Martha's Vineyard Commission approves Cozy Hearth housing plan
After a marathon five-hour session of the Martha's Vineyard Commission Dec. 8, members of the Cozy Hearth affordable housing development finally got a place to call home.
The commissioners voted 9-3 in favor of the project, but not without saddling the approval with some stringent conditions on deed restrictions, wastewater systems, and housing design features.
"It seems to me the MVC raised standards incredibly high for this project and projects like it," said Marcia Cini, attorney for the Cozy Hearth Community Corporation, after the meeting.
A relieved Bill Bennett, creator of the Cozy Hearth project, said, "I'm pleased - it's great that it passed. We all recognize the input of the commissioners made the project better. I'm not focusing on the restrictions. I'm focusing on getting the housing built."
The commissioners' prevailing opinion in discussing Cozy Hearth could be summed up as "right project, wrong place." The project proposed to subdivide an area zoned for three-acre lots, off Watcha Path Road in Edgartown, into 11 one-acre lots containing affordable housing. The MVC reviewed it as a development of regional impact, under the terms of Chapter 40B.
"As much as I think this is the wrong place for this development, I think the fact that the MVC and the applicant are going to create affordable housing does tip it. And, I find that an excruciatingly painful decision," said Doug Sederholm, MVC commissioner from Chilmark, who had expressed detailed criticisms of the project during the hearings.
Although Mr. Sederholm's "yes" vote came as a surprise to Mr. Bennett, he said it proved to him that the commissioners really weighed the benefits and detriments carefully.
Jim Athearn, Edgartown MVC commissioner and owner of Morning Glory Farm, voted no, arguing in favor of putting small farms in the area. "It will be a loss to the community when the land gets developed, whether it is three homes or eleven," said Mr. Athearn. "The three-acre zoning is a weak way to keep open land, but it is all we have got."
While commissioner Christina Brown of Edgartown said she understood Mr. Athearn's hope that development would center around towns, she told him, "Unfortunately, the reality of Martha's Vineyard also weighs in. Available land is so scarce and property values so high, the opportunity for affordable housing may be hard to come by.
"Economics or availability of land becomes a factor - it may become necessary to have moderate-sized affordable housing projects scattered throughout Martha's Vineyard, not just in smart growth areas," said Ms. Brown.
The unusual, self-funded housing initiative was created by Mr. Bennett, an Island electrician, to provide some of his employees, friends, and family members with affordable housing. Three of the units will be awarded in an affordable housing lottery to eligible Edgartown residents.
For MVC chairman Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, the fact that the Cozy Hearth members were already working and living on the Island was important. "The Island community is under assault from developers trying to build seasonal residences. If this project was not there, there would probably be three big houses with guesthouses, rented out to seasonal people with no Island ties at all," said Ms. Sibley, adding, "Our people are part of our character, too."
The MVC's decision came at the end of a seven-month process that began last May. After the hearing's close in October, the land use planning committee (LUPC) met four times for a post-hearing review.
Although they drafted a list of possible conditions, they passed the review of the project's benefits and detriments on to the full commission, a task the LUPC usually performs in order to make a recommendation on a project's approval or denial.
At last week's meeting, before any discussion of benefits and detriments took place, however, Ms. Brown, chairman of the LUPC, made a motion that the MVC approve the Cozy Hearth project, subject to possible conditions.
The commissioners began the meeting at 7:45 pm, scrutinizing the six-page draft of conditions line by line. Progress halted several times, as Mr. Sederholm, an attorney, added lengthy clauses and changed words, such as "may" to "shall."
By 10 pm, the commissioners had reviewed only half of the conditions. The color of roof shingles, whether they should be dark or light, and wood trim, whether it should be limited to white, launched another lengthy debate.
Mr. Athearn did stave off a possible condition limiting garages and sheds, telling his fellow commissioners, "If we're going to let people live there, let them have the tools to live there."
Over an hour later, they finally tackled the benefits and detriments worksheets. Weighing the pros and cons, Carlene Gatting-Condon, a commissioner from Edgartown, said, "the shining star of the project" was that it provides eight affordable housing properties for Island families.
As they discussed the project's detriments, several commissioners acknowledged the owners of nearby property in attendance, assuring them they were sympathetic and aware of Cozy Hearth's potential impact on their neighborhood.
As the meeting wore on past 11 pm, the deadline under MVC rules, the commissioners voted to extend it by a half hour. They did the same at 11:30. At midnight, they voted for a 15-minute extension, followed by another at 12:15 am.
With each extension, Mr. Bennett had to reschedule a late-night trip he had booked on the Patriot, so that he could get off-Island for an early morning trip to California for a certification class.
In the last minutes of discussion before the commissioners voted at 12:30 am, Chris Murphy, Chilmark MVC commissioner, said, "If this is a referendum on us as a community, if we cannot help young people who work and live on the Island, then we have failed. This is a great step in the right direction. It has been a long and arduous task for everyone involved. The applicant should be proud, we should be proud, and we should move forward to approve it."
After the vote of approval, Mr. Bennett shared a quick handshake with two of his employees, Cozy Hearth members Philip Zell and J.T. Kershaw. Mr. Kershaw's partner, Kelly Buckley, a Tisbury police officer, picked up their four-year-old son Joseph off the floor where he slept, oblivious to the evening's momentous impact and the happy smiles on his parents' faces.
"My admiration for what the people in this group were able to tolerate is beyond description," said Ms. Cini. "We hope to get them into their homes, maybe by Christmas next year." Mr. Bennett said his next step, as the leader of Cozy Hearth, will be to "extend the olive branch and start working with the neighbors."
Tonight, the MVC will issue its written decision, and then the Cozy Hearth project goes before the Edgartown zoning board of appeals.