Overtures to develop 27 acres in West Tisbury, once part of a farm owned by John and Debbie Olsen, have triggered alarm among Old Courthouse Road residents who fear their sleepy side street will see a dramatic influx of traffic. The deal also rattled both the sellers and the realtor who represented them.
The buyer, William Cumming, through Huseby Meadows, LLC, has teamed with the Island Housing Trust to suggest affordable homes for teachers, citing the Island’s dire need. They stress talks are in the early stages, and plans are subject to amendments based on public feedback.
Huseby Meadows, LLC, the developer of the 27-acre parcel, bought the land from Huseby Mountain Farm, LLC, an investment group led by Joe El-Deiry, general manager of John Keene Excavation in West Tisbury, for $2.3 million. The Huseby Mountain Farm subdivision went through a rigorous Martha’s Vineyard Commission development of regional impact (DRI) review in 2015. It featured three large building lots, preserved roughly 50 percent of the acreage as conservation land, and spun off some smaller lots for modest or affordable homes and commercial use. Another proposal (by a different group) for 55 units fell through, in part because of access issues to Pine Hill Road — a sinuous dirt road off Old Stage Road that later received a “special way” designation by the MVC, a classification meant to preserve its rural character by prohibiting widening and paving.
Huseby Meadows bought the parcel in July, solving the access dilemma through the purchase of property on Old Courthouse Road.
“Huseby Meadows desires to rezone the existing 27 acres as a cluster development with article five of the West Tisbury Zoning Bylaw as ‘a guide,’” a portion of a preliminary Huseby Meadows presentation to West Tisbury’s Affordable Housing Committee states. “The ability to utilize the open space development is the Island’s most progressive and flexible zoning bylaw.”
According to that presentation, the property is approved for three supersize lots with two residential structures on each lot. Each is also approved for 10 bedrooms and 6,000 square feet of living space, the presentation states.
The total amount of workforce and market rate bedrooms proposed in the presentation is 54.
Tea Lane real estate agent Jill Napior, whose house abuts the parcel, brokered the old Olsen parcel on behalf of Huseby Mountain Farm.
“I don’t feel like there was any transparency to the transaction,” she said.
About 30 days after the May 1 purchase and sale signing, Ms. Napior said that she and the sellers were shocked to learn from another abutter that the intent of the new buyer had changed. Before the sale, Ms. Napior met with Paul Dittmann, who she said told her that the land would be used for homes for himself and his family.
In an email to The Times, Mr. Cumming described Mr. Dittman as a former colleague and friend, whom he has offered an opportunity to purchase a home when the project is complete.
Ms. Napior said that after an encounter abutter Dan VanLandingham had with Mr. Cumming, Huseby Meadows’ investor and a former Citigroup executive, “the real intention for the property was revealed.”
Mr. VanLandingham purchased one of the smaller lots Huseby Mountain Farm had created from the initial acreage it purchased from the Olsens. The lot is on Pine Hill Road, and borders the main development parcel. Mr. VanLandingham is in the process of building a house there.
During a chance meeting at the lot in June, Mr. VanLandingham said Mr. Cumming first sought to buy his property, and then asked to swap acreage. It was during the back-and-forth that Mr. VanLandingham said he learned of Mr. Cumming’s new housing development idea.
“He told me not to tell anyone of his plan, especially the sellers and the realtor,” Mr. VanLandingham wrote in a text message to The Times.
Mr. Cumming confirmed proposing a swap. “It was early in the process, and I was just beginning to understand and explore my options,” he wrote in an email.
Ms. Napior said she never met Mr. Cumming prior to the sale, and that the alternate development that came to light from Mr. VanLandingham’s encounter and has since been expounded on in a series of Affordable Housing Committee meetings is counter to what the sellers intended for the property. They never would have sold it if they knew what the buyers planned, she added.
Mr. Cumming said Ms. Napior had a conflict of interest because of her adjoining home. He said he requested the seller’s attorney exclude her from the deal a month prior to the closing. Ms. Napior said no such exclusion was communicated to her by the seller, and she was never excluded from the deal.
“Jill has been our broker for over 15 years,” Mr. El-Deiry said, “and we have always had confidence in her ability. We value her high level of professionalism and integrity.”
Longtime Island excavation contractor John Keene, a principal investor in Huseby Mountain Farm, called Ms. Napior a straight shooter with a high degree of integrity.
Doug Azarian, a Falmouth broker at Kinlin Grover, represented the buyers. In a telephone conversation with The Times, he said the buyers’ plan to create an affordable development was “not something that was evident from the start.” Mr. Azarian declined to talk about the buyers, and said he never met the sellers. “I think the listing agent may have been concerned because she’s an abutter,” he said.
Ms. Napior countered that where she lives isn’t the issue. “There are five abutters who purchased their land and homes based on what the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the West Tisbury planning board approved and recorded,” Ms. Napior wrote in a text message to The Times. “The sellers were considerate every step of the way in organizing this property, and respected the neighboring homes and aesthetic of our town. I feel badly that the work they have done to create housing for locals as well as a smart subdivision is up for debate.”
Though sellers gave up their rights to control the land by selling, Ms Napior sees a particular measure of unfairness in Huseby Meadows’ development intentions.
“I don’t understand how it can be fair to reorganize a recorded development, given so many people made significant investments abutting the property,” she wrote, “expecting to live next to what was a thoughtfully approved and recorded development.”
Nicole Cabot, who has lived on Old Courthouse Lane for 20 years, said development of the land for that scale of affordable housing is a turn in the wrong direction.
“We all felt duped by the man who purchased the property,” she said in a telephone conversation with The Times.
Mr. Cumming purchased a three-acre plot directly across from her house, she said. She fears he intends to run an access road through it to service the development.
“Our road is a very narrow … road,” she said. “We have a very dangerous curve at the beginning of our road.” If the development is realized, she said, she won’t allow her daughter to walk to the bus or ride up and down the street on her bike, because of the extra traffic.
“I’m not a NIMBY,” she said. “I lived in 13 places in the first 3½ years I was on the Vineyard.” She also noted that she built an affordable apartment in her house. “I think he’s using this as a smokescreen for making money,” she said.
Mr. Cumming told The Times he could make more by building the large homes already approved by the MVC.
Donna Diaz has also lived on Old Courthouse Road for 20 years. She said during a telephone conversation with The Times that her family’s ties to the land there go back to the 19th century.
“I’m really a pro–affordable housing person,” she said. She supported an affordable development planned for the former fire station, she said.
After sitting in on one of the Affordable Housing Committee meetings on the Huseby Meadows project, she said, “you just left with a really bad taste in your mouth.” She also thought the developers needed to better their transparency and community outreach, she said.
The seller didn’t know what the buyer’s intentions were, she added, and neither did Ms. Napior.
“They totally bamboozled her,” she said.
“For every concern about this proposed project, I have heard 10 people tell me what a great idea this is for the Island,” Mr Cumming wrote. “This project is not about me. It is not my decision to approve. The totality of the project is what should be judged. Until we finalize the proposal and present it, it’s all hearsay and premature.”
Island Housing Trust executive director Philippe Jordi and Mr. Cumming each stressed the dire need for affordable housing on the Vineyard, and emphasized that the Huseby Meadows project was a fledgling enterprise, with plenty still to work out.
“When we have a plan, the abutters will see it first,” he said. In a followup email, he wrote, “We are working out a number of details that will address some of the concerns we have already heard. We hope to be in a position to finalize the details as rapidly as possible and sit down with the neighbors and planning bodies.”
Mr. Cumming told The Times he plans to keep a home in the development.
Mr. Keene told The Times that he and Mr. Cumming did not meet or talk directly over the course of the real estate transaction, and haven’t met or spoken since then.
“Our whole intent was to keep the property as intact as possible and end up with some affordable lots,” he said. Mr. Keene said that this was in accordance with the seller’s wishes for the property. He also said he and his fellow investors fought off a huge development to maintain the Olsens’ (sellers’) desire for as much intact open space as possible. Prior to signing the purchase and sale agreement with Mr. Cumming’s company, Mr. Keene and his fellow investors had no clue about the type of development Mr. Cumming intended, and once they got an inkling, it was too late to withdraw without running the risk of legal repercussions, he said He added that if he and his fellow investors knew a play could be made for a lot on Old Courthouse Road that would expand the development potential of the parcel beyond what they’d charted for it, “we never would have tried to sell it.”
Mr. Cumming said his proposal, once it’s finalized, will ultimately conserve a large tract of land. “If our new plan is approved, I am required to enact a conservation easement in perpetuity for approximately 18 to 20 of the 30 acres,” he wrote.
We’re “pretty early on in the process,” Mr. Jordi said in a telephone conversation with The Times. IHT has signed a letter of intent with Huseby Meadows, he said and has thus far only been engaged in shaping a plan. While not surprised that neighbors on Old Courthouse Road have taken issue with the project, he still found it “really discouraging” and consistent with a pattern of NIMBYism and an “inherent fear of change” that he’s encountered elsewhere on-Island.
Not everyone is against the proposal. “A few residents of Old Courthouse Road have met with Bill Cumming,” Old Courthouse Road resident Sue Ellen Rothery wrote in an email. “In these meetings, Mr. Cumming has expressed his sincere desire to work with the neighborhood. We all look forward to working together to ensure a positive outcome for all.”
Mr. Cumming grew up on the Vineyard. “I understand firsthand what it’s like to grow up in need of affordable housing,” he wrote. “My grandparents built a home for me, my brothers, sister, and single mother. They were directly responsible for putting a roof over our head when we were little kids.”
Versions of Huseby Meadows’ presentation shown to the West Tisbury Affordable Housing Committee and shared with The Times bore the West Tisbury seal. Town clerk Tara Whiting asked that it be removed. “We didn’t want to give the impression it was a town project,” she said.
Minutes show the committee was initially positive about the project, but more recently has been tepid.