Soundings : Hearing difficulties
When Island agencies negotiate with developers to get some contribution to the public good in return for their building permits, what the developer gives up - what the Island community gets - is called an exaction. In a recent letter to the Martha's Vineyard Commission, John Abrams calls it an extraction, which developers probably would appreciate, because in some ways it really is like pulling teeth.
The Edgartown Affordable Housing Committee (EAHC), demonstrably the most effective and forward-looking of all the Island town boards at work on this urgent issue, recently spent nearly two years negotiating the best exaction from a developer in Island history - the promise of $1.8 million from the builders of the Field Club and B.A.D.D. subdivision at Katama.
In striking this deal, the EAHC departed from the conditions set in 2004 by the Martha's Vineyard Commission when it accepted the developers' offer of three lots inside what is planned as a high-end, 32-lot subdivision. This spring, the Edgartown committee went back to the Martha's Vineyard Commission for permission to proceed, and on June 30, the commission's Land Use Planning Committee (LUPC) voted unanimously "that this is an insignificant change that does not require a public hearing." The planning committee further recommended, also unanimously, that the full MVC should accept this modification as proposed by Edgartown. In both cases, the LUPC made exactly the right call.
But wait a minute. If ever there was a hot-button topic for lively conversation, how about this: Should we take the $1.8 million and run with it, or should we force three lots of real-life housing for regular Vineyard folks into an enclave being built for the wealthy few? The commissioners heard the recommendations of the LUPC on July 24, but called a hearing anyway. In a misjudgment that highlighted, for the umpteenth time, the commission's political tone-deafness, they simply couldn't resist the opportunity to hash this over.
Edgartown officials responded with howls of outrage, and the usual critics of the commission piled on. There were some protests that now, with a few weeks of delay, the Martha's Vineyard Commission might derail the town's sweet deal, but mainly this was a matter of turf. Most signals from the Martha's Vineyard Commission suggested that the commissioners were inclined eventually to support the arrangement negotiated by the town. Still, nobody who has worked as hard as the Edgartown committee has on this project enjoys being ordered to jump through another regulatory hoop.
Last Thursday night, the Martha's Vineyard Commission discussed whether perhaps, in the light of the Edgartown protests, it should reconsider its decision to hold an August 28 hearing on the $1.8 million exaction deal. They decided not to cancel the hearing. That was the best call, because canceling the community's conversation at this point simply wasn't an option.
The magnitude of the Island response - front-page stories in both papers, dueling editorials and a lively exchange of letters to the press and to the Martha's Vineyard Commission - had confirmed by last week that this was an issue ripe for airing.
Articulate arguments had been presented on both sides of the issue. Mr. Abrams, one of the godfathers of affordable housing on Martha's Vineyard, argued in his letter that the Martha's Vineyard Commission should let Edgartown take the money rather than the house lots. "It seems to me," he wrote, "that if there were three lots designated for affordable housing in this development, it would probably constitute a ghetto of one sort within a ghetto of another. The marriage is likely to be uncomfortable. I wouldn't like to live at the Field Club. Would you?"
Richard Nash and Robin Bray, abutters to the Field Club, disagreed, writing: "The housing development and the adjacent Field Club have already been decried as elitist and contributing to class division on Martha's Vineyard. 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."
This robust debate was already underway last week as the Martha's Vineyard Commission was considering whether to hold this discussion at all. The can, in short, had been opened and the worms were everywhere: the MVC couldn't set the way-back machine to July 23 and un-call its public hearing.
Three weeks of delay shouldn't upset the progress of the Field Club or the residential development planned around it. And the fact that the Martha's Vineyard Commission has decided to cross its procedural T's needn't be taken as an affront to the hard-working officials of Edgartown. One more meeting won't hurt anyone. A hearing that allows for public input - and a round of applause for the Edgartown Affordable Housing Committee - can only be healthy for the town and the commission in the long run.