Chilmark selectmen make a new plan for Middle Line Road project
The Chilmark selectmen agreed Tuesday on a 15-step outline they plan to follow to put the Middle Line Road affordable housing project back on track.
To the dismay of the town's affordable housing committee last week, the selectmen ended months of uncertainty and unanimously voted to put aside a proposal submitted by a consortium led by the Island Housing Trust (IHT) and start fresh.
The IHT proposal was the only one submitted in response to a request for proposals issued in December to build 12 housing units on 21 acres of town-owned land off Tabor House Road.
The board quickly split, with selectman Warren Doty endorsing the project and selectmen Riggs Parker and Frank Fenner raising several concerns about the potential costs to the town and legal issues surrounding the use of community preservation act funds.
At a special Thursday meeting last week, the selectmen voted unanimously to terminate the RFP and start fresh, using a two-step approach designed to provide town officials with detailed plans tied to cost estimates they could present to voters.
The town will first issue an RFP for complete architectural and engineering plans, based on the regulatory and permitting requirements of the project. Still not decided is whether the RFP should include cost estimates or whether the town should request a separate estimate.
Following special town meeting approval, the town would next issue an RFP for a developer to build the project, according to the plans and permits.
Tuesday evening, the selectmen outlined a 15-step approach and named a three-member committee to shepherd the proposal through the permitting and design stages.
Selectman Warren Doty, housing committee member Andy Goldman, and building inspector Lenny Jason will have the job of determining what permits are needed and working with the selectmen and housing committee to craft the RFPs.
The IHT consortium includes South Mountain Company of West Tisbury and the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority. Soon after IHT submitted its proposal, questions arose about the extent to which possible conflicts of interest might affect the project.
The use of town funds and the plan to hand the project over to a non-profit consortium, thereby avoiding the requirements of certain competitive bidding and construction wage laws, also raised questions.
Mr. Doty, a member of the IHT board, and members of the housing committee maintained that none of the concerns was great enough to derail the project.
But Mr. Parker and Mr. Fenner were far more cautious, insisting that they backed the project, but wanted to avoid exposing the town to any unknown financial and legal risks. Town counsel Ron Rappaport was asked to help unravel the interlocking legal and financial questions arising from the IHT proposal.
The last of those answers came two weeks ago when the state ethics commission sent an eight-page letter to John Abrams describing the limitations he would face as president and CEO of South Mountain Company, should he be chosen to be the developer of Chilmark's Middle Line Road affordable housing project.
Those restrictions were rooted in his earlier role as a consultant for the project. Mr. Abrams also serves on the boards of the Island Affordable Housing Fund and the Island Housing Trust.
Last week, the selectmen met with the housing committee and representatives of the IHT consortium to address unresolved issues and make a decision on the proposal.
Mr. Parker, newly elected chairman, repeated his concern that the town was being asked to put up $1 million for a proposal for which there was no performance bond or specific architectural drawings.
Richard Leonard, IHT president, responded that the performance bond was the trust and reputation of the people involved who had worked together successfully in the past.
"Our reputation is our performance bond," said Mr. Abrams.
Steve Schwab, housing committee chairman, said that securing a performance bond was an expensive and complicated process. Expressing confidence in IHT's ability to meet any concerns, he said it was the unanimous view of the housing committee that the selectmen accept the proposal on the table. "By delaying this, we don't have much chance to improve on what we have now," said Mr. Schwab, " and what we do have is in jeopardy."
Mr. Abrams said he was proposing to do a top-notch project for a difficult price that was still subject to many unknowns and the steadily rising cost of materials. He said the current estimate was no more than a figment of his imagination.
Perry Ambulos, one of the housing applicants, said that if the town denied the RFP, it risked losing the involvement of Mr. Abrams and IHT and ending up with a smaller project at a higher cost.
Mr. Fenner said that when the town issued the original RFP, it sidestepped the original intent of the town, which was to first provide plans so the bidders would know what they were bidding on. Citing his responsibility to all the taxpayers, he said he could not now stand up at town meeting and defend the project when he did not know what the total costs would be.
Describing himself as a strong supporter of the project and IHT, Mr. Doty reviewed the process to that point. He said that the RFP issued by the selectmen was not what voters at town meeting last June provided money for the selectmen to do, which was to examine the architectural, engineering, and legal feasibility of the project. "What happened is that we jumped over that," said Mr. Doty.
Mr. Doty endorsed recommending a two-step process intended to produce a complete design package around which an RFP could be issued. The selectmen voted to terminate the previous RFP and move ahead with Mr. Doty's proposal.
Mr. Abrams said that while he was disappointed with the vote, it would allow South Mountain to disengage from a very unsatisfactory project. He said he had been considering withdrawing earlier but remained out of a sense of obligation to IHT. "I do believe you are going to find new complications from this approach," he said.
This week, members of the housing committee responded to the selectmen's actions with harsher comments. In a letter to the editor published on page 19 of today's Times, Mr. Schwab writes, "I now believe that as long as Riggs Parker and Frank Fenner serve together as selectmen, there will be no affordable housing in Chilmark.... In my opinion, the selectmen's call for a new request for proposal will be too complex, will take too long to develop, will be far more expensive, and again will not be acceptable to Riggs Parker and Frank Fenner."
Asked to respond, Mr. Parker said yesterday, "Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe that time will prove his comments wrong. The board of selectmen is working together to bring this project to reality and protect all taxpayers."