Chilmark planners say voters should decide  Squibnocket causeway question

A zoning bylaw amendment will give town meeting the final say.

Selectman James Malkin (left) and town counsel Ron Rappaport (center) explained to the Chilmark planning board why the zoning bylaw for the Squibnocket Pond district should be amended. Mitchell Posin (right), a member of the planning, board looks on. — Bill Chaisson

The Chilmark planning board has proposed a zoning bylaw amendment to address the construction of roadways, including elevated causeways near wetlands, just like the project envisioned  to protect access for Squibnocket homeowners behind Squibnocket Beach to their houses. If the construction is seen as having “substantial public benefit,” then the project would only be subject to review by the town conservation commission. The amendment would have the effect of putting the Squibnocket access causeway directly in front of voters.

The amendment was prompted by a challenge to a town plan to build a causeway on Squibnocket Road that will allow Squibnocket Farm residents reliable access to their homes. The work, which includes removal of the revetment above the beach, may allow the beach to renew itself. The Chilmark Citizens Group, which opposed the causeway on aesthetic grounds, claimed that the plan ran counter to existing zoning bylaws.  The planners approved the proposed amendment at their  Jan. 23 meeting, and it will appear on the warrant of the April 11 annual town meeting.

The original text of the amendment, as drafted by town counsel Ron Rappaport, called on the board of selectmen to determine public benefit. The planning board, after much discussion with Mr. Rappaport and selectman James Malkin, raised the stakes, and the amendment now requires a finding of  “substantial public benefit” to be determined by the public at town meeting.

In November 2013, Squibnocket Farm residents proposed a causeway to the town after an engineer told them the existing one would likely wash away within 10 years. In April 2014, Mr. Malkin was selected by town moderator Everett Poole to head a committee to revise the first causeway plan that failed at town meeting. On Monday, the selectmen gave the planning board members a thumbnail history of the causeway story.

Abutters, particularly residents of Blacksmith Valley Road, which overlooks Squibnocket Pond and the beach, have opposed the plan. The announced height of the causeway has changed repeatedly over the years of debate, but Mr. Malkin told the planning board that it is to be “as low as possible, and the height will be determined by engineers.” In a separate phone conversation with The Times, Mr. Malkin said the causeway would likely be about two feet above the elevation of the existing parking lot.

Appeals by groups of abutters have been denied by the town conservation commission and selectmen, by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and in December by the state Department of Environmental Protection, Mr Malkin said. The question of whether the causeway is a road or a structure is still unresolved by the town zoning board of appeals. Town building inspector Leonard Jason has determined that the causeway is a road. Mr. Rappaport told the planning board Mr. Jason had made the same determination in other cases several times in more than 30 years on the job.

Members of the planning board expressed concern that the amendment constituted “spot zoning,” changing a bylaw to address a single situation. Mr. Malkin disagreed. He said that rising sea levels caused by climate change will mean that the planning board deals with this same situation more and more often.

Mr. Rappaport, after reiterating some of Mr. Malkin’s points, explained the specifics of the proposed changes to Article 12 of the zoning bylaws, which address the Squibnocket Pond district. Although the approach could be applied more widely, Mr. Rappaport recommended applying it first to the Squibnocket area to “see how it works.”

“When the Squibnocket and coastal regulations were made,” the town counsel said, “climate change was not thought of. There are other places, other isthmuses, where an elevated causeway is going to be needed.”

He noted that there were locations in town controlled by the federal government (serving the Coast Guard station) and state government (near Quitsa Lane on State Road) that would eventually require elevated causeways. Mr. Rappaport said that the proposed new language made other town causeways subject to the same review.

In the ensuing discussion, Janet Weidner suggested the proposed amendment gave the selectmen too much power.  At one point she characterized the determination of public benefit as “touchy-feeliness,” to suggest the possible arbitrary nature of a decision by three people. Her concerns were dispelled when fellow member Peter Cook suggested a decision by town meeting be required.

At least one member was still uneasy about Mr. Jason’s classification of the causeway as a road.

“A causeway that needs caissons and concrete,” board member John Eisner said, “seems like a structure to me.” Mr. Rappaport told him that it would be subject to all the reviews now in place, except in the case that substantial public benefit was found.

“This [amendment] is not doing anything new,” board member Joan Malkin said. “It’s not doing anything other than eliminate arguments that will cost us time and money.”

“I think that’s right,” Mr. Rappaport said. “We are not changing any practice in the town.” The planning board scheduled the required public hearing for March 13.

Housing production plan draft

Jennifer Goldson of of JMGoldson Community Preservation + Planning in Roslindale and Judi Barrett of RKG Associates in Boston presented a draft of a housing production plan to the board. Chilmark is expected, as part of the Island-wide housing initiative, to produce 20 units of affordable housing. Ms. Goldson and Ms. Barrett gave them 11 strategies to execute over a five-year period, beginning in 2018.

“Use of homestead housing,” Ms. Barrett said, “is not the path to affordable housing.” She told the planning board that the town would need to create the opportunity for nonprofits to build housing in the town. She and Ms. Goldson found three town-owned parcels that would be suitable — an eight-acre site on Middle Line Road, and two sites on Pasture Road that totalled nine acres of developable land. The three locations did not, however, provide enough room to build all 20 required housing units.

“Try to find more land,” Ms. Goldson said. “Continue to work with the Land Bank. Tackle the zoning issues later in the process.”

Small houses and zoning

Chilmark the administrative assistant and inspector for the Chilmark board of health, presented “tiny houses” as a potential path toward affordable housing. She proposed building 300- to 400-square-foot houses in clusters of three or four on an acre of land. The homes would share land, a well, and a septic system. She noted that there were groups of very small houses built close together in Menemsha, and argued that tiny houses were a return to a historical pattern.

Ms. Lent was before the planning board primarily to present an outline of her plan, and to ask the board how much of what she intends would be possible under current zoning and what would have to be changed.

Damroth subdivision

The board reopened the continued hearing on David Damroth’s planned subdivision off Quansoo Road. Doug Hoehn of Schofield, Barbini & Hoehn in Vineyard Haven delivered revised plans to the board. Several buffer zones had been added at parcel boundaries. Board chairman Rich Osnoss read a letter from abutters Will and Michelle Seward and Adam and Carrie Marcus into the record. They were concerned about lack of an adequate buffer between their properties and Mr. Damroth’s.

Mr. Damroth told the board that the abutters’ property had been clear-cut and that he had not been consulted. A large house had been built in the middle of the clearing. He therefore found it hard to understand how they could demand a 100-foot buffer on his side of the boundary. Mr. Osnoss said that he and the board would make a site visit.