Edgartown considers zoning change for affordable homes

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

The Edgartown planning board Tuesday approved a bylaw change that would significantly relax zoning laws to allow affordable homes on otherwise unbuildable lots.

The bylaw would “allow homesites to be buildable for people who have lived or worked in Edgartown for a substantial time, who intend to live year-round in Edgartown, but who — because of high land prices — would otherwise be financially unable to establish their homes in Edgartown.”

The proposed change would allow a property owner to divide land into one standard lot and one “remainder” lot of as little as 5,000 square feet. Anyone who qualifies by standards set by the affordable housing committee, could build a home on the remainder lot. The remainder lot could be sold to a direct family member, even if they do not qualify under affordable housing committee guidelines.

The bylaw would also allow homes to be built on substandard lots of as little as 10,000 square feet, where building is now prohibited under zoning laws, for anyone who qualifies according to affordable housing committee guidelines.

“We are trying to come up with a way to create some building lots that were affordable for some residents,” Dick Barbini, a member of the bylaw review committee, told planning board members at their regular meeting Tuesday. “We tried to come up with a bylaw that makes the process more streamlined, hopefully that will help more people.”

Prospective homeowners would need a special permit from the zoning board of appeals, and construction would have to meet all zoning regulations, including setbacks, frontage, and allowances for sewer and water systems.

Homes built under the new bylaw would have restrictions on use and resale. The owner must live in the home and would be prohibited from renting it. After 15 years, the homeowner could sell the property at market price, but if it is sold in fewer than 15 years, it must be sold to another buyer who qualifies under the affordable housing guidelines. The new owner would be under the same 15-year restrictions.

In the case of a home built by a direct relative, the original property owner has a right of first refusal to purchase the property and merge it with the original lot.

Affordable housing advocates questioned the residency requirement and urged the planning board to make the resale restrictions permanent, creating a perpetual affordable housing unit.

“By allowing something to expire,” Doug Ruskin, president of Habitat for Humanity, said, “what it means is you’re going to have to be constantly building affordable housing inventory. You’re giving away something, in the form of reduced zoning requirements. I think the town should benefit forever from that.”

The planning board voted unanimously to approve the measure as proposed, leaving the residency requirements and 15 year resale restrictions.

The measure now goes to the annual town meeting in the spring, where it needs approval by two-thirds of the voters to change the current bylaw.

Not so Cozy Hearth

If approved at town meeting, the changes to Edgartown’s zoning bylaws would provide an affordable housing wedge that could allow quarter-acre development in areas now restricted to three-acre lots.

In the past, Edgartown officials have opposed affordable housing initiatives that threatened large-acre zoning.

The most notable example was Cozy Hearth.

In 2002, businessman Bill Bennett of Chilmark and some of his employees, friends, and family members joined forces and purchased 11 acres zoned for 3-acre lots off Watcha Path Road in Edgartown in an effort to provide affordable housing.

The development named Cozy Hearth proposed to subdivide the property into 1-acre lots through a comprehensive permit under Chapter 40B, a state statute to encourage affordable housing by helping developers bypass local zoning restrictions.

Three houses were to be awarded to Edgartown residents eligible for affordable housing through a lottery. The rest were to be owned by Cozy Hearth members, with five houses qualifying as affordable through permanent deed restrictions, and the remaining three at market rate.

Following an extensive seven-month review the Martha’s Vineyard Commission approved the development.

In March 2006, Cozy Hearth went before the Edgartown ZBA. Two months later, the ZBA voted against the 11-house subdivision and approved only nine houses.

Decreasing the project to nine houses meant the loss of two of the three market-value units and that six Cozy Hearth members would share the economic burden rather than eight.

Cozy Hearth appealed the Edgartown ZBA’s decision in June 2006 to the Massachusetts Housing Appeals Committee. On April 14, 2008, the HAC agreed that the elimination of two houses would make the project uneconomic and that several conditions imposed by the ZBA were beyond the scope of health and safety issues. The ZBA appealed the HAC decision in April 2008, which was upheld by Dukes County Superior Court Justice John C. Cratsley on April 13, 2009.

When the Edgartown ZBA, with the support of the town’s selectmen, filed notice of a further appeal Mr. Bennett said he could no longer afford the battle and Cozy Hearth was done.