Housing coming to an O.B. near you

Town sends planning consultant back to the drawing board.

This Oak Bluffs parcel, highlighted, abuts the MV Arena and is planned to be developed for affordable housing.

Oak Bluffs took another step toward potentially developing a parcel of land that abuts the Martha’s Vineyard Arena for affordable housing.

Members of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, planning board, and affordable housing committee heard from RKG Associates, an economic planning and real estate consultant based in Boston, which was hired to conduct a study of the eight-acre parcel along Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road. RKG principals Eric Halvorsen and Jahangir Akbar presented the roundtable with an overview of their study Thursday.

According to the Oak Bluffs housing production plan, close to 40 percent of all year-round households in Oak Bluffs have income at or below 80 percent of the area median income (AMI). In 2016, the income needed to afford a $644,500 single-family house, the median sales price in Oak Bluffs, was $170,000, while the median household income for year-round residents in Oak Bluffs is an estimated $80,225. There’s also a focus on young people not coming or returning to a rapidly aging Island.

“We’re bleeding all of the young talent off the Island,” affordable housing committee chair Jim Bishop said. “Young kids come back here, they’re making $50,000, $60,000 a year straight out of college, and they can’t even afford to pay for a room.”

The narrow, but deep eight-acre parcel doesn’t come without its physical and environmental constraints. An at-capacity sewer system, endangered species, nitrogen-loading issues, and traffic access were some of the problems RKG identified.

Planning and development on the eight-acre parcel is somewhat tied to a 24-acre parcel the town has been trying to obtain for the past 15 years, and could be used for even more affordable housing. In a 2004 agreement with the Land Bank, a town-owned parcel — known in local argot as the “doughnut hole” due to its landlocked location — was to be swapped with a Land Bank–owned parcel. 

The swap would give the town land that abuts property it already owns with access to Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, while the Land Bank would absorb the “doughnut hole” property into conservation.

The 2004 deal didn’t go through due to complications with the ownership and title for the town’s landlocked parcel. In 2018, after consulting with town counsel and a title insurance company, the town was able to obtain clear title to the property.

Several other hurdles need to be cleared, such as getting legislative approval from the state, before the deal is done.

Halvorsen and Akbar ran through several scenarios of what development on the parcel could look like, including a combination of one-, two-, and three-bedroom housing of 10 to 15 units.

Town officials were not completely sold on the plan. Selectman Brian Packish said two things were obvious from the presentation. “One, that you need sewer, and two, that you need a density that is much greater than 15 to really get to a point where there is solid financial viability where someone is enticed to participate,” he said.

Packish also called for more robust and public discussion among the many nonprofit, town, and private stakeholders in the area to address development, and especially wastewater.

Speaking to The Times by phone Friday, planning board chair Ewell Hopkins agreed with Packish, and said RKG’s potential designs of 10- to 15-unit developments were premature and too narrow in focus. “[RKG] was talking about a bicycle while we are talking about a motorcycle that can transform into a car,” Hopkins said.

He added that the town is not expecting the proposal to conform to the parcel’s current zoning, and instead will look at Chapter 40B — a state statute that allows affordable housing developments under flexible rules if a quarter of the units have long-term affordability restrictions — or zoning reform.

RKG will head back to the drawing board and retool its design, create options for treating wastewater flows, sizing and siting of Title 5 systems, stormwater, and traffic, and look at potential funding strategies before presenting its final report to the town.