Oak Bluffs affordable housing committee puts ball in selectmen’s court

The revitalized committee says innovation and exigency are needed to meet overwhelming demand.

Chairman of the selectmen Gail Barmakian, left, and planning board chairman Brian Packish. – Barry Stringfellow

An assemblage of Oak Bluffs town officials met last Tuesday at town hall to address the town’s affordable housing plight. Town officials spoke about the urgency of the situation and the need for bold leadership.

The Oak Bluffs planning board (OBPB) initiated the meeting, which included the Oak Bluffs affordable housing committee (OBAHC), the board of selectmen, and town administrator Robert Whritenour.

Members of the recently invigorated housing committee came to the meeting with a proposal, a packet of data, and a sense of urgency.

“The time for studies is over; we need to get something done,” housing committee member Jim Bishop said, in what became the mantra of the meeting.

Underscoring his point, Mr. Bishop talked about a young Islander who, out of desperation, attended the last housing committee meeting. “Here’s this young man, born and raised here with his own business, and he can’t find a place to live,” he said. “He was practically in tears. We’re bleeding these young people off of the Island, and they’re never going to come back. The time to move is now.”

According to town bylaws, the housing committee has no power other than to act as an advisory board to the board of selectmen. For the most part, selectmen were receptive to the committee’s two proposals.

At the conclusion of the two-hour meeting, selectmen voted unanimously, 5-0, to proceed with a Housing Production Plan (HPP) that will give an updated assessment of the town’s housing shortage and will also help to obtain future funding. Affordable housing committee member Peter Bradford, who is also the Oak Bluffs delegate to the All-Island Planning Board, told the group that the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) is spearheading a campaign to create an HPP for each Island town, which will also be used to create a regional HPP.

Tuesday, MVC executive director Adam Turner told The Times that the MVC has committed $40,000 to the effort, and that he is optimistic an additional $90,000 will come from the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) — provided the board of selectmen from each town gives its approval.

Mr. Turner said a request for proposals (RFP) had already been posted, and the team of Boston-based J.M. Golden and RKG Associates has been awarded the contract.

“If this [HPP] gets us all on the same page, I’m thrilled with it,” selectman and housing committee member Kathy Burton said at the meeting. “Talking about towns working together on a regional solution is refreshing, just like having our three boards in this room is refreshing.”

One out of five

Selectmen also voted 4-1 to move ahead with a feasibility study for a development of 32 affordable two-bedroom units, built in four clusters, on nine acres of town-owned land on Bellevue Avenue.

Selectman chairman Gail Barmakian was the dissenting vote. “I don’t know enough specifics about it,” she said. “There’s an idea with a lot of unknowns. There are a lot more questions to be answered before I can vote for it. I need something specific in writing.”

Ms. Barmakian, who is also a wastewater commissioner and member of the Joint Oak Bluffs and Tisbury Lagoon Pond Watershed Planning Committee, expressed numerous objections to the 32-unit development, primarily based on potential nitrogen load and the possible effect on the Lagoon Pond watershed.

Housing committee member Peter Martell said the Bellevue Avenue development could easily tie into a town sewer line that runs along County Road. Ms. Barmakian flatly rejected the idea.

Mr. Bradford proposed an “Amphidrome” treatment system, which he said could more than meet the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) maximum of 19 milligrams of nitrogen per liter, as one alternative. However, his suggestion did not appear to ease Ms. Barmakian’s concerns.

Ms. Barmakian also questioned if the tract was the best choice for such a development.

Mr. Bradford explained the OBAHC zeroed in on the Bellevue Avenue property after an extensive search of town-owned properties that could potentially support the density required to make a dent in the shortage. The land has been vacant since 1944. There are no complex title clearances to be negotiated, which often bedevils real estate transactions in Oak Bluffs.

“If we can’t build units next to the dump in the town, with no neighbors, then we can’t build anything anywhere,” Mr. Bradford said. The town landfill is hidden from view on Belleview Avenue by the grassy knoll of the capped town landfill.

Selectman Walter Vail cautioned that that there was already pushback from abutters to the property, several of whom were in attendance.

OBAHC member Peter Martell advocated making the the Bellevue Avenue units condominiums, offered at a steep discount to qualified Island buyers.

“It wouldn’t cost the town a thing, and we can get this underway pretty quickly,” he said. “One thing Oak Bluffs has is land. We can get going, we have to get going, soon.”

“This community, unlike any other on the Island, is poised to gain ground,” town administrator Robert Mr. Whritenour said. “I suggest we take some upfront time and do predevelopment work. Town land is extremely valuable. We need to leverage our assets to get the maximum benefit.” Mr. Whritenour said he had already contacted the Massachusetts Housing Partnership about assisting the town with a pro-forma for the large development.

“We’re obviously chomping at the bit to get something done,” selectman Burton said. “I was a little anxious about such a large project. I was looking more at duplexes all over town. But everybody is so excited about this development we decided to move forward with the concept. At the same time, we’re working on the [HPP], we can work with the Massachusetts Housing Partnership to see what the process would be for a development this size. That doesn’t mean we’re charging forward and doing it tomorrow. It’s an option.”

To 40B, or not to 40B

According to the MVC’s last housing-needs study in 2013, 6.8 percent of Oak Bluffs housing inventory is considered “affordable.” According to the state’s 40B criteria, which allow affordable housing developers to bypass local zoning, any town with less than 10 percent affordable housing is vulnerable to an outside developer moving in and building the remainder of that 10 percent, with little or no input from the town. However, as Mr. Packish pointed out, the six towns on Martha’s Vineyard are the only towns in the state protected by the MVC, a uniquely powerful body, far stronger than the Cape Cod Commission, which can derail any unwanted development with the death of a thousand meetings. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t address it,” he said.

“I don’t care if it’s hostile or not, we need more housing, that’s the bottom line,” Will Craffey said. “I’m new to this [affordable housing] committee; I’m a businessman. We could be putting a shovel in the ground in September. Every time we sit and talk, we’re spinning our wheels. Let’s get something done.”

The Vineyard definition of “affordable housing” and “workforce housing” will also be a topic for further discussion. “I laugh when people say affordable housing on this Island,” selectman Mike Santoro said. “You’re talking people making $60,000, not people making $25,000.”

“The need for year-round rentals covers all incomes,” Dukes County Regional Housing Authority executive director David Vigneault said. “You can’t buy a 12-month lease here. It doesn’t matter if you’re a double-income family. Rental housing for the Island workforce will enable people to save and eventually own a home.”

“There’s dollars in the [Oak Bluffs Affordable Housing] trust that I think the planning board agrees should cover the feasibility-study costs of larger-scale developments,” Mr. Packish said. “It’s going to require a lot of public process. We’ll beat public process to death.”