MVC Votes to Approve Chilmark Housing Plan for Middle Line Road

By IAN FEIN

Holding to its stance that the Island's dire need for affordable housing trumps other planning principles, the Martha's Vineyard Commission last week approved a town-sponsored subdivision tucked in the woods of Chilmark.

Many commission members who voted in favor of the Middle Line Road housing project said they believed it was in a poor location and represented more of a suburban-type development. But they argued that the effort represents a vital step toward keeping year-round residents in Chilmark, where property values rank among the highest in the commonwealth.

"The problem is that the maintenance of our natural environment is priceless, but so is the maintenance of our community. And I don't know how we can on this application promote both the way we'd like to," said commission chairman Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark on Thursday night.

"The town has made a decision that they want to take this beautiful piece of land and put affordable housing on it," he continued. "I think it's a tragedy to develop this piece of property. But they have to start somewhere."

The project calls for creating six homesite lots and three duplex rental buildings on roughly 20 acres of town-owned land off Tabor House Road. The commission reviewed the proposal as a development of regional impact.

Commission members approved the project 11-1. James Athearn of Edgartown, who cast the lone vote of dissent, delivered a long, heartfelt speech laying out reasons why he believed the commission had a responsibility to deny the application.

Developing land for new homes is not the answer to the housing crisis, Mr. Athearn said, citing longstanding stated goals to address the need by making the existing housing stock more affordable. He referred to the enabling legislation of the commission and previous regional policy plans to buttress his argument, and listed some of the steps he has taken to ensure that his family land will remain affordable in perpetuity.

"Looking for land for affordable housing is following the prevailing American principle that it is okay to consume land for immediate benefit because the land is infinite," said Mr. Athearn, an Island farmer who traces his ancestry on the Vineyard to the mid-17th century. "This is the principle that killed the buffalo, put industrial development on farmland, and built over 6,000 houses on Martha's Vineyard in the last 30 years."

He said the project also violates smart growth planning principles, which call for new developments to be located close to town centers and existing services. Instead, the new subdivision will develop a wooded site that he sees as key to keeping Chilmark rural.

"The selectmen have argued that this proposal is protecting a rural standard. But I submit that it's actually a suburban standard that's been generated in the last 30 years," Mr. Athearn said. "It is a housing style that people have grown comfortable with. But I don't think it looks back far enough in history or forward enough into the future to protect what we think of as the rural character of Martha's Vineyard."

A number of commission members said they agreed with Mr. Athearn in concept, but countered that many of his ideas were unfeasible as a practical or economic matter. Chilmark selectmen said earlier that they could not find a more suitable location to build affordable housing.

"If they don't do this - given the particularly acute property values in Chilmark - the town will simply become a place where ordinary people can't live," said commission member Linda Sibley of West Tisbury. "People are part of our character too, and I see this as an attempt on the part of Chilmark to maintain its character at the expense of some of its land."

The two-hour debate echoed similar commission arguments about affordable housing projects in the past, including an 11-unit subdivision located in globally rare coastal sand plain habitat on the rural outskirts of Edgartown. The commission approved that project a year and a half ago.

Some commission members appeared torn on Thursday. A commission subcommittee earlier last week deadlocked 3-3 on whether to recommend approval of the Middle Line Road project, but two who opposed recommendation changed their minds by the time of the final vote on Thursday.

"I had wanted to use this application to make a bigger point, but I realized that would not be fair to the town of Chilmark," Nathaniel Orleans of Tisbury said, explaining his change of heart. "I came to the conclusion that you can't stop the world when trying to solve a problem. You have to try to face it while the world continues to run."

Mr. Orleans criticized the practice of segregating affordable housing subdivisions and he expressed concern that children who grow up in the developments will feel some sort of stigma. Commission member Mimi Davisson of Oak Bluffs at one point referred to the Middle Line project as a "little ghetto," a comment that drew a quick redirect from Mr. Sederholm.

Other commission members praised the Middle Line Road project. They said the affordable housing plan is a much better alternative than other ways the property could have been developed. The plan calls for roughly 75 per cent of the property to remain as open space, and for the rental units to use energy as efficiently as possible.

Although commission approval of the preliminary plan clears a major hurdle for the project, much work remains for the town. By statute, town officials will have to return to the commission at a later point with a final subdivision plan, which will address unresolved issues including adequate access and screening for neighbors.

"We still have a long way to go," selectman and board chairman Warren Doty said after the commission vote last week. "We still have hundreds of hours of work to make this project happen."

Commission member Christopher Murphy applauded town officials for their endeavor, noting that two of his children now have homes in Chilmark because of earlier town housing efforts. He expressed hope that selectmen will continue to pursue other housing options as they move forward with the Middle Line Road project.

"This is not the be-all and end-all for Chilmark, but it is a step in the right direction," Mr. Murphy said. "It's not a form I'm particularly in love with. But how can you oppose it when it's moving you in the right direction?"