‘Only all of us can solve it’


Island housing policy has generally relied on the round hole–square peg approach: Find a round hole — an available piece of property — and then pound a square peg — a project, whittled by the regulatory process and often opposed by abutters — into it and hope it does not splinter into pieces.

The current multifaceted effort to create town by town housing production plans may be the start of a new approach. Only time will tell. There is no hidden formula waiting to be discovered, only the political will to get the job done.

The Island Housing Trust’s (IHT) Kuehn’s Way affordable housing project, now under review by the Tisbury zoning board of appeals (ZBA), offers a good case study. IHT proposes building 10 clustered rental duplex buildings with 20 units, 40 bedrooms on 4.5 acres, off State Road in Tisbury.

At a public hearing on Sept. 22, Jeff Kristal, chairman of the ZBA, asked IHT executive director Philippe Jordi to return with modified plans, showing a possible reduction from a 20-unit complex to a 16-unit complex (Sept. 29, “ZBA asks Island Housing Trust to reduce Kuehn’s Way units”).

Abutters turned out in force, with their lawyer, to oppose the project, mostly on the grounds of density and the possible harm to area groundwater.

Mr. Jordi said that a reduction in the number of units would make the $6.3 million project economically infeasible.

He has pegged the per-unit cost at $319,000. That is a whopping number that raises the question of how the public sector would ever be able to tackle the problem. This page has long advocated for incentives — zoning and tax related — that would attract private developers. But here we are.

In a conversation with The Times last week, Mr. Kristal said the ZBA needed to digest the particulars of the project. “I want to make sure we’re doing everything by the law, so I don’t want to rush it,” Mr. Kristal said.

We respect the need for due diligence. However, the history of this project belies the notion that there has been any rush.

At its heart this project began 16 years ago, when Bridge Housing, a small organization comprised primarily of local religious groups, purchased a 26-acre piece of property that might easily have been the site of a private subdivision.

The group proposed building 15 two-family houses clustered on the southern 8.7-acre end off State Road; 16 of those acres were to be preserved by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank.

The $7 million project, called Bridge Commons, was approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) in June 2003 and then headed to the Tisbury ZBA.

Ike Russell of West Tisbury was point man for the project. As the regulatory process dragged on, in a Letter to the Editor published July 29, 2004, Mr. Russell expressed his frustration: “Last year it was the development of regional impact (DRI) process before the MVC, and this year it’s the comprehensive permit process before the Tisbury zoning board of appeals,” he said. “We are all on the same side on this project. We beg you to push as hard as we are to get this good project approved. Appropriate affordable housing is the problem only all of us can solve.”

Abutter Chris Crawford wrote a lengthy letter to The Times, published August 5, 2004. In it he expressed his feelings about the process: “If affordable housing is going to become a reality on the Island, it must not only fulfill the needs of those who require the housing, but also be carefully planned and constructed so as to be compatible with the surrounding community. Allowing organizations, whether nonprofit or otherwise, to take shortcuts in the review process will not benefit anyone.”

The sides were drawn. All were agreed: We need affordable housing. The ZBA process dragged on for months. A ZBA member’s proposal to cut the number of units from 30 to 26 was rejected by the board. “I think we can condition it to help the abutters in other ways,” ZBA member Jeff Kristal said at the time. “Cutting a couple of units is just a drop in the bucket. If we are going to cut it, we should either cut it in half or deny it altogether.”

Bridge Housing representatives said that cutting the size of the development would make the project financially impossible. Sound familiar?

On Nov. 18, 2004, eight months after the application was filed with the town, the ZBA unanimously approved the project. The decision included seven pages of conditions — 46 in total.

Mr. Russell hoped to begin construction on the project by May. Neighbors appealed. Land Court upheld the permit. But it was too late.

Sapped by the battle, and with funding sources dried up, in 2009 Bridge Commons was dead and headed to foreclosure. Last year, IHT purchased the property from the bank.

Neighbors have grown used to looking at a wooded lot. It is understandable that they would be upset at the change proposed for their neighborhood.

In a way, the pressure to approve the proposal as is is intensified, because there is no commitment to a comprehensive approach to housing, in turn forcing us to endorse whatever we can get. The failure of concerted community-wide action inevitably falls on the random neighbors who wake up one day to find surveyor stakes in the ground. In the case of Kuehn’s Way, it can hardly come as a surprise. For all practical purposes, the ZBA has been asked to approve a 10-duplex development on 26 acres, and ought to do so.