WT planners vote not to ease restrictions
The West Tisbury planning board voted last week to reject a request by the Island Housing Trust (IHT) to amend the language of a special permit granted to IHT on September 9, 2008 that allowed for the construction of an eight-unit affordable housing project at 250 State Road, now ready for occupancy.
IHT asked the planning board to remove permanent affordability restrictions should the houses go to foreclosure. IHT said that banks would be reluctant to approve mortgage loans on houses with perpetual affordable housing restrictions, making it more difficult and expensive for qualified applicants to borrow money.
IHT made the argument that it had sufficient safeguards in place to keep the houses from being sold at market rate, should foreclosure ensue, and that the requested changes were standard language.
The planning board was not convinced. Armed with a legal opinion from attorney Mark J. Lanza of Concord, in which he concluded that planning board approval of the request would not be lawful, the board voted 3-1 on February 8 not to amend the special permit.
In his five-page opinion, Mr. Lanza reviewed the history of the project and the inclusion of language guaranteeing permanent affordability when IHT sought the special permit and when the town voted to provide $400,000 in community preservation act (CPA) funds for construction. He said any change in the permit would be "impermissibly inconsistent" with Mass General Laws, town zoning bylaws, and the vote of the 2008 annual town meeting.
Leah Smith, planning board member, voted not to ease restrictions. In a telephone conversation, Ms. Smith told The Times that she understands the constraints the permit language places on banks and applicants, but that the town voted to provide CPA funds for permanently affordable housing. "I think the critical issue for me is what was told to people on the town meeting floor," she said.
Susan Silva was the lone planning board member to vote in favor. She told The Times that she understood the view of her fellow board members that any change must be approved on town meeting floor. She said she was also very confident that the IHT, which holds a 99-year lease on the land, had sufficient safeguards in place.
"I just felt that there is a good system in place to assure permanent affordability," Ms. Silva said.
Phillipe Jordi, IHT executive director, told The Times that IHT was unaware that the article passed at town meeting contained language about permanent affordability until IHT went to the planning board for a special permit. He said that although only four houses were built with CPA funds, the planning board decision will affect all eight houses built under the special permit, including one self-financed house built by Habitat for Humanity of Martha's Vineyard.
"The IHT will continue to steward and monitor these properties with the town's permanent restrictions, just as they do for all of their other thirty-plus properties," Mr. Jordi said. "So for all practical purposes these houses will continue to remain affordable regardless of the town's additional restrictions, but these restrictions will continue to limit accessibility to financing and affordability for future homebuyers."
Mr. Jordi said that there are 20 applicants for the seven houses that IHT will make available in a lottery to be held on March 30. He said IHT would wait to see how the planning board decision affects the winners.