Hearing Closes on Cozy Hearth with Plea to MVC to Untangle

By IAN FEIN

After listening to another round of stiff critiques from the Martha's Vineyard Commission last week, the applicants for an unusual affordable housing subdivision proposed for Watcha Path in Edgartown relented and, in effect agreed to go along with whatever was asked of them, as long as their plan is approved.

The commission's land use planning subcommittee will now meet Nov. 7 to develop a recommendation whether to approve or deny the Cozy Hearth project. If the commission approves the subdivision, which is under review as a development of regional impact (DRI), it is expected to attach a long list of conditions.

At the close of the fourth and final public hearing on the project last Thursday, many commission members shared their concerns about the development and suggested they were unlikely to approve it as proposed. The central sticking point was the issue of permanent affordability for the project.

"I'm very concerned that you're asking us to put a very dense development in a traditionally rural area - and all you're guaranteeing is that three lots will be affordable in perpetuity. You're not guaranteeing anything more," said commission member Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark. "If I want to impose a dense development on this neighborhood, it needs to have the benefit of permanent affordability, and I don't see that right now."

The project aims to create 11 one-acre lots in a three-acre minimum zone using Chapter 40B, a state law that allows affordable housing developments to skirt most local zoning regulations. The proposal is unusual in that the applicants - together called the Cozy Hearth Community Corporation - intend to occupy most of the subdivision.

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. Cozy Hearth members proposed 30-year resale restrictions on five of the remaining eight lots, but a number of commissioners said they would accept permanent restrictions and nothing less.

"When we weigh the benefits and detriments of a project - you've got the detriments over here, and they don't go away in 30 years," said commission chairman Linda Sibley of West Tisbury. "So the benefits have to be as permanent as the detriments. And as has been said here before, 30 years is the blink of an eye in planning terms."

After commission members aired their concerns around the table, Cozy Hearth members took a 10-minute break to assemble final offers and changes to their application.

In the end the applicants did not offer to change the proposed resale restrictions, but said they would accept it if the commission required the maximum restrictions allowable by law. The commission's enabling legislation grants it the authority to impose permanent restrictions.

"I hope you understand how important that is to us," attorney Marcia Cini, who is representing the Cozy Hearth corporation, said to commission members more than once when suggesting the restriction change. Mrs. Cini is a former member of the commission.

In her final comments, she also handed over to the commission a set of difficult unsolved problems over wastewater, traffic and landscaping. She said the corporation would accept whatever solutions the commission decides to impose.

While the applicants made no final formal offers on deed restrictions, wastewater, traffic and landscaping, they did offer to impose a height restriction of 26 feet to address commission concerns about architecture styles and visibility to neighbors.

Cozy Hearth president William (Bill) Bennett of Chilmark suggested earlier in the meeting that the architectural concerns were unnecessary.

"Nobody's going to be able to afford to build a big, ugly house," Mr. Bennett said. "These are going to be small houses, and every month they're getting smaller. The longer this goes the more costly it gets. The money comes from somewhere, and we're not rich people".

The hearing capped a five-month process in what has proven to be one of the more difficult and controversial projects before the commission in the last two years.

Commission members at the outset on Thursday acknowledged the length of the review process and gave special recognition to some Cozy Hearth members and also neighbors opposed to the project who have attended all of the public hearings since May.

At the early hearings, supporters of the subdivision 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.

But with more scrutiny came more concerns, and after a third public hearing in September, the commission sent Cozy Hearth members away with a growing list of unanswered questions.

Mrs. Cini began Thursday by apologizing to commissioners for underestimating what they expected of the applicants.

"This project didn't feel complicated when it started," she said. "But over time I think we started chasing around our tails."

Cozy Hearth members made a series of last-minute changes to their application in the hours leading up to the hearing last week, trying to resolve the commission's longstanding wastewater concerns for the development in the fragile Oyster Pond watershed.

Mr. Bennett explained the latest proposal to use a combination of composting toilets and denitrification septic systems among the 11 lots. Some commissioners later pressed Mr. Bennett connect all of the homes to an on-site package treatment plant. The wastewater issue, for the second consecutive hearing, led to sharp exchanges between Mr. Bennett and some commissioners.

"The money's the same [for the treatment plant], but then we have this giant beast that needs to be maintained," Mr. Bennett said.

"There is cost involved, and whatever you put in there to accommodate a neighborhood of this size in that area will require some maintenance," said commissioner Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs. "I think you need to step up and face that."

Last week Mr. Bennett also presented the commission with a new plan to reconfigure the intersection of Watcha Path, Oyster Watcha Road and Edgartown-West Tisbury Road, to address recurring concern over traffic safety. Commissioners for the most part appeared to embrace the plan, which some neighbors also supported.

Some commissioners on Thursday noted inconsistencies in Mr. Bennett's written answers to the questions from the previous meeting.

One involved the lingering question of whether Mr. Bennett, who lives in Chilmark, intends to occupy the unrestricted Cozy Hearth lot he is slated to receive. Mr. Bennett has at different times offered conflicting answers.

The Cozy Hearth corporation is composed of Mr. Bennett's friends and family members.

In a written response to a question about the three unrestricted lots in the development, Mr. Bennett said the lots will go to people who are going to live on site. But asked directly by commissioner Katherine Newman of Aquinnah last week, Mr. Bennett said he did not plan to live on the Edgartown lot. He said it is for his 10-year-old daughter, if she eventually chooses to live there, and that he might not build a house on the lot for another 20 years.

In response to other questions about aesthetics and outbuildings, Mr. Bennett repeatedly answered by simply stating that the corporation will abide by all applicable Edgartown zoning bylaws.

"These are the laws everyone else has to conform with," Mr. Bennett said at the meeting last week. "Why come up with new rules for us?"

Some neighbors noted that the entire development, as a Chapter 40B subdivision, is subverting the local zoning laws.

At least one commissioner suggested that the zoning issue alone was enough to keep him from approving the project.

"The impact to the community of people who have chosen to live in what planners have imagined as three-acre agricultural zoning - where they have enough space around to have animals and open space - is going to go away whether all of the lots are affordable or not," said commissioner James Athearn of Edgartown. "So that contradiction still sits with me."