Workforce housing hits a wall in Oak Bluffs

Warrant article that would allow for increased “top of the shop” housing is on shaky legal ground, and may be tabled.

A rendering of the front elevation plan for the Lampost. — Martha's Vineyard Commission

A two-thirds vote at Oak Bluffs town meeting appeared to be the final hurdle in the ambitious plans of the owners of Phillips Hardware and the Lampost to create much-needed “top of the shop” workforce housing in downtown Oak Bluffs.

However, it now appears a procedural misstep will invalidate the revised “Conversion of Existing Three-Story Building to Apartment Units” bylaw even if voters pass it, and that the vote will most likely be tabled.

According to state law, a zoning change requires a public hearing by the town planning board, which was not held due to conflict of interest issues.

Planning board members Brian Packish, Erik Albert, and Jeremiah McCarthy own property in the downtown district, which precludes the five-member board from having a quorum.

“My understanding is that three of the five members of the planning board have a conflict of interest because they own property in the B-1 zone,” town administrator Robert Whritenour told The Times. “If they don’t have a quorum at their meeting, then town meeting would have to vote on it without a recommendation of the planning board. In order for the town to vote an article for zoning change without recommendation from the planning board, the planning board would had to have conducted a public hearing at least 21 days before town meeting. When you hold those hearings, it has to go in the newspaper twice, so that 21 days becomes close to 40 days, and by the time we got the article, it was well past that deadline.”

Mr. Whritenour said that moving forward, the zoning bylaw change will remain a top priority. “This is a very important reform for the town,” he said. “We’re going to keep working on the article with town counsel. The wording in the proposal we received wasn’t necessarily an article. Then we’ll get a hearing going with the planning board and hopefully pass it at a special town meeting in the fall.”

If approved, the warrant article would remove the unit limit on apartment conversions by special permit of the Planning Board, require mixed-use buildings in the B-1 to maintain commercial uses on the ground floor, protect the historical character of buildings undergoing conversion and construction, limit the 30 percent lot coverage limit to residential districts only, allow new construction in the business district of multifamily units including apartments, and allow mixed-use conversions in the business districts.

Late last year, both projects were unanimously and enthusiastically approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC).

‘Makes no sense’

Phillips Hardware co-owners Donna Leon and Susan Phillips are proposing to demolish the existing 8,500-square-foot building and replace it with a three-story, 18,000-square-foot mixed-use building. They aim to build four two-bedroom and four one-bedroom apartments on the third floor, replacing 15 Lilliputian apartments, some still with the original gaslight fittings, that are now used as storage spaces.

But the current “Conversion of Existing Three-Story Building to Apartment Units” stymies those plans, stating 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.”

The conflict came to light in October, when architect Chuck 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 had informed him that town bylaw limited them to three apartments. “Three apartments with 12 beds makes no sense,” Mr. Sullivan told selectmen. “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 said.

Mr. Sullivan began spearheading the effort to change the zoning bylaw after Mr. Barbadoro’s ruling. “I’ve been trying to get this done in my spare time; so has Adam [Cummings, co-owner of the Lampost],” Mr. Sullivan told The Times on Monday. “I got involved because I think the the zoning is crazy. Not just for Phillips [Hardware], but for the town. For the Lampost to be limited to three eight-bedroom apartments is ridiculous.”

Last October, Adam Cummings presented selectmen with plans for converting the top three floors of the five-story building — currently the Lampost nightclub and dance floor, a lounge, and an attic — into two- and three-bedroom rental apartments, with the third floor exclusively for staff housing. In addition to providing much-needed workforce housing, Mr. Cummings estimated that changing the upper floors from a nightclub to workforce housing would reduce wastewater output from 15,000 gallons per day (gpd) to 2,800 gpd.

But again, the bylaw limited Mr. Cummings to three new “dwellings” above the Lampost, which restricts him to developing dormitory-style housing on each floor. On Tuesday, Mr. Cummings told The Times that he has abandoned the plans for two- and three-bedroom apartments, and he has no choice but to move forward with dormitory-type housing on all floors.

“It’s unfortunate, because it would have been a much better project, but we’re going ahead with plans under the current bylaw,” he said. “My preference is to have all two- and three-bedroom units. What makes it especially frustrating is that it all comes down to eight words, ‘except by special permit of the planning board.’”

Mr. Cummings said that even with the prospect of a special town meeting in the fall, it’s too late to change course from all-dormitory-style housing. “I’m not going to wait,” he said. “We have 21 bedrooms approved, and we have to move. We were hoping to have the third floor done this year. I thought last year was bad for employee housing; this year is 10 times worse. Half of my people are sleeping on couches right now. We start swinging hammers on Oct. 1.”

Once complete, the housing will be only for employees during the summer. The rooms will be available to the public for off-season rentals. Mr. Cummings hopes to have the entire renovation complete by spring 2018.

Came down to a technicality

Mr. Sullivan said he went before the planning board with a draft of the warrant article in late January. “[Chairman] Brian Packish said that because of the conflicts on the planning board he was told it had to go through the selectmen. That’s what everyone was told at the time,” he said. “No one said there had to be a public hearing. We met with selectmen several times, got the wording ironed out to where we thought everyone was happy with it. They approved it unanimously to go on the warrant.”

Mr. Packish concurred with Mr. Sullivan’s account.

“In January the planning board clearly defined that there was a conflict of interest, and we handled it as such, I made it clear to the town administrator in early February,” he said. “He talked about pulling the article but I didn’t think that pulling it was the answer. He told me selectmen would do what it takes to move it forward.”

Mr. Phillips said he was notified of the problem a week after he submitted the final draft of the article on March 17.

“It came down to a technicality that we weren’t aware of until it was too late,” he said.

Hazy outlook for Marijuana district

The status of another zoning by-law warrant article, the Medical Marijuana Overlay District (MMOD), unanimously approved by the planning boardon March 8, has also come into question due to an administrative mistake. Mr. Whritenour said he mistook the introductory language to the bylaw as the bylaw itself and did not include the entirety of the language creating the district in the warrant. “When I put in the warrant article I thought the original language did that but apparently there are some additional tweaks to the language of the marijuana overlay district, which is a longer by-law,” he said. “I don’t know if that by-law can’t be voted but I do know that it’s going to take another vote to make those tweaks to the total overlay district so it will all work together.”

Mr. Whritenour noted that the state legislature recently voted to extend the implementation date of from January 2018 to July 2018, which will provide time to further refine the medical marijuana and non-medical marijuana overlay district by-law.

Mr. Packish told The Times that is inquiring about the possibility of correcting the wording on town meeting floor.