Issues sprout for housing plan
Chilmark's Middle Line hearing continued
From young families waiting for homes to selectmen to housing officials, testimony emphasizing the urgency and need for Chilmark's Middle Line affordable housing project dominated a public hearing last week before the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC).
However, the three-hour session at Chilmark's community center ended with a continuance scheduled for May 31 at 7 pm, pending additional information about wastewater and nitrogen-loading levels that was unavailable, due to the absence of MVC water resource planner Bill Wilcox.
In the meantime, MVC and Chilmark lawyers are reviewing issues related to the inclusion of an additional 48 acres of land contiguous to the 21-acre project site in the town's development of regional impact (DRI) application.
The acreage belongs to private landowner Araldo Cossutta, who granted a conservation restriction on the acreage to the town in 1984. MVC executive director Mark London wrote in an e-mail to the Times this week that the lawyers are examining different possible interpretations of how the 48-acre parcel relates to the other 21 acres, and the nature of the conservation restriction.
At last week's hearing, Land Use Planning Committee (LUPC) chairman Christina Brown limited discussion to the 21 acres on Middle Line Road where the affordable housing project will be built.
Chilmark selectmen Warren Doty, Frank Fenner, and J.B. Riggs Parker recapped the project's history, described the development plans, and explained the regulatory review process at the start of a power-point presentation.
"This is an idea for us that has been a dream for many years, and looks like a dream about to come true," said Mr. Doty, who has worked on the project since its inception in 2001.
The Chilmark planning board received the Middle Line Road community housing plan on March 26 and referred it to the MVC the next day.
Chilmark resident David Handlin of Handlin, Garrahan, Zachos and Associates offered his design services as the project architect pro bono. The selectmen hired Vineyard Land Surveying and Engineering to design roadways, septic systems, wells, and subdivision lots.
Chilmark town meeting approved the basic parameters of the project over a year ago. Plans for the project include a nine-building, 12-unit affordable housing complex of six residential home sites and six rental units.
The rental and housing units will be integrated together in three clusters consisting of one duplex and two single-family homes. Instead of selling the land to the homeowners, the town will retain ownership of the 21-acre piece with ground leases for the six residential home sites.
Chilmark zoning bylaws require a minimum of three acres, but special permits may be granted for affordable housing lots of one acre. The Middle Line Road project placed seven units on 21 acres in an effort to maintain the ratio of one building per three acres. Mr. Handlin explained how the project design evolved, in order to compensate for the limits of the site's topography and to meet the setbacks, buffer zones, and frontages required by town regulations. "The regulatory phase is easy - developing designs for quality buildings that can be built at an affordable cost is the hard part," Mr. Handlin said.
Building and maintenance costs must be kept at a minimum to meet affordable rent requirements, added project committee member Andrew Goldman. "We want affordable housing to be as low cost as it can be," he said.
The town's board of health recommended separate septic systems for each structure, which would require nine septic systems and nine wells. In response to suggestions from the MVC and the public, Mr. Goldman said the project committee considered the feasibility of using advanced wastewater systems in the affordable housing.
Kent Healy, the town's engineer, estimated the systems would add $10,000 to $20,000 to each housing unit. "I don't see why such a provision should be mandated to the town," Mr. Goldman said. "I've asked the commissioners not to allow the ideal of perfect to become the enemy of the good."
Title V septic systems meet the board of health, Commonwealth code, and MVC requirements for the Tisbury Great Pond watershed, Mr. Goldman pointed out. About 14 of the project's 21 acres are contained in the Tisbury Great Pond watershed and the other 7 in the North Shore watershed.
Since the MVC figures nitrogen-load limits on every acre in the parcel, even those that will not be developed, the town is asking the MVC to allow nitrogen rights transfers from the 48-acre conservation-restricted parcel to increase the acceptable allowance for the 21-acre parcel.
Until a Massachusetts estuaries study is completed and data is available for nitrogen levels in Vineyard ponds, the MVC's interim water quality policy allows a nitrogen load limit based on a higher number for affordable housing projects, which usually have a somewhat higher density, to ensure a basic level of development, Mr. London explained this week.
Among reports from town officials, planning board chairman Richard Osnoss relayed concerns expressed by the public in planning board hearings, including the location of the building envelopes, types of septic systems, increased traffic on Tabor House Road and Middle Line Path, a water source for fighting fires, and the overall impact on abutters.
"Affordable housing is something 99 percent of people believe in and want, but when those kind of developments are next to us, we're hesitant about it," Mr. Osnoss said. Later in the hearing, he added, "If I came across as being against this project, that's wrong. I'm for this project to move ahead. We agreed we would be able to resolve any problems we have with this plan at the Chilmark town level."
In public testimony, Dukes County Regional Housing Authority executive director David Vigneault lauded Chilmark's affordable housing project as an "important addition in our attempt to address serious housing needs across the Island." Zee Gamson, a founding member of Chilmark's Housing Committee, urged the commissioners to "please move this as quickly as you can." She pointed out that one of the housing applicants she met in 2002, a young woman finishing her graduate work, has since married, had a baby, and is still waiting.
Holding her infant in her arms, Dardenella Slavin testified on her own behalf a few minutes later. She said that someone jokingly asked her if the Middle Line project would be finished by the time her son was in college. "I would like to be in a home before he's two," she told the commissioners.
As one of the abutters on High Woods Road, Diane Emin said she and her husband Blair share three major concerns about the project - providing road access from Tabor House Road, maintaining the rural nature of their property, and minimizing the impacts of septic systems and wells from the development.
In their defense, Chilmark homeowner Mary Beth Grady reminded everyone, "It's important to remember our neighbors who are concerned are working people - their voices are important for us to hear." Given Chilmark's long history of honesty, she added, "We can sympathize with people who don't want something like this in their yard."
Responding to criticisms about the project's location, the selectmen said they had difficulty finding any alternative sites.
As the former chairman of the planning board in the 1970s, Mr. Parker said he has watched Chilmark try to provide housing for young people for a long time.
"We are not stymied but mired in regulations," he said. "We're asking the commission to deal with the regional issues and give it back to the town to deal with the local issues."