West Tisbury backpedals on Housing Bank

Voters approve use of funds for high school track and field project.

Updated May 1

At a continuation of annual town meeting Tuesday night, West Tisbury voters clawed back the Housing Bank article previously approved on April 9, and went on to vote in favor of sending it to a committee, as opposed to backing it as written — the latest setback for a proposal to use short-term rental taxes to pay for housing on the Island.

Tisbury and Oak Bluffs rejected the Housing Bank outright. Edgartown and Chilmark postponed it indefinitely.

West Tisbury was the only town to approve it, until Tuesday night when voters first rescinded that approval, then went on to commit the Housing Bank article to committee. At a special town meeting held just before the annual town meeting, voters backed the use of $350,000 of Excess and Deficiency funds to pay for a landscape architect and an owner’s project manager to design a new athletic track and synthetic field for Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. After vigorous debate, the vote on the Excess and Deficiency funds was close, 108-100.

As West Tisbury selectmen planned on April 24, affordable housing committee member Ted Jochsberger made a motion to rescind and reconsider Article 24, the formation of a Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank. The article passed on April 9 by a vote of 184-58.

“As you know, I was an ardent supporter of this article, which means I voted for it at the last meeting, and in fact I’m a member of the committee that proposed it,” he said.

Jochsberger went on to say he thought the article should be pulled “because without the support of the other towns, it does nothing to address the housing crisis.”

The article was rescinded and put up for reconsideration on a majority voice vote.

Jochsberger then moved to “refer the Housing Bank issue to a committee composed of members of the board of selectmen and the affordable housing committee or their designees to engage in discussions and negotiations with the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority and representatives of the other Island towns to develop a home rule petition in support of the formation of a Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank …”

No printed copies of Jochsberger’s motion were made available to the voters, and he apologized for that.

Larry Shubert, chairman of the affordable housing committee, wasn’t on board with relegating the article to a committee.

“So I would like to speak against this, because I feel like we should revote Article 24 to our commitment that we made at the first night of the annual town meeting,” he said. “That article may not get to the State House or anything, but I feel like it’s important that we made this statement, and we should back up that statement that we’re in support of the Housing Bank.”

Susan Silk spoke against thwarting the will of the electorate. “So here we are tonight, a third installment of town meeting,” she said. “Here we are being told that instead of respecting the voice of the voters, a two-to-one majority of whom said they wanted to create a Housing Bank, you the selectmen want to form another committee to study the issue. You have a unique opportunity to show Islandwide leadership. You have a unique opportunity to show the voters of West Tisbury that you respect their judgment. You have a unique opportunity to publicly promise us that before we meet again in the town meeting, you will have created the Islandwide legislation that the voters expect.”

Failure to show leadership and take action will “disenfranchise the voters of this town,” she said.

Ahead of throwing cautious support behind the vote to send to the article to committee, finance committee member Doug Ruskin, a proponent of the Housing Bank, said he was sympathetic to Silk’s arguments.

“Two hundred eighty-four, give or take a couple, voted on this issue, and three-to-one in favor,” he said. “That’s at least a hundred more people than are here tonight, and so even if we assume that all of you were here the first night, there’s at least a hundred people who are having their vote disregarded.”

Ruskin went on to say he “would want assurances” state legislators are involved in the proposed committee’s work on the Housing Bank, and made a declaration that short-term rentals are the bane of year-round housing: “There is no question in my mind, and I just read an article about Barcelona, Spain — same problem — Airbnb and other short-term rental organizations are cutting the heart out of communities, almost literally. And it, in my mind, is the reason you cannot find a 12-month rental on this Island. So it seems very appropriate to use that money for this. I understand we may not get there tonight, but we cannot lose sight of the ball or the goal or whatever metaphor you like.”

Terry Cutler said she had buyer’s remorse on her previous vote. “I support this motion. I think it should go to a committee,” she said. “I think we went, given the full information and when I read about it from all the other towns, I felt that I made a mistake voting for that, and I don’t think it’s undemocratic for us to revote on this whole issue because we’re all citizens, we came tonight — all those other people who vote, and I was one of them, they could have come back tonight, but they didn’t come back tonight and we did come back tonight, and so our vote is valid.”

The motion to refer the article to committee passed on majority voice vote. A subsequent majority vote postponed indefinitely Article 25, the funding mechanism for the Housing Bank.

Ahead of the special town meeting, Martha’s Vineyard High School football’s Coach Don Herman stood outside the West Tisbury School by a phalanx of student athletes who passed out flyers in support the high school track and field project. Once the meeting was underway, Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent Matthew D’Andrea, in response to criticism voiced in the room about the use of Excess and Deficiency funds for the high school track and field design, said, “This is a very appropriate use of E and D…” He said replacement of the track and field is an “urgent issue,” given their conditions.

Asked why the finance committee wasn’t behind the article, Ruskin said in addition to process and Excess and Deficiency funds concerns, committee members felt voters had taken a stand on plastic on the first day of town meeting with the plastic bottle ban.

“There was a question raised as to why we would be voting to support plastic grass,” he said.

“Our playing fields are not up to the level and the work that our coaches and our players are putting in,” assistant football Coach Jason Neago said. “We are losing kids from sports to other avenues because of our playing fields. It’s kind of a running joke on our football field that we actually have shovels on our sidelines and our practice field because we have to constantly dig up rocks and fill in the holes caused by our poor playing fields.”

When town moderator Dan Waters put the track and field article to a vote, it passed on a hand count by eight votes.  

Updated with more details from town meeting – Ed.

1 COMMENT

  1. To be precise, the prior approval of the Housing Bank article was reconsidered and rescinded. Upon further consideration, the town voted to refer the matter to committee. The funding article was tabled indefinitely.

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