Rolling up our regional sleeves

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Island leaders gathered last week on the same night in two meetings, each held for a different purpose in a separate location, but linked in significant ways, not the least of which is the need for a regional approach to create housing that is within the reach of those who would live and work here, and find a way to remove the school funding hurdle.

The All-Island Planning Board (AIPB), made up of representatives from the six Martha’s Vineyard towns, met last Wednesday at the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging building and voted unanimously to accept a charter to create a Housing Work Group (HWG) that will oversee an ambitious plan to create a variety of new housing.

The core of the HWG’s responsibility is the creation of a Housing Production Plan (HPP) for each Island town. Town HPPs will set rental and ownership production targets for a variety of needed affordable, moderate, market-rate, seasonal, and elderly housing.

On the same night, members of the All-Island School Committee, several selectmen, and school administrative leaders met in the regional high school library to hash out their concerns with the allocation formula for the superintendent’s shared services budget, and discuss possible changes to the existing model.

Under the current formula, taxpayers in the six Island towns pay a share of the school system’s shared services budget based on the number of students in each town’s school, and not the town where that student lives.

For example, under the school choice program, 57 students from the down-Island towns attend school in the Up-Island Regional School District, made up of Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury. At the same time, 14 students attend school outside the district. That leaves up-Island taxpayers, some of whom are unhappy about it, paying a tab for 43 students not from their towns.

The overwhelming need for year-round rental housing that working Islanders — those who will teach in the schools, work in the hospital, pick up the trash, drive the delivery trucks, police our communities, build our houses, etc. — can afford to live in will not be solved by doling out houses on quarter-acre lots, as Oak Bluffs did this week, or one-acre lots, which is the style in Chilmark.

Density is a key to solving the supply problem. But any discussion of creating housing, particularly built on a model that relies on changes in zoning to allow for density in those areas where density now exists, or where it would be near existing infrastructure — for example the big chunk of land off Edgartown Road behind the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena owned by Oak Bluffs — inevitably leads to a discussion of what the impact will be on school costs.

Island taxpayers, and that includes seasonal home owners who have no vote in the matter, spend generously on education. Martha’s Vineyard’s per-student spending ranks among the highest in the state.

In 2013-14, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School ranked fourth in the state in per-pupil expenditures — $26,076 — according to the Department of Education. The up-Island district came in sixth, at $25,312 per pupil. Edgartown ($22,662), Tisbury ($21,249) and Oak Bluffs ($19,650) were not far behind.

State aid and the cost of individual school programs all contribute to the size of those figures. However, there is no question that any increase in the number of students a town is responsible for educating will increase its school assessment, which must then be spread across the tax base.

Chilmark, with its large seasonal population, high home prices, and historical resistance to density — Middle Line Road comprises six rental units and six one-acre home sites on 21 acres — is unlikely to host the type of development that would generate a significant spike in its school assessments.

Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and Tisbury are more likely and more willing candidates. But housing advocates can expect resistance to large-scale developments from taxpayers faced with ever-rising property tax bills. Leaders in those towns asked to bear the brunt of the Island’s housing solution have every reason to expect some type of assistance from those towns that will benefit from housing those individuals who form the backbone of the Island’s economy and community upon which they also rely.

As reporter Barry Stringfellow reports this week (“All-Island Planning Board adopts regional approach to create housing”), a crucial component of the Housing Work Group will be examining ways that towns can equitably share the costs of increased housing density — nitrogen loading, infrastructure use, and school assessments are particularly high hurdles to clear.

“We can look at mitigation payments from the other five towns for a town that hosts 50 to 100 units,” Tisbury planning board member Dan Seidman said last week. “The best way to stimulate the conversation is to be an example to the Island and show how we can work together.”

On the school side of the ledger, as reporter Cathryn McCann reported this week (“All-Island School Committee addresses budget allocation formula”), there is an acknowledgement that a change may be in order.

Last week, West Tisbury town accountant Bruce Stone, a man intimately familiar with municipal costs, suggested finding a better way to allocate shared services costs.

Island planners, school leaders, and housing advocates are correct to recognize how these issues are linked, and advocate for a regional approach that benefits the entire community.