Cozy Hearth Project Backers to Appeal

Hotly Debated Owner-Built Home Plan for Watcha Path Area of Edgartown Will Go to State Housing Board

By IAN FEIN

At its first public hearing in May of last year, affordable housing advocates hailed it as a model grassroots effort that would allow working class residents to stay on the Vineyard, while conservationists warned that it would set a dangerous precedent for development density in an environmentally sensitive area.

Now, after a lengthy regulatory process at both the municipal and regional levels, passions on both sides remain strong and the fate of the Cozy Hearth subdivision is still unclear.

The Edgartown zoning board of appeals last week approved the project with a reduced density, but developers immediately vowed to take their case to the Massachusetts Housing Appeals Committee. The 11 acres of wooded land off Watcha Path have become the front lines of a living battleground between the sometimes competing interests of affordable housing and environmental conservation.

"From our perspective it's the right project, but in the wrong place," said Matthew Pelikan, Islands program manager for The Nature Conservancy, which has focused its Vineyard activities on protecting the globally rare coastal sandplain habitat near Watcha Path.

"As a Vineyarder, I have a lot of sympathy for people involved in this project. They are the kind of people you want to share an Island with," Mr. Pelikan said. "But as a conservation organization, we really look at that area as an invaluable ecological resource."

Affordable housing developer John Abrams sees it a little differently.

"It's not an ideal place, but I think of small affordable housing efforts like I think about wind farms," said Mr. Abrams, who is also a vocal supporter of the Cape Wind project proposed for Nantucket Sound. "It's not about: ‘Is this the place or isn't it?' It's about: ‘We need more and more, and we need to do them all.' "

The Cozy Hearth project has created a different kind of conflict because it was proposed by a group of Vineyard residents who banded together to build housing for themselves using Chapter 40B - a state law that allows affordable housing developments to skirt most zoning regulations - but in an area that is important to both the water quality of coastal ponds and the biodiversity of rare moths. The original plans call for building 11 homes on 11 acres in a three-acre minimum zone. Mr. Pelikan in a letter to the Martha's Vineyard Commission, which reviewed the project as a development of regional impact, last August warned that relaxing requirements for a project like Cozy Hearth would render existing zoning virtually meaningless.

Commission members noted the undesirable location when they approved the Cozy Hearth project last December. Smart growth planning principals call for housing developments to be built near existing development and infrastructure, while conservation groups have focused efforts in the coastal sandplains precisely because large tracts remain undeveloped.

"This has always been the rural, agricultural part of Edgartown. It's the last of it; this is it," said Watcha Path resident Robert Greene, who lived out of a wind-powered tent when he first moved to the neighborhood more than two decades ago and now has horses, hens and turkeys sauntering around an open field on his six-acre lot. "If you put a suburban subdivision in a rural area, you're going to take away the places where people can have small farms. We won't have any of them left."

Cozy Hearth president William Bennett explained that economic realities determined the proposed location. When he and a group of family members, employees and friends joined together more than four years ago, the Watcha Path site was the only one available in their $1 million price range that would allow them to build enough homes.

"To be honest with you, I didn't give any thought to where it was. There was nothing else available at that time that we could afford or that would work," Mr. Bennett said. "Smart growth is great if you have the resources to find the right places. But the phrase ‘beggers can't be choosers' comes to mind."

Citing environmental concerns and potential impact to neighbors, the zoning board late last month approved the project with only nine homes on the 11 acres. But Mr. Bennett this week maintained that the original proposed density was appropriate for the location and necessary for the lots to remain affordable.

"From the start, we as a group worked together to find a number of units on our land that we thought was reasonable," he said. "I don't see any affordable housing developments from now that will be able to afford an acre per lot. Developments that come down the pike are going to have a lot more density than we have."

The Cozy Hearth corporation is now off to the state housing appeals committee, an independent adjudicatory body within the state department of housing and community development. At least two other Chapter 40B proposals ­on the Island - Fairwinds in Vineyard Haven and the Wampanoag Tribal Housing in Aquinnah - were appealed to the committee but then resolved at the local level. Edgartown zoning board chairman Martin (Skip) Tomassian Jr. last week chose not to comment on the appeal.

Mr. Bennett yesterday said he plans to continue forward, even though many of the Islanders originally involved in the project have left the group or plan to leave in the near future. Prior to any legal expenses associated with the appeal, each of the eight lots available for Cozy Hearth members would cost roughly $170,000, according to numbers presented to the zoning board last month.

"The people who are leaving right now are the people who needed it most. And those are the ones that we have all let down," Mr. Bennett said. "I have a home in Chilmark, so I can go home every night. But they can't. These are real people that have a real need, and they have no house yet. And the cost is only going up."

Proponents during the public hearings praised the ingenuity of the Cozy Hearth proposal and said they hope other Island residents looking to build their own homes might follow suit. But as the regulatory process stretched on for a full year and a long list of conditions were added to the project, some advocates warned that the hefty review would have a chilling effect on future projects. Others, however, acknowledged that the lengthy review resulted in a better project.

"I think they went in there with a project that was poorly designed but with a great social concept, and I think the process helped make it better," Mr. Abrams said. "The whole thing is a perfect example of the spirit and the kind of work that we all need to do with affordable housing on the Vineyard."

"We have such limited resources on an Island like this that there really needs to be some sort of process for airing all the concerns and trying to balance everything," Mr. Pelikan said. "Clearly it is an involved and complicated process, but I think it needs to be. There is a lot at stake," he said.

Brendan O'Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, which also weighed in with significant concerns about the Cozy Hearth project, said he hopes that the Islandwide planning effort under way at the commission will help the affordable housing and conservation interests come together on mutual goals instead of battling each other. He noted that both camps have a common foe in the developers of expensive market rate homes.

"Generally, land is best conserved to protect drinking water or farm soil or rich habitat, which is often not the land best developed for affordable housing. And the land best suited for affordable housing is ideally located near transportation and other services and infrastructure, which is often not the land ideally suited for conservation," Mr. O'Neill said. "The question is: If you're dealing with a blank slate, how do you identify which areas are suited for which purpose? How do you make these two groups communicate together well?"