issue, and on at least one occasion asked Mr. Bennett to stop interrupting him. The two had different interpretations of a recent letter sent to the commission by Edgartown health agent Matthew Poole, who has urged commissioners to not grant nitrogen removal credit to composting toilets.

Mr. Poole said in his letter that composting toilets are only effective in keeping nitrogen out of the watershed when the byproduct is taken to a proper disposal site, something you cannot rely on a human to do over the long-term. A number of commissioners have questioned whether they can effectively require and regulate the Cozy Hearth development byproduct disposal.

Project abutter and Watcha Path resident Geoffrey Patterson reminded commissioners that they must think about wastewater as a long-term issue.

"I have a daughter who's eight, who might have children and grandchildren," Mr. Patterson said. "I hope that in 100 years they can still go oystering in the pond."

A number of neighbors attended the hearing again last week to provide testimony opposing the project. Tension between Mr. Bennett and the neighbors was visible.

The commission is compiling its list of questions for Mr. Bennett and will accept submissions from the public until noon on Thursday. Mr. Bennett will then be asked to provide written answers one week prior to the next public hearing session, scheduled for Oct. 20.