Neighbors cite density as top affordable apartment complex concern

The Island Housing Trust hosted an information meeting about Kuehn’s Way, a 22-unit, regionally funded development proposed for Tisbury.

This map shows the entire parcel and the section identified for housing development. — Island Housing Trust

Density, water quality, wastewater, landscape preservation, noise, traffic, and light topped the list of concerns neighbors of a proposed 22-unit affordable housing complex off State Road in Tisbury expressed at a public meeting the Island Housing Trust (IHT) hosted Monday at the Baptist Parish House in Vineyard Haven.

The project, named Kuehn’s Way, is sited on 5.9 acres fronting State Road, part of a 14.8-acre property at State and Deer Hill roads that was to be the site of an earlier affordable housing project, Bridge Commons, that never came to fruition. IHT would build the project under the terms of Chapter 40B, which provides some freedom from local zoning regulations in exchange for providing affordable housing.

IHT purchased the property in September for $1.2 million from Boston Community Capital, through negotiations that included the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank. IHT then sold the Land Bank an exclusive-use easement for 8.9 acres at the back of the property for $600,000. The easement entitles the Land Bank to use the property as if it owns it, and also allows IHT to use the parcel for septic and wells for the Kuehn’s Way project, provided the land is restored to a natural state.

IHT executive director Philippe Jordi told about a dozen area residents Monday night that the meeting was intended to be a continuation of a dialogue that began at a public information meeting held last October, shortly after IHT purchased the property. Mr. Jordi said IHT currently is considering 3 one-bedroom, 16 two-bedroom, and 3 three-bedroom units, divided among 11 duplexes.

“But at this point, we really haven’t defined anything, and what we’re doing tonight is bringing up some of the issues that came up,” Mr. Jordi said. “At the last session, we asked you to identify what issues are most important to you as neighbors, and as a community at large, as we do have both represented here, and to allow these professionals that we have hired to discuss them with you.”

The design/build team included Treff Lafleche, LDa Architecture and Interiors; Jim Boucher, Williams Building Co.; and Michelle Crowley and Naomi Cottrell, Michelle Crowley Landscape Architecture. Mr. Jordi said the team has previous experience with IHT on the Lake Street housing project in Tisbury.

“We’re hoping again to really respond to a growing need,” Mr. Jordi said. “The Dukes County Regional Housing Authority now has a waiting list of about 257 households, of which about 75 are Tisbury residents, and we want to see how we can be responsive, but at the same time, thoughtful about what we’re doing here.”

Kuehn’s Way is named in memory of Robert (Bob) Kuehn, a founding member of the Island Affordable Housing Development Corporation in 2001, who served on the IHT board of directors for several years until his death in 2006.

Bridging the Bridge Commons past
Mr. Lafleche, who chaired the discussion, told the audience, which included IHT board members Doug Ruskin of West Tisbury, IHT member and Tisbury planning board member Dan Seidman, IHT project manager Derrill Bazzy, and planning board member Cheryl Doble, that the design/build team wanted to create a dialogue that would help inform the design process.

“We really want to think about this as looking at it with fresh eyes,” he said. “We’re all going to do the best we can to put behind us what was done 10 or 12 years ago, and to think of us as open to all possibilities here.”

Mr. Lafleche was referring to Bridge Commons, an earlier Chapter 40B project of 22 homes in 11 two-family buildings proposed for the 15-acre property by the Bridge Housing Corporation (BHC), a nonprofit formed by representatives of several Island religious organizations.

BHC secured a loan for nearly $1.7 million to purchase the property from Boston Community Capital in 2002, and then launched an initiative to build Bridge Commons. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission approved the project in 2003, and the Tisbury zoning board of appeals gave its nod in 2004. And BHC prevailed in court when neighbors brought suit. But the long permitting battle took its toll.

In 2009 the BHC board decided to put the property on the market because the project had run out of financial resources and they could not repay the site-purchase loan. The land went into foreclosure and was bought by Boston Community Capital.

Compassion requested
Monday night, Mr. Lafleche referred to lists of concerns posted on the walls, and began the discussion with those that received the most mention, including preserving the landscape, privacy, wells, neighborhood character and safety, access to the ancient way Red Hill Road, and a no-cut zone.

The majority of those in attendance came from the Deer Hill Road neighborhood. For many, veterans of the Bridge Commons battle, the idea of an affordable housing project in the midst of what they describe as a rural, close-knit neighborhood was no more palatable this time around. “No matter how much you talk about it, it’s a huge, huge, huge change for all of us,” Phyllis Vecchia said. “I think you need to bring some compassion into these meetings, as to how it’s going to affect our lives.”

“Where we live is quiet, there are not many cars; you can see the night sky; we know and trust each other,” Janet Woodcock said. “We walk in the area, and it’s completely safe. It’s a neighborhood; we’re all connected.”

“I don’t want to get all New Age and corny, but walking in woods is a sort of a spiritual thing for us, and yet they act like how sacred the State Forest is,” Barney Zeitz said. “They could take a chunk of State Forest and build a city. Why is the State Forest sacred and our neighborhood isn’t?”

Carol Collins pointed out that the major concerns, including noise, traffic, and water, all relate to density. “It’s the equivalent of putting a gas station and a supermarket in the same spot, in terms of traffic, parking, noise, sewage effluent,” Robert Dias said.

“But these are home-dwellers such as yourself,” Mr. Lafleche said. “I don’t think you can make that analogy.”

Paul Munafo said he and his neighbors are being asked to solve a town housing problem in their rural setting. “And I blame our town for sitting on their hands for years and years and not dealing with zoning issues that would support apartment-style living and that provides rental units for people,” he said. “We have this very beautiful, pastoral empty piece of property that we’ve been looking at for 28 years, and now it’s going to be a property dense with residences of some kind, rental residences, that we’re not all that keen on.”

Mr. Zeitz suggested an affordable housing development half the size, 11 apartment units, would be a good challenge for the design/build team.

“What is the highest number you feel and we feel is appropriate?” Mr. Lafleche responded, adding, “We don’t want you to be unhappy. But there has to be somewhere between the two extremes.”

“I think this is a big chunk to ask one area to do,” Mr. Zeitz said. “This is a great big Island, and they should go up where all the billionaires live and get them to add five or six acres and put in 22 houses.”

“We’re the poor people of the Island, even though we’re not that poor,” he added. “We’re kind of failed hippies.”

In response to a question about what defines “affordable,” Mr. Jordi said the apartments would be rented to households with incomes ranging from $20,000 up to $70,000, depending on the number of family members and their economic situation.

He also pointed out that the Kuehn’s Way project has received support from voters in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and West Tisbury, who approved requests for Community Preservation Act funds to cover the costs of the property’s acquisition. Chilmark voters also approved funds for the project on Tuesday night, and Aquinnah voters will vote next month.

Next step
Mr. Lafleche concluded the discussion with a summary of the main concerns: neighborhood preservation; project density; well-water quality; wastewater; landscape preservation, and traffic, noise, and lighting. “We’ll be formulating where we go from here, and figure out a way to keep you guys in the process,” he said.

In a conversation with The Times after the meeting, Mr. Jordi pointed out that IHT has completed other projects of higher-density development on other sites in rural areas in West Tisbury than what is being proposed for Kuehn’s Way. “It’s not unprecedented at all,” he said. “But it is going to have a disproportionate impact on, specifically, people in the neighborhood. So some people will have what continues to be open space, and some people will have a neighborhood next to them. What was said by Phyllis is really important. We acknowledge that — we aren’t going to hide behind the illusion it’s not going to be any different.”

Mr. Jordi added, “But what we want to do is try and find that balance, between caring for the larger community and caring for the neighborhood. So this is our effort to reach out, to get that information, to hear people, and include that in the entire process, and hopefully come back with something that’s thoughtful when we go before the different boards.”