Commission Begins Its Review of Middle Line Housing Plan

By IAN FEIN

Chilmark selectmen told members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission last week about their desire to provide town residents with affordable homes in the Middle Line Road housing project.

"This has been a dream of ours for quite a few years," said selectman and board chairman Warren Doty. "And it is starting to look like a dream that is about to come true."

The remarks came last Thursday at a public hearing held by the commission, which is reviewing the town-sponsored, 12-unit housing subdivision as a development of regional impact (DRI). The evening featured a one-hour presentation from selectmen and project officials, followed by two hours of public testimony. About 40 people attended the hearing, held at the Chilmark Community Center, including a number of town residents who are on a waiting list for affordable homesites.

Some tension was evident. On one side were town selectmen, project officials and housing advocates, who urged the commission to approve the project as quickly as possible, citing the desperate need for affordable housing in a town with the highest average property values in the commonwealth. On the other side were project neighbors, town planning board members and commission officials, who raised concerns about certain sticking points in the proposal that they would like to see addressed.

The project calls for six homesite lots and three duplex rental buildings on roughly 20 acres of town-owned land off Tabor House Road. Located behind the town landfill, the property is bisected by an ancient way and surrounded by mostly undeveloped land.

Commission member James Athearn of Edgartown said the project goes against smart-growth planning principals, which call for new housing developments to be built closer to existing town centers. He asked selectmen on Thursday why they chose the Middle Line site.

"Why this location, down a long dirt road in the woods, in one of the last wild areas of Chilmark?" Mr. Athearn asked. "Why only one place with 12 units, instead of a few smaller ones spread across town?"

Selectmen replied that the Middle Line property was the only available parcel, and explained that the town's previous efforts to award youth lots to residents elsewhere in town have largely stalled as the pace of private subdivisions has slowed.

Dukes County Regional Housing Authority executive director David Vigneault said the town project will mark an important addition to housing efforts Islandwide, and he warned commission members not to get caught up in wishing for a better site.

"You spoke earlier about smart growth, and that's an important approach. But another approach is anywhere we can," Mr. Vigneault said. "The other approach, that isn't an option, is not to."

Planning board members and project neighbors pointed out that the town also owns 22 acres on Peaked Hill, across Tabor House Road, which already has electrical lines and wells. The town has sufficient access to those parcels, but has yet to gain the necessary 40-foot right of way to the Middle Line Road property.

Project neighbor Diane Emin said her family first raised the question about access more than three years ago, and added that she did not understand why town selectmen had yet to resolve the issue. "It feels like we're the lone voice crying in the wilderness here," Mrs. Emin said.

To help streamline the regulatory process, the Chilmark planning board is continuing to review the project on the town level during the commission public hearings. The board planned to hold a second public hearing on the project this week, but postponed the meeting because two of its seven members were absent.

At the behest of the commission, planning board chairman Richard Osnoss on Thursday outlined some of the concerns that the town board had with the project - including impacts to neighbors, adequate access, and possible wastewater pollution. Underscoring some of the tension at the meeting, Mr. Osnoss was approached by selectmen and other planning board members during a short break at the hearing, and later spoke again to clarify his earlier statements.

"If I came across as being against this project, that's wrong. The planning board and I are for this project to move ahead," Mr. Osnoss said.

Chilmark Chocolates co-owner Mary Beth Grady said that although many town officials and residents had volunteered a lot of time on the project, it was important that neighbors and planning board members be allowed to speak openly about concerns.

"They're part of this community, and I think their voices are really important for us to hear," she said. "[Mr. Osnoss] should not be made to feel that he shouldn't have spoken so honestly."

A number of town residents waiting for affordable housing also spoke at the hearing, including Dardenella Slavin. Zelda Gamson, a founding member of the Chilmark housing committee, urged commission members not to forget about the people who need the housing most.

"I very much appreciate the seriousness with which you are taking this project," she said. "But I'm telling you, the message that comes across to me is not a great sense of urgency."

Selectman Frank Fenner agreed.

"I suppose if we're guilty of anything it's that we're really trying to push this as fast as we can because our need for affordable housing is real and it's now," Mr. Fenner said. "The commission says it is for affordable housing. Now it's time for you folks to show your support and approve this plan."

The public hearing will continue on May 31. Procedural questions remain regarding potential wastewater impacts. Because of cost, town selectmen do not want to install denitrifying septic systems on the project. But without those systems, the 12 housing units on 21 acres do not meet commission wastewater guidelines for protecting the Tisbury Great Pond watershed. To resolve the issue, project officials want the commission to include in its nitrogen loading calculations some 48 acres of abutting private land on which the town holds a conservation restriction.

Commission chairman Ernest (Douglas) Sederholm, a Chilmark resident, questioned the appropriateness of the tactic.

"I think it would be unfair to end tonight without commenting that the inclusion of that property raises in my view a very serious substantive issue," Mr. Sederholm said. "That property is not part of this project. It is only being included because the rest of your plan doesn't comply with our water quality policy."

Selectmen discussed the possibility of putting on a future town meeting warrant a spending request that would cover some of the costs of alternative septic systems or energy efficiency measures for the project.

Timothy Lasker, a member of the Chilmark planning board and housing committee, suggested that selectmen should not be shy about asking town taxpayers to cover such costs.

"We're talking about a town that per capita is probably the wealthiest town in the commonwealth. This is a town that built a school for $4 million without a single dollar from the state, and recently built a beautiful new library. And the fact is, my taxes aren't really that high," Mr. Lasker said.

"If we need to do this the right way - with a warrant article - then that's what we should do," he continued. "I totally, totally appreciate the fact that this project has taken five or six years already. But the fact is, it should be done right. And I believe it's going to take more than what the town has put forth to this point."