Oak Bluffs selectmen directed town administrator Bob Whritenour to draft a letter to the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency (MassHousing) outlining issues with a proposed mixed-use comprehensive permit project at 3 Uncas Ave.
Developer and affordable housing proponent Robert Sawyer wants to demolish an existing four-bedroom historic house with an abutting one-bedroom cottage and replace it with a 3,750-square-foot mixed-use building. It would include eight residential studio condos at 425 square feet each. Two of the condos would be designated for affordable housing.
The project also calls for a 350-square-foot commercial bank with a one-lane drive-through and a parking lot.
The property is owned by Robert Sawyer, his son Michael, and Larkin Barry Reeves, all operating as Flowerwood LLC. Robert and his son Michael are also co-owners of the Barn Bowl & Bistro, which abuts the property. The Sawyers and Reeves are also principals in a Chapter 40B project that’s under review on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, which has gotten some pushback from town leaders in Tisbury.
The Uncas Avenue project seeks site approval for and financing with the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency (MassHousing). The project must receive site approval from MassHousing. Under Chapter 40B — a state statute that allows affordable housing developments under flexible rules if a quarter of the units have long-term affordability restrictions — developers can apply for a comprehensive permit which allows them to override certain municipal zoning bylaws.
Speaking to The Times by phone on Wednesday, Robert Sawyer said each of the proposed condos would be affordable workforce housing. He needs a portion of them to meet the state’s definition of affordable housing, but plans for the others to also be for the Island’s workforce.
“Our concept here is to have eight dwelling units. All eight of them will be affordable. What you might call workforce housing,” Sawyer said. “This is not meant for renting out in August at a high rental price.”
Eight parking spaces will be available for those living in the units. An additional parking space will be made available for the bank employee.
Selectmen voiced their concerns with the project, feeling the site was not appropriate for the proposed project. Some of the issues with the project include wastewater, traffic, parking, density, and commercial use.
“Considering all of these issues … should it go forward, are these insurmountable?” selectman Gail Barmakian asked.
Selectman Brian Packish took issue with access to the parking lot and the bank drive-through in the same area, but wanted to see the project move forward and be vetted through various town boards. He also wanted to know if more of the housing units could be deed-restricted for affordable housing. “For me, those are three things that bubbled up to the top,” Packish said.
Selectman Michael Santoro said he supports affordable housing, but is concerned with the commercial use of the property.
Selectmen said they would like to see the property be developed into several affordable homes instead of the proposed mixed use.
The building is a historic home listed on the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS), and is located within both the Cottage City Historic District and the Copeland Plan District. According to MACRIS, the Campground-style home was built in 1874, and was a part of the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Co. development, a secular alternative to the Wesleyan Grove Campground.
Barmakian said there is currently an outstanding order that the home can’t be demolished, adding to the other issues with development. “There are inaccuracies in the application itself that could just stop the project right there,” she said.
Selectman Jason Balboni said while he supported the affordable housing, he could not support any other part of the project. He mainly took issue with the deteriorated condition of the historic home, which he believed was done on purpose over the past year in order to get demolition approval. He said people were living in the home as recently as last year.
“The siding was ripped off and the windows were left open, and the grass stopped being mowed, and the police were allowed to go in there and do exercises,” Balboni said. “Everything that seems to have been done in this past year seems to have been done to make that house worse, worse, worse, so that they can say it’s awful and it needs to be torn down … I know we’re hungry for affordable housing, but I don’t think it’s the place for it.”
Sawyer told The Times that the current state of the property was due to asbestos remediation. “The place was in such a state of disrepair. We decided the best thing to do was to demolish the building,” he said.
The building was checked for asbestos per demolition rules. Much of the exterior siding and floors contained asbestos, and had to be remediated. Realizing it was not financially feasible to repair the home, Sawyer said he felt the best thing to do for the community was to build eight condos for the Island’s workforce.
Packish said at this stage, the permitting process — going through commissions and boards — should decide if the project is appropriate, not the selectmen.
Under Chapter 40B, some of the town’s purview would be taken away. Packish attempted to quell concerns, saying the Island always has the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to review developments of regional impact.
Packish added that because it was Sawyer’s project, he was being treated differently. “I think if there was a different name on top of the application this person would be treated differently,” he said. The rest of the selectmen disagreed.
Planning board chairman Ewell Hopkins told selectmen the planning board voted to send a letter in opposition to MassHousing. He also said the planning board has 25 to 30 letters in opposition to the project, and plans to send those with the board’s letter.
In a letter to selectmen, parks commissioner Amy Billings wrote that she opposed the project.
“To change a whole neighborhood for two possible affordable studio apartments is very disturbing,” she wrote.
Selectmen will finalize their letter outlining issues concerns at their next meeting on Oct. 8, and send it to MassHousing by the Oct. 15 deadline.