Chilmark selectmen split
But they move to extend Middle Line bid deadline
Following a noon meeting with the town's lawyer yesterday, a previously divided Chilmark board of selectmen agreed on how they would address several concerns with a Jan. 20 development offer, set to expire today, for the Middle Line Road housing project. The proposal, submitted by a group of affordable housing advocates, was the only response to a town request for proposals to build 12 housing units, consisting of six privately owned houses and six rental units on 21 acres of town-owned land off Tabor House Road.
With legal guidance from Ron Rappaport, Chilmark town counsel, the three selectmen agreed to ask a consortium led by the Island Housing Trust (IHT), which includes South Mountain Company of West Tisbury and the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, to extend its development proposal deadline for 30 days and present selectmen with a revised proposal that addresses concerns about town financing and rent affordability.
Yesterday afternoon, Richard Leonard, Martha's Vineyard Co-operative Bank president and IHT chairman, said he was in the process of contacting members of the IHT executive committee and expected an agreement to extend the proposal deadline. "I welcome the opportunity to discuss the project with them," said Mr. Leonard.
Selectmen asked that IHT return with a proposal that specifies that the town's contribution would be no more than $982,207, an amount specified in the original submission. But that original proposal also contained a notation that if development costs exceeded estimates, town funds would be used to help make up the shortfall.
IHT was also asked to reduce the amount of the proposed rents. Still unclear, Mr. Rappaport told the selectmen yesterday, is to what extent the involvement of John Abrams - who is the president and CEO of South Mountain Company, a builder, and serves on the boards of the Island Affordable Housing Fund and the Island Housing Trust - would affect the group's proposal.
The legal question stems from a November 2004 consultancy contract the town signed with the South Mountain Company and Keen Development Corp. of Cambridge for planning and consulting services to develop the Middle Line Road property. Mr. Abrams is awaiting a written opinion from the state ethics commission.
Whatever changes are worked out over the next 30 days, voters must still approve the entire proposal, including the use of Community Preservation Act funds and a 99-year lease to IHT, at a special town meeting yet to be scheduled.
Up until yesterday, the question was whether the best course would be to ask IHT to extend the deadline, or to reject the proposal outright and issue a new RFP, a potentially more time-consuming process.
In a telephone conversation following the meeting, Mr. Rappaport said the extension was legally allowed because in this case the only bidder is amending the proposal to make it more favorable to the town.
Mr. Rappaport had previously furnished the selectmen with legal opinions regarding the town's use of $982,207 in CPA funds and the complications that could arise from the current arrangement, in which the town hands the project over to a non-profit consortium, thereby avoiding the requirements of certain competitive bidding and construction wage laws.
"This project, which seemed so simple, is actually quite complicated," said Mr. Rappaport yesterday, "and I think the selectmen have done a good job asking tough questions, and the voters will be well served by it."
The noon meeting with Mr. Rappaport was the selectmen's third meeting in two days to discuss what action the board would take on the Middle Line project proposal.
Late Tuesday afternoon, selectmen Frank Fenner, the chairman, Warren Doty, and Riggs Parker held a special meeting with members of the affordable housing committee to discuss the proposal. At that meeting, the fault lines dividing the selectmen were clear.
Mr. Doty, a member of the IHT board of directors, said he had confidence in the people involved in the project and had been assured by Mr. Rappaport that there "were no insurmountable legal barriers" to accepting the proposal as presented.
He said there were no definitive answers to the questions regarding the use of CPA funds, and the rents were in keeping with current guidelines. Mr. Doty said he was ready to accept the proposal. Mr. Fenner and Mr. Parker were not.
Mr. Fenner expressed concern about how the possible restrictions on the use of CPA funds might apply to the project. He was also concerned about the unresolved questions concerning Mr. Abrams's potential conflict of interest, which he described as a "wild card" that could add costs to the project.
Mr. Fenner said the proposal also included approximately $1 million in various accounts, including maintenance, that could be used instead to make the rents more affordable. Mr. Parker said the current proposal left the town exposed financially, should costs exceed estimates. He said the RFP needed to be restructured to protect the town and lower rents.
The issue was on the agenda later that evening when selectmen gathered at their regular Tuesday meeting.
Although his fellow selectmen had clearly indicated they would not accept the proposal as presented, Mr. Doty made a motion to accept it. There was no second. Asked why he made a motion his fellow selectmen had clearly indicated they were not ready to accept, Mr. Doty said he wanted to be on the record as in favor of the original proposal, regardless of the questions raised.
"I think none of the questions are insurmountable," said Mr. Doty. "They could all be resolved with us accepting the proposal today."
Mr. Parker said yesterday that he is pleased with the results. "This moves the project forward in as expeditious a fashion as possible and at the same time, because of the various conditions, the revision will protect the town better and make the project more affordable," he said.
Mr. Fenner said he was pleased by the vote. "Hopefully, doing it in this manner will shorten the time frame and cap the expense to the town and the renters," he said.