Frank Fenner in Chilmark
The selectmen in Island towns act as chief executives. Voters are entitled to expect thoughtful and financially responsible leadership, whose influence and oversight should extend to all of the important decisions made by town officials, but also to those endorsed by the voters to whom the selectmen answer.
The issues that have arisen in the path of Chilmark's Middle Line Road affordable housing plan amount to a test, the results of which will inform the voters' decision next week, as they choose between incumbent selectman Frank Fenner and his challenger. In his answers to questions posed by The Times, Mr. Fenner demonstrates the sort of clarity and determination that voters and taxpayers deserve when the town faces decisions as significant as those surrounding the Middle Line Road project.
"The town voted this project," Mr. Fenner told The Times, "which charges the selectmen with the job of completing this project. We will do that, but we are also responsible to the town that it is done in the correct manner and is usable, in the end, for the purpose the town voted. It needs to be done once and correctly. If it is not done properly, the town will probably suffer financially and may lose control of who may rent or own the completed units. This is no easy task, and we intend to do our best to understand and answer questions on issues as they appear. I am not about to go to a recipient that is living in one of these units and evict them, because I rushed the project by overlooking issues in the name of haste."
Mr. Fenner is appropriately cautious. The funding questions involving the use of Community Preservation Act money; the high cost of the project; the uncertain final pricetag; the ethics question; the bonding question: these are not small matters. Mr. Fenner and fellow selectman Riggs Parker are determined to clear away the questions and uncertainties before proceeding, rather than allow them to bedevil the effort after it has begun and drive up its already unacceptable costs into the bargain, no matter how ardent Middle Line promoters may be. The Middle Line debate has become the centerpiece of the election contest, and despite that, Mr. Fenner has moved cautiously on this popular proposal, although his opponent, and even his selectman colleague Warren Doty, have essentially favored throwing caution to the winds in the interest of affordable housing.
And if none of the legal, funding, and contractual issues gives a sensible selectman pause, consider the whole question of affordability which, after all, is the goal of the exercise. As now envisioned, the Middle Line project will not create affordable housing, at least not when measured against any common sense standard. As proposed, monthly rent for one person for a one-bedroom apartment ranges between $1,024 (income limit, $40,960) and $1,920 (income limit, $76,800). House sale prices range from $146,700 to $288,900.
Compare the qualifying incomes envisioned in Chilmark (up to 125 percent of area median income, or approaching $100,000) and the proposed rents against the formula for participation in the Habitat for Humanity program (30 percent to 80 percent of area median income, or about $60,000 to $70,000), and it's clear that expensive, limited efforts like Middle Line Road fail to meet the needs of those with incomes that are indeed modest. Mr. Fenner has, reasonably enough, raised questions about affordability, and if voters believe that an authentic affordable housing effort ought to be made in Chilmark, they will support Mr. Fenner and his determination to make the project affordable and relatively free of risk to the town's voters and taxpayers.