Before a room packed with opponents, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) last Thursday night agreed that the Kuehn’s Way affordable apartment project in Tisbury did not merit further review by the regional permitting agency as a development of regional impact (DRI), and voted to send it back to the town zoning board of appeals.
The MVC based its decision on a recommendation by its land-use planning committee that the project is a modified version with less regional impact than Bridge Commons, a previously approved DRI on the site that never came to fruition in the face of staunch opposition from neighbors.
About a dozen abutters and residents of nearby neighborhoods attended the DRI-modification review to argue in favor of a new public hearing and protest the project. Many others wrote letters that were entered into the public record, but their arguments were not enough to persuade a majority of commissioners.
Change in plans
The Kuehn’s Way project proposed by Island Housing Trust (IHT) consists of 10 clustered rental duplex buildings with 20 units, 40 bedrooms, on 4.5 acres off State Road in Tisbury. The complex would include four wells and a state-approved enhanced denitrification septic system to meet the limits of the MVC’s current water-quality policy. 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. The apartments will be 100 percent rental units for tenants earning 80 percent or less of the area mean income, from $28,000 to $67,000 annually, depending on household size.
The Bridge Commons project, approved with conditions by the MVC in 2003, included 15 duplexes with a total of 30 units. In 2007, the MVC subsequently approved a modification to the Bridge housing project of 13 buildings, including 9 duplexes and 4 single-family detached dwellings, with 22 units, 49 bedrooms, on 8.7 acres. The property fell into foreclosure.
IHT purchased the property in September 2015 for $1.2 million from Boston Community Capital, through negotiations that included the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank. At the time of the purchase, IHT sold the Land Bank an exclusive-use easement for 8.9 acres at the back of the property for $600,000.
Although Bridge Commons was not built, the MVC approval from 2007 is valid if substantial construction begins on Kuehn’s Way by Dec. 4, 2016. The entire Kuehn’s Way project cost is estimated at $6.3 million, according to IHT. Six Island towns have already contributed a total of $500,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to the project.
Not a public hearing
MVC commissioner and vice chairman Rob Doyle of Chilmark ran the 90-minute DRI modification review in place of chairman Jim Vercruysse, who recused himself because of a conflict of interest. Mr. Doyle reminded the audience that since the review was not a public hearing, but rather a proceeding to determine whether one was required, the commission would not answer questions, and would take only limited public testimony, four minutes per speaker.
Before the review was opened to comments, MVC staff members provided reports on traffic and water. Transportation planner Priscilla Leclerc said two traffic counts were done on June 22, on State Road at Old County Road, and closer to the proposed project site at State Road with Deer Hill Road and Peacegate Way. She said the results indicate there are no significant traffic impacts that would occur as a result of the new housing units.
Water resources planner Sheri Caseau said that the project is located in the impaired Tashmoo watershed, but its nitrogen load would meet the MVC’s water-quality policy requirements and state Department of Environmental Protection requirements, and fall well below the load limit for the pond.
Mindful of those waiting to speak, IHT executive director Philippe Jordi kept his remarks brief. He pointed out that in addition to a reduction in the overall development area from Bridge Commons, the Kuehn’s Way project modifications would reduce the number of dwellings and bedrooms, traffic, parking, and nitrogen runoff.
He also noted the project’s benefit to the Island’s affordable housing shortage. He said Kuehn’s Way offers 45 percent more dwellings serving low- to moderate-income residents than Bridge Commons, and that would be counted toward Tisbury’s required 40B subsidized housing inventory.
Pros and cons
Several residents of the Deer Hill Road neighborhood whose properties abut the Kuehn’s Way site urged the MVC to review the project due to concerns about density, well water quality, wastewater, and traffic on State Road.
“I would really like a public hearing,” Carol Collins said. “You keep referring to minor modifications — even though the permits are technically valid after 13 years, so many things have changed.”
During those years, Janet Woodcock added, “We have learned more about water and denitrification. I’m very concerned about traffic, and feel there are safety and health issues. I think it’s a responsibility to check this out any way we can.”
Richard Toole, former Vineyard Conservation Society board president and long-serving MVC commissioner from Oak Bluffs, said he can empathize with the abutters’ concerns, as someone who also lives in a tight-knit neighborhood that enjoys a Land Bank property next door.
But on the other side of the coin, he said, “We have a serious housing problem on this Island. We’re losing our year-round community. People get off the boat, work, take our money, and leave.
“Nitrogen is a big issue,” Mr. Toole added, “but I think this project addresses it as best it can. There’s twice as much open space as the original project — that’s called smart growth. We’ve got to make some compromises here.”
IHT board member Doug Ruskin also spoke in favor of the project moving forward. He said the Island’s economy is changing due to the loss of one of its resources, people.
“I am sympathetic to the problem in the neighborhood, but the reality is the population has more than doubled in 30 to 40 years,” he added. “If we don’t find a place to put people, we will be a destination for the super-rich and their servants, because people who live here won’t be able to stay.”
The commissioners voted 9-2 not to hold a new hearing. Doug Sederholm of West Tisbury and Joan Malkin of Chilmark were in favor of a hearing, and cast the dissenting votes. Clarence “Trip” Barnes of Tisbury abstained.
In discussion prior to the vote, Mr. Sederholm expressed concerns about the project’s potential effects on nitrogen levels in the Lake Tashmoo watershed and his frustration about the MVC’s outdated water-quality policy, which he said is 10 years out of date.
“That said, I’m not suggesting that I would ever vote against a project like this because they don’t meet the Mass Estuaries Project’s current recommendations,” he said. “Because that’s not the rules of the game that we have in place, and that’s not fair to them.”
Mr. Sederholm said the project definitely has significant regional impacts, including traffic, visual, wastewater, and density, that provide reasons to consider holding a public hearing.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t support this project,” Mr. Sederholm said. “I’m saying, Does it have regional impact? It clearly does.”
Ms. Malkin said although she voted against holding a public hearing at the LUPC meeting the previous Monday, “I don’t think I looked at the right thing.”
“This is no reflection of my views on the merits of this proposal,” she added. “I’m impressed by IHT coming up with a significant plan to ameliorate affordable housing needs on the Island. Maybe I would feel comfortable approving it as proposed, but to do what our job is, I recognize the changes are not minor.”
Mr. Barnes explained why he abstained: “This is just putting a Band-Aid on it for $6 million,” he said. “The money is not up to us to decide, but this isn’t what I call affordable housing.”
Following the commission vote not to hold a public hearing, the MVC voted on a separate motion to approve the DRI modification and new conditions and offers, to replace those from 2003. All of the commissioners voted yes, except for Mr. Barnes, who abstained.
The next step for the Kuehn’s Way project is a public hearing by the Tisbury zoning board of appeals on August 11.