Cozy Hearth hearing ends with last-minute concessions
Caught off-guard by additional demands made by the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) in the last 15 minutes of a public hearing last Thursday night, weary members of the Cozy Hearth affordable housing group retreated to a conference room to hash out some last-minute concessions that brought the five-month process to a close.
Knowing that the commissioners' suggestions could translate into conditions imposed on the development in their final decision, William Bennett, president of the Cozy Hearth Community Corporation (CHCC) offered up additional deed restrictions, limitations on housing height, and wastewater and traffic solutions.
"I'm happy the hearing is closed," Mr. Bennett said. "Now we have to protect our economic interests. We can't have the MVC say no or condition this thing where it's economically unviable. I'm still optimistic, but the commission is where my concerns lie. The conditions can make or break this."
Mr. Bennett and the Cozy Hearth group stuck to their offer for 30-year deed restrictions on five of the member lots. The group did concede, however, to a height of 26 feet for their homes, even though Edgartown's zoning laws allow 32. Although Mr. Bennett offered updated traffic and wastewater solutions in his final proposals, he agreed to abide by the MVC's choices, which changed during the course of the hearing.
"We were completely blindsided," said Mr. Bennett a few days later. "This is the kind of negotiation that we should have had time to do in session." The final bargaining took place an hour and 45 minutes into the hearing, after Mr. Bennett had explained 18 pages of answers to questions from the last hearing and 5 pages of offers.
With the hearing closed, the MVC's land use planning committee will review all the documentation. Once the review process is completed, the full commission will vote on a decision. Mr. Bennett said he will watch the MVC deliberations carefully, and if they appear to be heading towards a no vote, "We may have to pull the plug on the whole thing. If we withdraw our application, then we have three lots that are basically like any other three lots."
The Cozy Hearth development is a self-funded initiative by Mr. Bennett and some of his employees, friends, and family to create affordable housing in rural Edgartown. The group purchased 10.9 acres off Watcha Path Road in an area zoned for three-acre lots. Their project has undergone review by the MVC as a development of regional impact, because they applied to subdivide the acreage into 11 one-acre lots containing affordable housing through Chapter 40B.
The major sticking point for the 17 commissioners at Thursday night's hearing was the number of affordable housing lots and the length of deed restrictions. The Cozy Hearth project proposed to deed-restrict the resale of three affordable housing lots in perpetuity, above and beyond the 25 percent at 15 years required by Chapter 40B, plus 5 lots for 30 years, leaving 3 unrestricted.
The commissioners pressed the Cozy Hearth group to deed-restrict eight of its 11 lots, or 73 percent, in perpetuity instead. Carlene Gatling-Condon, an MVC commissioner from Edgartown, questioned whether only three affordable houses were of significant benefit to warrant overriding the zoning bylaws. "Is there any possibility of providing more affordable housing restricted in perpetuity?" she asked Mr. Bennett.
Doug Sederholm, Chilmark MVC commissioner, took up her argument. "You're asking us to put a very dense development in a traditionally rural area, and all you're guaranteeing are three affordable units. You're also guaranteeing three market price lots. If I want to impose a dense project on a traditionally rural area, I need to have the benefit of providing permanent affordability."
Linda Sibley, MVC chair and West Tisbury commissioner, said restricting resale of the Cozy Hearth member homes for 30 years was not enough because, "That's only a generation."
But it is also someone's entire working life, Mr. Bennett commented later. "The people that are losing their ability to resell their house are the people paying for the affordable houses. These people are going to build three houses and give them away, and they'll get no reward, not even after 30 years," Mr. Bennett said.
A few days after the hearing, Mr. Bennett said the CHCC would amend their offer by deed-restricting two member lots in perpetuity, in addition to the three affordable lots that will be awarded by lottery. "Otherwise, it's a deal-breaker," he said.
The deed-restricted lots will be assigned to Cozy Hearth members by seniority, Mr. Bennett said. "We'll look at the dates on deposit slips, and then say to somebody, sorry, you can't sell your house in 30 years."
He said some members have called him, having second thoughts about staying in the project. "They would pay as much for a house off-Island that would appreciate as they will for a house here that can't appreciate," Mr. Bennett said.
In addition to deed restrictions, housing height was another concession made. Although the Cozy Hearth covenants outline specific materials and types of housing, as do the Edgartown zoning bylaws, residents would be allowed the freedom of picking out the design and style of their home.
However, Katherine Newman, a commissioner from Aquinnah, said she was concerned that the MVC tends to ignore the "cosmetic piece." Speaking against "cookie cutter developments," she appeared to contradict herself by advocating limits on housing styles and prohibiting additions.
Holding up a photo of a proposed Cape Cod style home with a full dormer in back, she questioned whether the MVC should accept it, because its two-story height made it more imposing on its surroundings.
"Every month that goes by, these houses are getting smaller and smaller," Mr. Bennett told her. "I don't think anyone can afford a larger size house. We want to give our members the ability to have a bigger house, to add a room if their family grows."
Although Mr. Bennett said Cozy Hearth would abide by Edgartown's zoning bylaws restricting housing height to 32 feet (usually two stories and an attic), he agreed to a lower height at the hearing's close.
"I think the main concern was that a two-story house was too big," Mr. Bennett said later. "By going with a height of 26 feet, you can't have a two-story house. Basically, that was a concession we made."
Concerning traffic issues, Mr. Bennett proposed changing the layout for the Watcha Path Road and Oyster Watcha Road intersection, and creating additional turnouts on Watcha Path Road.
The commissioners were unsatisfied with Mr. Bennett's newest offer regarding additional composting toilets and denitrification systems in the development. Mr. Breckenridge and Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs, the MVC member appointed by the Dukes County Commission, urged Mr. Bennett to consider installing a costly sewage treatment plant onsite at the development instead, despite Mr. Bennett's explanation that the maintenance costs would be prohibitively expensive. As a concession, he did agree to abide by whatever traffic and wastewater solutions the MVC chose.
At the end of the hearing, Mr. Bennett told the commissioners, "I urge you to vote yes on the Cozy Hearth application and in so doing, vote yes for regular people trying to do their best by themselves and with your help, to make a solution to the affordable housing crisis."
The MVC's land use planning committee will meet to review all of the documentation on November 7. Pending a favorable MVC decision, the Cozy Hearth project then goes before the Edgartown zoning board of appeals.