Jenney Lane Dispute Comes to an End

Edgartown Affordable Housing Project Is Now Back on Track for Building After Long Delay in the Courts

By IAN FEIN

A two-year legal dispute over the Jenney Lane affordable housing project was settled last week only days before a scheduled trial date, putting the Edgartown development back on track for construction.

A widely praised smart growth project with a downtown location, the original plan called for building 10 affordable homes on 2.5 acres of undeveloped land between Pine street and Curtis Lane in the middle of the densely settled Upper Main street neighborhood. It was approved unanimously by the Martha's Vineyard Commission as a development of regional impact (DRI) in November 2003 and by the Edgartown planning board in February 2004, but neighbors appealed both decisions.

The only condition of the settlement, which was signed and filed with the Massachusetts Land Court last week, requires one of the 10 homes to be sold at full market price.

Project developer John Abrams yesterday commented on the possible reasons behind the stipulation.

"I don't really know, but my assumption is they felt that this [market home] would protect their property values," said Mr. Abrams, board member of the Island Affordable Housing Fund and president of South Mountain Company, which will build the development.

"My observation is that this was a historically working class neighborhood, which has been gentrified by folks coming in and buying up these houses," said Boston attorney and Menemsha seasonal resident Richard Bluestein, who represented the housing fund in the case. "It is ironic that all the neighbors really wanted in the long run was to make sure that somebody they thought would be more like them would be visible."

Boston attorney Edward Woll Jr., who represented three neighbors in the lawsuit, declined to comment yesterday.

The permitting appeals now all in the past, Mr. Abrams said he was excited to break ground this fall. He hopes qualified residents - three from Edgartown, with the remainder drawn from an Islandwide pool - will be able to move into their new homes within another year and a half.

"We're absolutely thrilled," he said. "I can't wait to see it all come to fruition."

The seeds of the project were planted in 2001, when longtime seasonal residents Ralph and Olivia Jenney approached Mr. Abrams after hearing him talk about the housing crisis on the Island. The Jenneys said they wanted to devote half of their five acres of land across from Cannonball Park to affordable housing, and agreed to sell 2.5 acres to the Island Affordable Housing Fund at a deeply discounted price.

The Jenneys live on Upper Main street, with the affordable housing project to go in behind them.

"This was one of those rare examples of someone saying ‘yes in my backyard,' " Mr. Abrams said.

Mrs. Jenney yesterday reiterated her commitment to the project and the community.

"The hearts of Island people are focused on personal responsibility, thriftiness, kindness and neighborliness," she said. "And we felt very strongly about helping these connections continue to survive on the Island, where more and more people are transient."

The downtown location of the project was a favorite with advocates of smart growth principles. The nine affordable homes will be within walking distance of existing services such as the school, supermarket and public transportation. The project was also permitted through the existing Edgartown open space cluster bylaw, instead of relying on Chapter 40B, a state law that allows affordable housing projects to skirt some zoning regulations.

Before voting to approve the project in November 2003, one member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission said the Jenney Lane proposal looked like it had been drafted by the commission itself. The commission on Thursday approved the single market home as a modification to its earlier decision.

"To me this project exemplifies what we need to be doing," Mr. Abrams said yesterday. "It's hard to imagine a better situation, and at the beginning that is how both the planning board and commission felt. No one expected this thing to be quite so difficult."

A Dukes County Superior Court judge disposed of the appeal of the MVC decision in a summary judgment last fall, and a Massachusetts Land Court trial on the appeal of the planning board decision had been set to start today.

Mr. Abrams praised the Jenneys, the affordable housing fund and Mr. Bluestein for their commitment to fighting the appeals and seeing the project through. He estimated that the lawsuit cost the housing fund roughly $100,000 in legal fees, but said it will send an important message to opponents of affordable housing projects elsewhere on the Island.

"There has been a trend toward holding up some of these projects," Mr. Abrams said. "And we felt we had to make a clear statement that when the town and Island are strongly supportive of the project - and it's the right project - it's essential that we not let a few people stand in the way of what the majority want."

Mr. Bluestein agreed.

"People can't assume that if they just delay and delay, the proponents of affordable housing will go away," he said. "This shows that we won't."