Tisbury ZBA unanimously approves permit for Kuehn’s Way

The Tisbury ZBA approved a comprehensive permit without a unit reduction for the Island Housing Trust affordable housing project.

A simulated image of the proposed development at Kuehn's Way, which the ZBA approved on Thursday night. — Island Housing Trust

The Tisbury zoning board of appeals (ZBA) Thursday unanimously approved a comprehensive permit for Kuehn’s Way, a 20-unit, $6.3 million affordable housing project proposed by the Island Housing Trust (IHT). At a hearing last month, the ZBA asked IHT to entertain the idea of reducing the project to 16 units, but Thursday night they approved the permit without the reduction. The Kuehn’s Way site is off State Road near Deer Hill Road.

Abutters have objected to what they termed the project’s density, the number of units per acre, and the possible harm to area groundwater. However, IHT executive director Philippe Jordi said that any reduction in the number of duplexes would push up per-unit costs and hinder efforts to seek state financing for the project, making it economically infeasible. IHT must maintain the total project costs per-unit, including land, of $319,000 to remain competitive, he said.

All five board members, chairman Jeff Kristal; Susan Fairbanks; Michael Ciancio; Anthony Holand; and John Guadagno were present at the hearing, as well as approximately 15 residents. A number of supporters sited the need for affordable housing on the Island. Abutters were represented by attorney Dennis Murphy of Cambridge, who was filling in for attorney Daniel Hill.

The ZBA voted on four waivers IHT requested and unanimously approved three. IHT will be allowed to build ten duplex apartment buildings — 20 apartments — on a 4.5 acre building envelope within the 14.85 acre parcel; provide 35 parking spaces; and the project may be built in a single phase. Regarding parking and traffic, the ZBA asked that IHT obtain letters from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional Transit Authority (VTA) and from the school transportation department to ensure the safety of those waiting for buses on State Road. They also requested that a shared-use path be built.

Mr. Ciancio, the plumbing and gas inspector in Tisbury, recused himself from the discussion and abstained from the vote to waive fees for the nonprofit after approval from various boards, departments, and inspectors.  All other members voted in favor.

Four conditions were attached to the approval. The ZBA asked that IHT be required to mitigate abutters’ wells if they were affected by the project. They requested specific lighting conditions, such as low-level lighting and downward facing porch lights. They said that if the assessors determined IHT is exempt from property taxes as a nonprofit organization, then IHT must enter into a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreement for no less than $5,700 per year. The ZBA also incorporated the conditions approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) in July.

“We are very pleased with the decision. It comes at a great time for us because we’re really gearing up for a significant fundraising drive,” Mr. Jordi told The Times on Friday. He said that the project, after approval from the town board of health and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), could break ground as early as next fall.

The project

Kuehn’s Way consists of 10 clustered rental duplex buildings with 20 units, 40 bedrooms, to be built on 4.5 acres off State Road in Tisbury. The complex would include four wells and a state-approved enhanced denitrification septic system. IHT plans to build the project under the terms of Chapter 40B, a part of state law that gives affordable housing projects some freedom from local zoning regulations. The apartments will be rented to tenants earning 80 percent or less of the area mean income, from $28,000 to $67,000 annually, depending on household size.

The project would be built on a site previously eyed by a consortium of church groups for a development known as Bridge Commons. In 2003, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) approved 15 duplexes with 30 units. In 2007, the MVC approved a modified plan for 13 buildings with 22 units on an 8.7 acre building envelope within the larger parcel. However, in the face of neighborhood opposition, the financing package unraveled, and the property fell into foreclosure.

A joint land deal between IHT and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, which purchased the back of the property, resurrected the project.

In July, the MVC agreed Kuehn’s Way did not merit further review by the regional permitting agency as a development of regional impact (DRI), and voted to send it back to the town zoning board of appeals.

IHT will fund the project through Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds, philanthropic capital campaigns, and competitive state grant funding with a goal of $1.8 million for each. The approximate $1 million remaining will be financed through a loan, according to Mr. Jordi.

Six Island towns have contributed a total of $500,000 in CPA funds. IHT has also received $500,000 through philanthropic donations.

Response of abutters

The ZBA approval for Kuehn’s Way prompted a mix of emotions among abutters, who have opposed the project from its inception. Although they are disappointed with the decision, some said that the ZBA has acted diligently throughout the process.

Abutter Frank Pitts expressed his appreciation to the ZBA and told them that although he cared about affordable housing, he also cared about the impact the project would have on his neighborhood.

“Density is a concern and I appreciate you guys obviously paying attention to the balancing test that is yours, about the importance of reading the need for affordable housing, but also paying attention to the impact that the project can have on abutters,” Mr. Pitts said.

In a conversation with The Times on Friday, abutter Kristen Henshaw said she echoed Mr. Pitts’ comments. She said she was disappointed in their decision but after hearing Mr. Kristal’s explanation of the responsibilities of the ZBA in terms of due diligence, thought they acted “in good faith.”

“I thought the ZBA, in my estimation, was doing their very skilled due diligence,” Ms. Henshaw said.

All the abutters, she said, believe in affordable housing; however, the density of the project, sited on 4.5 acres, continues to be a major concern.

Attorney Mr. Hill, who represented abutters during the hearing in September, told The Times on Friday that he and abutters were “evaluating their options” as far as what their next steps would be.

“We were taken aback by the board’s decision last night, which we thought was surprising given how much time has passed. It was only the second hearing on the applicant and there was basically no peer review of the project,” Mr. Hill said.