ZBA asks Island Housing Trust to reduce Kuehn’s Way units

The Tisbury zoning board of appeals wants the number of affordable apartments dropped from 20 to 16 units, a request IHT says is infeasible.

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Attorney Daniel Hill, who represented Kuehn's Way abutters, addressed the Tisbury zoning board of appeals at a public hearing last Thursday. — Cameron Machell

In the face of stiff opposition from neighborhood residents, the Tisbury zoning board of appeals (ZBA) at a public hearing last week recommended to representatives of the Island Housing Trust (IHT) that the housing organization reduce its proposed Kuehn’s Way affordable apartment project from 20 to 16 units. IHT executive director Philippe Jordi said any reduction would push up unit costs and hinder efforts to seek state financing for the $6.3 million project.

More than 20 area residents attended the lengthy three-hour public hearing last Thursday in the Tisbury Emergency Services Facility. Many objected to what they termed the project’s density and the possible harm to area groundwater. Abutters were represented by attorney Daniel Hill of Cambridge.

Jeff Kristal, chairman of the ZBA, asked Mr. Jordi to return with modified plans, showing a possible reduction from a 20-unit complex to a 16-unit complex. “I don’t think this board is ready for a yes or a no vote tonight,” Mr. Kristal said.

This week, Mr. Jordi said that IHT has already reduced the number of units and that a further reduction would make the project economically infeasible. In addition to the reduction, the ZBA asked to see two other pro formas — a cost analysis — that considered a connection to the town sewer for 20 units and for 16 units.

“We will show them what they want, which is a pro forma, but the pro forma will show it’s not feasible at that density,” Mr. Jordi said.

Hope for an outcome

The ZBA is scheduled to resume the Kuehn’s Way public hearing on Oct. 20 in the Town Hall Annex in Tisbury at 5:30 pm. In a phone conversation with The Times Friday following the hearing, Mr. Jordi said he hoped for an outcome.

He said IHT is losing opportunities to apply for competitive state funding. In September, they were unable to apply for $500,000 in funding with the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston. More state funding will be offered in December, Mr. Jordi said.

Mr. Jordi said a unit reduction would hinder IHT’s ability to seek state funding. IHT has to maintain the per-unit cost of $319,000 to remain competitive.

“So to reduce the number of units, you’d have to spread the fixed cost, which makes the per-unit cost go up, making the project no longer competitive for state funding,” Mr. Jordi said.

In a phone conversation with The Times on Monday, Mr. Kristal said the ZBA was well versed in Chapter 40B, making Kuehn’s Way a familiar process. He said it was important to hear where both the neighbors and IHT are coming from.

Mr. Kristal said the ZBA needs to “digest” the information. He wants to give neighbors a voice, but he emphasized that something inevitably would be built.

“I want to make sure we’re doing everything by the law, so I don’t want to rush it,” Mr. Kristal said.

Fewer units

Kuehn’s Way consists of 10 clustered rental duplex buildings with 20 units, 40 bedrooms, to be built on 4.5 acres off State Road in Tisbury. The complex would include four wells and a state-approved enhanced denitrification septic system. 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 project would be built on a site previously eyed for a development known as Bridge Commons by a consortium of church groups. In 2003, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) approved 15 duplexes with 30 units. In 2007, the MVC approved a modification of 13 buildings with 22 units on 8.7 acres. However, in the face of neighborhood opposition, the financing package unraveled, and the property fell into foreclosure.

A joint land deal between IHT and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, which purchased the back of the property, resurrected the project.

In July, the MVC agreed Kuehn’s Way 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.

Six Island towns have contributed a total of $500,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to the project.

Something will be built

Mr. Jordi addressed density at the outset of the Thursday-night hearing. He said that compared with the Bridge Commons project, Kuehn’s Way had 50 percent less traffic; 23 percent fewer buildings; 35 percent less nitrogen from septic systems; and 30 percent more conservation area.

“The project represents a reduction from what was approved and then modified by the Tisbury ZBA for the Bridge Commons project back in 2007,” Mr. Jordi said. “Any further reduction in size would render the project infeasible.” Abutters were not convinced.

“We were appalled,” neighbor Janet Woodcock said of the MVC decision in July that the project didn’t warrant further review by the regional permitting agency.

“This is the densest thing ever to be built on this Island, and nobody wanted to look at it. It was irresponsible of them,” Ms. Woodcock said of the MVC.

Mr. Kristal pointed out that irrespective of Kuehn’s Way, the land was open to development.

“There is something going on this site. Whether it’s this, or whether they turn around and they sell it, there’s something going on here,” Mr. Kristal, a former selectman, told residents. “I don’t want you to think that nothing’s going there. The town looked at buying it. There was a meeting years ago with the town, and the town was thinking about doing more than what IHT is doing. So I’m just saying, there’s something that’s going to be developed here.”

Septic concerns

Mr. Hill, representing the abutters, said the primary local concern was the impact from Kuehn’s Way septic systems on neighboring wells and the nitrogen-sensitive watershed.

Mr. Hill said there was insufficient information on the site plans. The water tests were done over 10 years ago, and he said they were outdated. According to Mr. Hill, the plans lacked proper topography of septic systems and abutters’ wells, and the septic flow on the design was underestimated.

In an effort to comply with new nitrogen regulations proposed by the board of health, the project would include an advanced denitrification system. Mr. Hill said IHT has selected the BioClear Solutions LLC system, but like all alternative systems, the state considers it provisional. This raises the question, Mr. Hill said, if it actually is effective in removing nitrogen.

The total acreage of the site that IHT owns is 14.85 acres. Ruth Silman, a land-use attorney at Nixon Peabody in Boston and pro bono consultant for IHT, said that its easement with the Land Bank gives IHT the ability to use the property to the north for wells or septic, which would spread the nutrient loading on the site.

Neighbors, however, were not dissuaded from their concerns. Robert Dias, an abutter on Deer Hill Road, said his well would be the first to be affected, given his proximity to the new project. He said it “made zero sense” that abutters would likely be required by the board of health to install advanced denitrification systems when the groundwater would be overloaded with nitrogen from Kuehn’s Way.

“The 15 houses’ worth of sewage effluent, household chemicals, and the sewage plume that’s going to migrate right underneath my house, taking out my well, and then everyone else’s, all the way down to the lagoon, of which we’re going to be forced to upgrade our septic systems for because that’s the train of thought,” Mr. Dias said.

Abutter Ken Bilzerian agreed. “When you spend 44 years cultivating a piece of land by your own two hands and then this happens, we’re betrayed,” he said. “The future of the town’s water is in your hands right now.”

Make it right

Proponents and opponents of Kuehn’s Way said the role of the ZBA was to find the balance between the need for affordable housing and the significance of local concern. Abutters called it unfair to have to bear the burden of the Island’s affordable housing crisis.

A small handful of residents expressed their support for the project.

John Abrams, founder and president of South Mountain Co., an on-Island design and construction company that has completed eight affordable housing projects, said he had heard great opposition over the years.

“What I never heard is once they were completed, any objections at all,” Mr. Abrams said. “The fears were not realized.”

IHT board of directors member Doug Ruskin of West Tisbury emphasized that IHT was a responsible organization.

“We are going to absolutely comply with the requirements for water and septic,” Mr. Ruskin said. “We are an organization that looks at the greater good. We’re not going to help 20 families and poison 20 others. That’s just nuts. Whatever we have to do to make it right, we’re going to make it right.”