Stewardship at its worst


We have a housing crisis on Martha’s Vineyard, and while many altruistic organizations are doing yeoman’s work to solve it, they have barely made a dent in the problem. According to the MVC’s Housing Production Plan, the current shortage in Tisbury alone of “affordable housing” (technically, housing that can be afforded by those making 80 percent or less of the average income in Dukes County) is something over 100 dwelling units, and growing. But there’s also a shortage of “community housing” for the working family making an above-average living, but nevertheless priced out of the market. How big is this shortage in community housing? It’s huge. We know this because fully one-third of all Tisbury residents are spending more than half their income on housing, meaning they are by definition financially strapped. 

Moreover, we intuitively know that the housing problem is much bigger than any statistic can show, because statistics don’t account for all those who would like to live on the Island but are forced to commute, or who do the infamous “summer shuffle,” moving into tents or onto a friend’s couch or onto a boat to make way for the summer influx.

There’s no argument. The problem is huge. In response to this, our development group is planning 68 good-looking, comfortable apartment units at 61 Beach Rd. on the former Hinckley Lumberyard in Vineyard Haven. These will be built under Massachusetts General Law 40B. Every one is located in the heart of the Island’s main year-round town, and some actually have water views.

 The 40B law is a very wise piece of legislation. It is based on the premise that town governments and nonprofits are not equipped to solve the problem; only private development can do it on the scale that is required. It understands that private developers are not charities, and will only participate if they can make a profit. It recognizes that developers will lose money on every affordable unit, so it requires that only 25 percent of the units in a project need to be affordable, allowing the developers to earn enough on the remainder to entice them into the game. It also ensures that developers can’t make a killing. At the end of every project, an independent auditor reviews the finances of the project, and every dollar above a 20 percent profit goes directly to the town coffers.

The law also recognizes that many towns don’t have the zoning in place to allow the multifamily development necessary to build the required housing, and that for a developer to change zoning is a very expensive, time-consuming, and risky endeavor. For that reason, the 40B law does not require a project to strictly meet the zoning law; instead it allows the local zoning board of appeals to approve reasonable departures from zoning. 

In the case of 61 Beach Rd., we have also pledged that all units will be deed-restricted to be owned and occupied year-round by average working folk — teachers, police, nurses, construction workers, town employees, and the like. None of these units can be owned by investors or summer people. 

The approval process for 61 Beach Rd. is just beginning, but the Tisbury selectmen have already voiced their disapproval in a letter to MassHousing. It seems that everyone knows we need this housing, and everyone says they want it, but when something actually gets proposed, the boo birds come out in force.


  • The selectmen correctly state the project is in a flood hazard zone. However, they fail to mention that construction permits and the issuance of flood hazard insurance are not prohibited in flood zones; rather they are subject to standards which respond to the issues raised by the selectmen. Whether a project can be permitted is not a matter of opinion, but one of design and engineering. Accordingly, no project should be preemptively rejected on the basis of its location in a flood zone. This is particularly so when one of the allegations by the selectmen — that the project is “below sea level” — is patently untrue. 


  • The selectmen also allege that the property is subject to a delinquent municipal lien, implying this is disqualifying because it proves incompetence and irresponsibility on the part of the developer. In fact, the lien has nothing to do with us. It exists because the town itself, or its attorneys, failed to exercise its legal right to demand the payment from the previous owner out of the proceeds of sale to us. 


  • They state the project is on a busy road. Whether a road system can accommodate the traffic generated by a project is, once again, not a matter of opinion but one to be established by engineering assessment. In this particular case we have already commissioned a traffic study indicating the traffic generated by the project is actually less than the previous use as a lumberyard.


  • They say correctly the project will require fire suppression and wastewater treatment. However, a prediction by the selectmen that these issues cannot be successfully addressed is, once again, only an opinion. They may have underestimated us. They should wait until our proposal is engineered and reviewed in detail.


  • They say the project might be inaccessible to emergency vehicles during a storm event. This prediction could be made for literally millions of locations both near the shore and inland, on the Island and across the country. Why is this remote possibility disqualifying in this case but nowhere else? We allow driving, flying, boating, eating raw shellfish, swimming in the ocean, and a multitude of other activities here on the Island, even though they carry a higher degree of risk. Rational people assess risk and act accordingly.


We find this kind of naysaying by the selectmen to be stewardship at its worst. It’s plain irresponsible to preemptively reject any project based on a lay assessment of complex issues like engineering, science, and risk assessment. And it’s a glaring oversight not to mention that the selectmen’s view, if allowed to stand, would deprive the town of Tisbury of this badly needed community housing and the many benefits that would flow from it (such as higher tax revenue and increased business for local merchants) and, far more importantly, deprive many deserving families of the housing they need.

Why couldn’t they say instead, “We desperately need affordable year-round housing for people who work in our community. We all know there are tough issues to be addressed here, but we are grateful that these private citizens are investing their dollars trying to solve them at no cost to the town. The onus is entirely on them. The risk is entirely theirs. We wish them well.” 


Dunn is an architect, developer, and Tisbury resident, and is one of the principals in the Harborwood LLC at 61 Beach Road in Vineyard Haven.


  1. As I understood it, a 40b basically shuts the town out of most of the input into the development, zoning and otherwise. Is this also a way to circumvent the MVC?
    I don’t agree with the project, but damn it’s a smart move if you get dodge those disfunctional organizations.

  2. Tisbury has lacked town leadership and vision for decades. Kudos to you and other members of the private sector for showing the leadership needed to address Island housing issue. Maybe elected officials can look and learn from your efforts.

  3. Let’s cut out all the self serving mumbo jumbo on the financials and get straight from Mr. Dunn how many dollars of profit and tax incentives, deductions his group stands to gain?

  4. Yes, we need new affordable housing options. But wait, let’s come up with a million reasons why it can’t be done. Oh Tisbury, you never disappoint.

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