Martha's Vineyard Commission blindsides Edgartown in Field Club lots-for-cash swap
Members of the Edgartown affordable housing committee say they are baffled and confounded by a decision of the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) that, at least temporarily, prevents the town from accepting a $1.8 million payment from the developer of an exclusive housing subdivision, in lieu of three undeveloped lots.
No Edgartown commissioners participated in the Martha's Vineyard Commission vote. This week Edgartown officials took issue with the MVC, charging the commission is interfering with a decision that belongs in the hands of the town. "We're baffled by the decision that was made," affordable housing committee chairman Janet Hathaway told Edgartown selectmen on Monday. "We feel like the rug has been pulled out from under us. We were on a roll."
The GOOD Company, developers of a 25-lot subdivision in Katama that will include a private recreational club, offered to provide three lots for affordable housing as part of the plan, in accordance with the Martha's Vineyard Commission's permitting requirements. The development plan originally called for 32 lots. But in 2006, another partner entered the picture. The MVC approved a plan submitted by the Field Club, to use seven lots in the center of the development for an exclusive, private recreational facility that planned to charge an $80,000 initiation fee and annual membership dues. Last fall, the Field Club purchased all of the 25 building lots from GOOD Company, ending the original developers' involvement with the project. Shortly after that, The Field Club proposed that instead of donating the undeveloped lots, it would provide the town a $1.8 million cash payment.
Affordable housing committee members said they expected to use the money to acquire five or six existing homes at current market rates, and sell them to qualified families under standard income guidelines, or supplement mortgages for qualified families, or use the money for other things such as supplementing heating bills. The committee expected to receive $700,000, the first installment of the $1.8 million payment, tomorrow, and hoped to have at least two homes ready for occupancy before winter.
The affordable housing committee assumed it had a deal that had the support of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, based on a unanimous vote by the MVC's land use planning committee (LUPC), recommending the lots-for-cash exchange.
Last Thursday, the full commission rejected that recommendation and voted instead to schedule a public hearing on the proposed transaction.
The full commission did not deny the swap, but took the view that the cash offer was a significant enough change that it warranted further review.
"I think the commissioners usurped our authority," said Fred "Ted" Morgan, a member of the affordable housing committee. "These are decisions that have to be made by the town, by the affordable housing committee, and I don't think the commission understands that. I think we have to make them understand."
Mr. Morgan, a former Edgartown selectman, was the guiding force in the town's development of Morgan Woods, the Island's largest affordable rental complex.
Martha's Vineyard Commission chairman Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark stressed that the commission's action is not a rejection of the lots-for-cash swap, but a move to examine it more closely.
"The commission takes very seriously the input of the town affordable housing committee," said Mr. Sederholm. "Buying out these three affordable housing lots, in the minds of some people, could make that development even more of a single class development. I don't think the commission second guesses the idea so much of an exchange of money for the lots, as it does that this is something that is worthy of a public hearing."
Edgartown residents David Nash and Robin Bray, sent a letter to the Martha's Vineyard Commission opposing the change of conditions. Affordable housing committee members questioned the facts presented in the letter, adding that they believe it swayed some opinions on the MVC.
"The housing development and the adjacent Field Club have already been decried as elitist and contributing to class division on Martha's Vineyard," wrote Mr. Nash and Ms. Bray. "The affordable housing component is all that marks this project as a normal part of Island life. Removing this requirement from the commission's previous decision would be a serious blow to efforts to diversify our neighborhoods."
Edgartown selectman Michael Donaroma, who said he was an original investor in the project, but now holds no ownership interest, offered strong support for the position of the affordable housing committee, and criticized the Martha's Vineyard Commission action.
"It's just social engineering," said Mr. Donaroma. "We're here to put roofs over people's heads, not social engineering."
Also at issue is the value of the lots, and whether the $1.8 million offer is the right compensation.
"I think it's reasonable for the commission to examine whether this is a fair exchange," said Mr. Sederholm. "We're very sensitive to the fact that the affordable housing committee thinks it can do a lot of good with that money. Obviously, it could do more good with more money."
In a phone conversation with The Times Wednesday, Ms. Hathaway said the affordable housing committee relied on committee members with extensive real estate experience, and outside sources with knowledge of the Vineyard construction market to determine the value of the lots. The committee did not get an independent appraisal, according to Ms. Hathaway. She felt the prospect of swapping three undeveloped lots for five or six established housing units drove the decision, not the value of the lots. She and other committee members feel the financial negotiation is the responsibility of the town, not the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
"What does that have to do with the actual process we're going through," asked Ms. Hathaway. "Doesn't the end result justify that price, doesn't that count for something? We felt that at this time, that price was justified. We're going to negotiate for 18 months to get another $500,000? Who are they to tell us that money wasn't enough? The Martha's Vineyard Commission should have trusted us."
Affordable housing committee members also questioned the actions of Edgartown representatives to the Martha's Vineyard Commission. As it turned out, none of the Edgartown commissioners had a voice in the debate. Christina Brown, an Edgartown resident elected to an at-large seat on the MVC, is also a current member of the Edgartown affordable housing committee. She said she did not take part in the full commission's discussion and vote this past Thursday, because she felt there was a possible conflict of interest in her membership on both bodies.
Jim Athearn, also an Edgartown resident elected at-large, recused himself from the debate and vote, citing a possible conflict of interest. The owner of Morning Glory Farm, Mr. Athearn farms town-owned land that abuts the development. He leases the land from Edgartown.
Mark Morris, appointed to the Martha's Vineyard Commission by the Edgartown selectmen, said he was off-Island and did not attend the July 24 meeting.
Ms. Hathaway was also dismayed that two of the commission members who voted to recommend the lots-for-cash swap at the June 30 LUPC session, reversed their position after the debate before the full commission. At the LUPC meeting, commission member Chris Murphy of Chilmark made the motion to recommend acceptance, and commissioner Susan Shea of Aquinnah seconded the motion.
"Chris Murphy and Susan Shea congratulated me and my group personally," said Ms. Hathaway. "I walked out of the room feeling great. I guess I'm naïve about how things work. I didn't go to the meeting on the 24th because of that support."
The vote for a public hearing passed 6-4, with Mr. Murphy and Ms. Shea voting in the majority. Also voting for the public hearing were commissioners Ned Orleans of Tisbury, Andrew Woodruff of West Tisbury, Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, and Mr. Sederholm of Chilmark.
Voting against the public hearing were commissioners Richard Toole of Oak Bluffs, John Breckenridge of Oak Bluffs, Peter Cabana of Tisbury, and Jim Powell of West Tisbury.
The commissioners are expected to reconsider their action at their next scheduled meeting, on August 7. If the vote to send the matter to a public hearing is not overturned, the earliest time that a public hearing could be scheduled is the commission's regular meeting on August 28.