Middle Line Worries Center on Funding, Potential Conflicts

By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL

The Chilmark selectmen this week took up an array of concerns relating to the Island Housing Trust's bid to build the town-sponsored Middle Line Road affordable housing project.

Among the legal questions under discussion were those relating to potential conflicts of interest for a number of people involved, and also relating to the proper use of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to build the project.

The project, the first of its kind commissioned by the town, is slated for 21.4 acres of town-owned land off Tabor House Road. It will include 12 affordable housing units - six houses with deed riders to ensure permanent affordability and three duplexes, each containing two affordable rental units.

The housing trust was the only respondent to the request for proposals (RFP). The town has 90 days from Jan. 20, when the bid was submitted, to made a decision on the proposal. The deadline precedes the April 24 annual town meeting by only a few days.

Among the questions raised at the selectmen's meeting Tuesday was a potential conflict of interest for John Abrams of South Mountain Company. Mr. Abrams's firm conducted the original feasibility study for the Middle Line Road project, and - under the terms of the bid - also has contracted with the Island Housing Trust to build the $3.6 million complex.

Town counsel Ronald Rappaport said the state ethics commission wants to hear more about the relationship that Mr. Abrams has with the town.

"Because the feasibility study is so central to the RFP, arguably you'd be considered a former municipal employee. As a former municipal employee you cannot participate in any matter," Mr. Rappaport said.

Selectmen Frank Fenner and Warren Doty also had potential conflicts of interest.

Mr. Doty is a member of the board of Island Housing Trust. Mr. Fenner is a board member of the Dukes County Savings Bank, a lending institution that wants to participate in the project. Both selectmen agreed to sign a disclosure of financial interest.

In addition, a resident who had been nominated for the town housing committee, Perry Ambulo, removed himself from consideration for the post after Mr. Rappaport explained that the state ethics commission had concerns over his later being an applicant for the housing.

Another portion of the housing trust proposal that presented problems was its call for using $982,000 in CPA funds to build the project. While Chilmark already has $500,000 in CPA money to dedicate to Middle Line, the selectmen cannot commit future CPA funds to it without first receiving approval on town meeting floor.

Mr. Rappaport said he is awaiting advice from outside legal counsel on the matter.

Other questions under consideration relate to whether residency can be limited to Chilmark residents, and to whether prevailing public wage laws would apply to employees working on the project.

Zelda (Zee) Gamson of the housing committee said the questions being raised, together with revisiting old issues, were not helping the project move forward in a timely manner. "We have a very good plan. . . . I understand the concerns [but] delaying will cost us more money," she said.

"The town will pay the price if we don't get this done right," Mr. Fenner said.

"This is a complicated project and the CPA is new. We ask the questions. It is not a straight line," Mr. Rappaport concluded.