Oak Bluffs zoning bylaw stymies ‘top of the shop’ housing

Owners of the Lampost on Circuit Avenue want to convert the top three floors of their building into employee housing. — File photo Stacey Rupolo

Last week, the owners of Phillips Hardware and the Lampost went before Oak Bluffs selectmen to inform the board of their respective plans to build “top of the shop” rental housing at their iconic Circuit Avenue businesses.

Donna Leon, co-owner of Phillips Hardware, and architect Chuck Sullivan presented their plan to demolish the existing 8,500-square-foot building and replace it with a three-story, 18,000-square-foot mixed-use building, with four two-bedroom and four one-bedroom apartments on the third floor.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” Ms. Leon told the board. “We’re trying to help the town with the housing issue, and we’re trying to get our building to look better.”

Adam Cummings, co-owner of The Lampost, showed selectmen preliminary drawings that detailed how the top three floors — currently the nightclub and dance floor, a lounge, and an attic — will be converted into rental housing, the third floor exclusively for staff housing.

“We had a real problem with staff housing this summer,” he told The Times in a previous interview. “We always have a problem, but this year was brutal. I had my entire staff hired in March, and half of them couldn’t find housing.”

Selectmen were supportive of both plans, but the ensuing discussion made clear that the both projects would be severely constrained by a longstanding bylaw that puts strict limits on “top of the shop” housing.

The “Conversion of Existing Three-Story Building to Apartment Units” bylaw states that an existing three-story building “may be converted to apartments with a maximum of three apartments for the first 5,000 square feet of lot area, and one additional apartment unit for each additional 1,000 square feet of lot area.”

Mr. Sullivan told selectmen that the Wastewater Commission had already approved 12 bedrooms for Phillips Hardware “top of the shop” housing, but building inspector Mark Barbadoro informed him that town bylaw limited them to three apartments. “Three apartments with 12 beds doesn’t make any sense,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Under the current zoning we could do ‘hotel use,’ which would allow the eight units, but it would limit the term of that rental to six months per calendar year, so we’re submitting the original plan, with eight units, and hope the zoning will get changed.”

“I’m in no way endorsing this bylaw, but this is what the town is asking me to enforce,” Mr. Barbadoro told selectmen.

The same bylaw limits Mr. Cummings to three new “dwellings” above the Lampost, which requires him to develop dormitory-style housing on each floor. He hopes to add 10 to 15 bedrooms on the third floor for employee housing this winter, and a total of 24 bedrooms over the next two years. Mr. Cummings said he will move forward with dormitory-type housing on the third floor as soon as permitting allows.

“I’m torn. Maybe the right thing to do is to wait and hope that the zoning changes, but there’s no guarantee,” he said. “It’s a project that I think makes sense for everybody. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean it will happen. I’ve been a business owner in OB for 13 years. There are a lot of ideas for change, but not a whole lot of movement. I can’t sit idly hoping it’ll happen. We have a very short window to get it done.”  

‘Archaic’ zoning

It’s not clear what year the “Conversion of Existing Three-Story Building to Apartment Units” was originally voted into town bylaw. Oak Bluffs Planning Board (OBPB) clerical assistant MacGregor Anderson located “clerk’s copies” of zoning bylaws in the town hall vault, from 1985 and 1988, but with question marks written next to the date. Both documents have versions of the “Conversion of Existing Three-Story Building to Apartment Units” bylaw.

The most recent Oak Bluffs Master Plan, completed in 1998, states, “There appears to have been adequate vacancy in year-round housing, at moderate prices, so that most needs should have been met.”

“We have a bylaw that’s never been enforced, and we have a new building inspector who’s trying to be thorough,” OBPB chairman Brian Packish told The Times. “We need to make some changes to zoning that allow more dwellings to be created, and allow more flexibility, possibly a special permit process, so there’s some form of review.”

Mr. Packish said the OBPB is reviewing the town bylaw “Appendix Chart,” which defines permitted usage in residential and business districts. “It’s become very evident that the lot-coverage rule in our commercial district doesn’t fit the intention or previous use of our commercial district,” he said. “We need either relief or to remove those criteria. We need to create a situation where multiple dwelling units can be created on a property even if it didn’t pre-exist zoning. If you have a 7,000-square-foot lot, the maximum you can make is three units. Those are massive units; that’s not conducive to what we’re trying to do. We need to be building 600-, 700-square-foot units, and 7,000 square feet can hold 10 to 12 of them. Our zoning is pretty archaic.”

Mr. Packish said revising “top of the shop” zoning bylaws is a top priority for the OBPB.

“You have the Lampost that could do something that really makes sense for their business, but they’ve been dancing around zoning. And Phillips Hardware is the same story. That’s two right now, and we want to encourage more people to be doing this in our downtown.”

Mr. Packish said the first step in making a bylaw change is to have a consensus among the OBPB, which he said exists. The next step is holding public outreach that will inform what changes the OBPB will propose at April town meeting.

“You need a two-thirds majority to make a zoning change at town meeting,” he said. “Zoning changes are among the most highly contested on town meeting floor.”

The next step for both projects is to obtain approval from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC). Both are classified as a development of regional impact (DRI) — both buildings are over 100 years old and the owners are requesting “change of use” in a commercial district.

Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Leon, and her co-owner Susan Phillips, had their first public DRI hearing on Sept. 22. Overall, response was positive.

DRI coordinator Paul Foley said the project is “a great location for ‘smart growth.’”

“It’s a wonderful thing they’re doing here,” Tisbury commissioner Trip Barnes said. “They’re trying to do the right thing. I think we should, as a board, try to ease them along.”
Arcade co-owner Laurence Hardoon cast the only dim light on the Phillips Hardware renovation. “The reality of big large boxy buildings on Circuit Avenue is not part of the character of the street anymore,” he said. “It will actually degrade the character of the street.”
The next MVC hearing for Phillips Hardware is Thursday, Oct. 20, at 7 pm, at the MVC building on New York Avenue.

Mr. Cummings and his attorney Geoghan Coogan will meet with the MVC next week. “They seem to be moving quickly these days, so that’s a good thing,” Mr. Cummings said.

After passing muster with the MVC, both projects will go to the OBPB, which must conduct site-plan reviews per the current zoning bylaws.