MVC Votes to Approve Cozy Hearth Subdivision with Heavy Conditions

By IAN FEIN

Weighing the pressing need for affordable housing over its other planning principles, the Martha's Vineyard Commission early this morning approved with heavy conditions an unusual 11-unit subdivision in the rural outposts of Edgartown.

"This is really a referendum on us as a community. If we can't find a way to provide homes for our working-class residents, then we fail," said commissioner Chris Murphy of Chilmark. "The results of this project are damn good. I think the applicant should be proud, and we should be proud."

The vote on the so-called Cozy Hearth project came after seven months of review by the commission, and several hours of debate last night. The 9-3 decision in favor of the project was recorded a half-hour past midnight, and did not come without dissent.

"Out in this area, in the far reaches of Edgartown, I would like to see us make a decision swinging in favor of rural qualities, and away from suburban," said commissioner James Athearn of Edgartown, a well-known Island farmer who noted that the proposal was located in the only agriculturally zoned area of the town. "A small farm, under a different set of economic conditions, could thrive there."

Mr. Athearn voted against the project, along with commissioners Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs and Megan Ottens-Sargent of Aquinnah. The commission reviewed the project as a development of regional impact (DRI).

Almost all of the commissioners who spoke last night conceded that it was a difficult decision. Many of those in favor of the project noted that it was in the wrong location and bigger than they wished, but said that the desperate need for affordable housing trumped their other concerns.

"There are times when the economics of land do not fit with smart growth," said commissioner Christina Brown of Edgartown. "With the limited availability of land, we might have to scatter moderately sized affordable housing projects throughout all parts of the Island."

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

Island electrician William Bennett in 2002 joined with a group of family members, employees and friends to the form the Cozy Hearth group and pursue the housing development. They purchased the land on Watcha Path Road for $1 million.

A few commissioners said last night that they were impressed by the ingenuity of the proposal, and hoped it would spark similar ideas from other Island residents in need of housing.

"There is an agrarian aspect to this project," commissioner Katherine Newman of Aquinnah said in response to Mr. Athearn's comments. "It really is grown out of the Vineyard."

The proposal will now go back to the Edgartown zoning board of appeals for a Chapter 40B comprehensive permit.

It is unclear, however, whether the applicants will choose to move forward and develop the project as conditioned. Commissioners last night spent four hours drafting seven pages of conditions, many of which superseded or overruled offers from the applicant.

Commissioner John Best of Tisbury, who runs an Island real estate firm, questioned the practicality of the project finances.

"These numbers are marginal," Mr. Best said. "I'm not altogether sure that, having gone through this process, they will in fact go ahead with it."

The commission decision requires that at least four of the 11 homes use composting toilets, while the remaining units must use a denitrification septic system. The steps were taken to protect the fragile Oyster Pond watershed.

The commission also placed permanent affordability restrictions on eight of the 11 units. The applicant only offered permanent restrictions on three of the homes, with 30-year resale restrictions on another five. A number of commissioners suggested that they would not have supported the project without all eight permanent restrictions.

"It almost goes without saying that this [affordability] is the shining star of this project, between the work the commission has done in conjunction with the applicant," said commissioner Carlene Condon of Edgartown. "It is just - just - tipping the scale for me."

At least one commissioner remained unconvinced.

"I don't want to diminish the bright star anyone else might see, but I still question whether this proposal is really an affordable housing project," said Mr. Strauss. "There is promise in this project for future affordable housing, but it doesn't exist at the beginning."

Applicants stated during commission public hearings that the original occupants would likely qualify for the homes under affordability income restrictions, but would not be required to do so.

More than one commissioner last night noted the length of time spent on this project. The commission held four public hearings on the proposal, dating back to May, and four land use planning committee meetings in the past month prior to last night. Commissioner Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark suggested that the extensive review paid off.

"I was not here for the golf course wars, but in the time I've been on the commission, this now holds the record for the most attention we have given to a project," Mr. Sederholm said. "When it first came in the door, this would have been a slam dunk denial in my opinion. But it is an awful lot better project now as a result of the prodding of the commission."

During the debate last night, with almost every issue that arose aside from affordable housing, Mr. Athearn argued that the project would negatively impact those characteristics of the Vineyard that the the commission is supposed to protect. Other commissioners countered that the Island would lose its culture and values if its residents are forced to move away.

"It is painful to listen to you talk about these things because our Island is under assault," commission chairman Linda Sibley said to Mr. Athearn. "But it is not under assault by these families who are looking for homes."

Mr. Athearn replied with a quote made popular on the first Earth Day in 1970.

"We have met the enemy, and he is us," Mr. Athearn said. "It is all the people in this room that have choked this Island, and there will be more people coming next week. When do we start saying no?"