Voters will have the opportunity to break the logjam that has stifled the creation of workforce and rental housing in Oak Bluffs at a special town meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14, at 7 pm at the Oak Bluffs School.
Article six on the eight-article warrant — “Conversion of an existing building to mixed use (commercial with apartment units)” — proposes to empower the planning board to issue special permits to allow mixed-use development in the B-1, or downtown business district.
The article also stipulates mixed-use buildings in the B-1 must maintain commercial use on the ground floor and protect the historical character of the building.
“I’m really excited that we’re going to have a process by which we can have mixed-use development in the business district,” chairman of the selectman Kathy Burton said. “It’s going to be a great benefit to business owners and to the population in general, because Lord knows we need more housing on this Island. I’m hopeful that it will pass.”
The same article was intended to be on this year’s town meeting warrant in April, but it was dashed by a procedural snafu.
According to state law, a zoning change requires a public hearing by the town planning board, which was not held due to conflict of interest of the majority of Oak Bluffs planning board members. Then-planning board members Brian Packish and Jeremiah McCarthy and current member Erik Albert own property in the downtown district, which precluded the five-member board from having a quorum. In order for the town to vote an article for zoning change without recommendation from the planning board, the planning board would have had to conduct a public hearing at least 21 days before town meeting. Those hearings require being advertised in the local newspapers twice, effectively creating a 40-day lead time, which had passed by the time the problem came to light.
If two-thirds of the voters approve the measure, the long-stalled mixed-use renovation projects at the Lampost and Phillips Hardware, which would create workforce and year-round rental housing atop their Circuit Avenue establishments, could move forward.
In October of last year, Donna Leon, co-owner of Phillips Hardware, and architect Chuck Sullivan presented selectmen and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) with their plans to demolish the existing 8,500-square-foot building and replace it with a three-story, 18,000-square-foot mixed-use building, with four two-bedroom and four one-bedroom year round apartments on the third floor. Two of the apartments would be designated for Phillips employee housing.
At the same time, Adam Cummings, co-owner of the Lampost, presented both boards with plans for the top three floors of that former hotel to be converted, or more accurately, reverted, into housing. The third floor of the five-story building would become employee housing, and the top two floors year-round rental apartments.
Both projects were unanimously and enthusiastically approved by the MVC last November, stating they were located at “ideal locations for smart growth.”
However, the projects were stymied by current zoning bylaw, which only allows “a maximum of three apartments for the first 5,000 square feet of lot area,” limiting both projects to three apartments of dormitory-style housing.
It’s not clear when the bylaw was originally approved by voters. Former planning board clerical assistant MacGregor Anderson located “clerk’s copies” of zoning bylaws in the town hall vault from 1985 and 1988, but with question marks written next to the dates. The most recent Oak Bluffs Master Plan, completed in 1998, states, “There appears to have been adequate vacancy in year-round housing, at moderate prices, so that most needs should have been met.”
“If this passes, it will allow us to have more units with the same amount of bedrooms. It’ll be a much better project,” Lampost co-owner Adam Cummings told The Times. “The housing shortage gets more critical every year. We’d really like to get moving on this.”
“We’re trying to do the right thing, and everybody seems to think it’s a great idea,” Phillips co-owner Donna Leon said. “The main thing is to have workforce housing. It affects all of us. We recently lost a long-time employee because she couldn’t find year-round housing.”
“This bylaw gives the planning board the ability to look at individual circumstances and approve waivers to create more top-of-the-shop housing, which it has absolutely no capability to do now,” planning board chairman Ewell Hopkins told The Times. “What we ultimately have to do as a community is to engage in the master plan and define what we want for our downtown, and make sure our bylaws are written to reflect those priorities. As the chairman, I encourage development where development is, instead of cutting down more forest to build more houses. We want to encourage reuse of existing structures. This is a good opportunity for smart growth and planning by taking advantage of what already exists.”
Townsfolk will also vote on a Marijuana Establishment Overlay District, to demarcate where non-medical-use cannabis can be sold. The proposed locations on the outskirts of town are the same three locations approved by voters at special town meeting in November 2013 as possible medical marijuana dispensaries — a small parcel off Holmes Hole Road that abuts the Tisbury industrial area, several parcels near the Goodale Construction sandpit on Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, and the health care district where Martha’s Vineyard Hospital is located.
The state has not completed drafting regulations on sale of non-medical marijuana. Public hearings about possible locations of non-medical marijuana establishments will begin after those regulations become law.
Longstanding conflicts about rogue roosters in residential areas have led to Article 8 — proposed amendments to Animal Control Bylaws. A “yes” vote would add language classifying chickens and other fowl as domestic animals, and states, “The keeping of any Domestic Animal which emits frequent or long continued noise sufficient to disturb the reasonable comfort or repose of any person shall be deemed a public nuisance.” The article also proposes raising the third-offense fine for public nuisance from $35 to $100, and the fourth and subsequent offenses from $50 to $150.