A sharply divided Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) voted 7-5 not to hold a public hearing to consider modifications the new owners of the Southern Woodlands property — a 26-lot, never realized subdivision with an equestrian theme off County Road in Oak Bluffs — wish to make to their existing development permit, granted after a protracted Development of Regional Impact (DRI) review process in 2005.
The vote did not come quickly or without debate, in keeping with the history of the long-stalled subdivision, the remnants of a lengthy and divisive battle over the failed Kupersmith Down Island Golf Club that ended in 2004 when the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank agreed to purchase 180 acres for $18.6 million, creating the Southern Woodlands property; the Martha’s Vineyard Commission signed off on the subdivision plan; and Corey Kupersmith stopped suing and left the Island.
Following the sale of the foreclosed property to Paul Adamson, a Boston-area developer and Edgartown seasonal homeowner, for $5.15 million at a June 26 auction, members of the Oak Bluffs planning board (OBPB) questioned whether the subdivision permit remained in force.
After a month of negotiations which escalated into threats of litigation, the planning board won some major concessions that included a $700,000 donation to the Oak Bluffs Affordable Housing Trust, voluntary reduction of total number of bedrooms to 156, and enhanced nitrogen mitigation to insure a limit of 19 milligrams of nitrogen per liter per year. Buffer zones were also extended in some areas, and ancient ways were restored.
Michelle Manners, attorney for NLP Finance, sellers of the $5.15 million note on the property, stated in a Jan. 7 letter to the MVC that the town would receive almost $500,000 in back taxes when the deal closes. According to treasurer Sharon Jackson, Farlap Development, the previous title holder for the land, owes the town a little over $330,000.
On Thursday night, acting MVC chairman Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs said he’d studied the previous voluminous MVC decision and the proposed modifications before the commission, and that there were many questions to be answered. “I think it would be informative to the public to find out what is being proposed for this property, because it’s a fairly major plan,” he said.
“We’re essentially asking you to approve what the O.B. planning board has already approved,” Geoghan Coogan, attorney for buyer Paul Adamson, told the commission.
Commissioners briefly debated if the planning board had indeed approved the permit application before them. Mr. Hancock asked OBPB chairman Brian Packish to clarify. Mr. Packish said he was satisfied with the vetting process, which included a working group that included MVC executive director Adam Turner, as well as the Oak Bluffs Affordable Housing Trust, the Oak Bluffs selectmen, and the Joint Lagoon Pond Committee.
He added that the planning board held several well-advertised, standing-room-only public meetings. “There was a whole lot of process on this one, and we feel like we discussed it very thoroughly,” he said. “The applicant was pretty forthcoming, and very flexible.”
Mr. Packish added that while he thought it was a “pretty good process,” he was in no way suggesting that the MVC not hold public hearings on the project. He also said when the development goes back to the OBPB for final approval, there will be another well-advertised, formal public hearing.
Substantive change debated
MVC commissioner Linda Sibley of West Tisbury said that per the MVC bylaws, a public hearing was required if the proposed modifications were sufficiently “substantial” from the previous permit.
“Not whether they’re good, not whether they’re bad, that’s a judgment that’s made after a public hearing,” she said. “I have to say these changes are for the most part good, but also they are extensively different than what we originally approved.”
Mr. Coogan contended that the changes were not major, with the exception of the removal of the equestrian center, which also made the manure-removal clause redundant. “What we’re doing on the site is actually much less,” he said.
Regarding the change to affordable housing, Mr. Coogan said, “I feel like I’m almost wasting my breath. We’re going to hand the town almost a million dollars a month from now; that seems pretty simple to me.”
Bill Veno, MVC senior planner, said, after doing calculations with the previous affordable housing formula, that it would take over 30 years for the affordable housing trust to accrue that amount.
Ms. Sibley said there are members of the public who may object to the change from an equestrian facility. “It’s a big change,” she said.
“I’m sorry, if you’re going to eliminate a private equestrian center for a subdivision, I don’t see the regional impact, and I don’t see the substantive nature of that change,” West Tisbury commissioner Doug Sederholm said. “I generally defer when Linda wants a public hearing; I trust her judgment on these things, but I’m having a real hard time seeing where the substantive changes are that require a public hearing.”
Mr. Sederholm, an attorney, said the memo in front of the commission, which was filled with line-item edits in different-colored fonts, was poorly written and “a mess,” and needed revision.
Mr. Coogan explained that it was drawn up in that manner on the suggestion of some of the MVC staff and MVC counsel, so the changes made at the planning board would be readily apparent to the commissioners.
Mr. Hancock said that as written, the memo states the homeowners association can be formed before the building permits are issued, and that the original covenant specified the homeowners association be formed before lots were sold. “This developer is just going to sell lots,” he said. “The mechanism to transfer the common lands to the homeowners association is an important part of this agreement.”
Mr. Coogan offered to change the wording on the spot. He agreed to work with Mr. Turner and with MVC counsel to revise and clarify the proposed modification memo and present it to the MVC for final approval on Jan. 21, after it is “ironed out” by the Land Use Planning Committee.
Commissioners Trip Barnes of Vineyard Haven, Lenny Jason representing Duke County, James Joyce of Edgartown, Joan Malkin of Chilmark, Mr. Sederholm, Ernie Thomas of West Tisbury, and Kathy Newman of Aquinnah voted against a public hearing. “I’m really impressed with the process they’ve done so far,” Ms. Newman said. “It sounds so well done and so transparent. I think that’s what we want.”
Commissioners Linda Sibley, Christina Brown of Edgartown, Abe Seiman of Oak Bluffs, and Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs voted in favor of a public hearing.
“I just have to say I’ve done more research on this than many people, because I knew this was going to come up when the economy improved,” Mr. Hancock said. “I didn’t want the commission to be caught with its pants down. There are a lot of things that are not as cleaned up as they should be.”
“There is going to be another public hearing on this, at the planning board, hopefully in a couple of weeks, if I can get this back to them in time,” Mr. Coogan said. “The opportunity to have a public hearing is still there.”