Meeting the needs

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Last Thursday night, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission heard the latest iteration of Meeting House Place, a large-scale development on Meetinghouse Way in Edgartown that has become the latest NIMBY proposal on Martha’s Vineyard.

It promises to fix part of the housing issue on the Island, but has faced a backlash from people who’d like to raise the drawbridge now that they’re safely on the Island.

The arguments against the project cite the vast scale and the potential environmental impacts of it, but one important issue is ignored — the land in question can be legally developed, and at some point, that building will happen.

Through the commission’s public hearing process, we have a chance to help shape the vision, and in many respects we have already done that. The developer has reduced the size of the single-family houses, and increased the number of market-rate townhouses. Two important changes.

There appears to be a misunderstanding of the role of the commission when it comes to development on the Island. It’s not to block development, but instead to make sure that what is proposed and ultimately approved best fits the needs of the Vineyard while protecting vital resources.

The need for affordable housing, workforce housing, and housing that meets the needs of the Island’s aging population is large. There are senior couples living in houses much larger than they need because there simply isn’t any alternative housing for them to consider. That’s why a separately proposed Green House model, which would replace Windemere Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, is such an attractive and exciting step.

But that’s an editorial for another day; back to Meetinghouse Way. 

The commission has pushed back on this project, and the result is a proposal that protects 30 of the 54 acres as open space, and creates a cluster of 28 single-family homes on about 20 acres. And, importantly, it creates a cluster of 14 townhouses that will sell below $400,000 — dedicated to first-time home buyers and empty nesters who already call the Island home. Developers are contributing another $1 million for affordable housing on the Island, and 1 percent of sales on the larger homes will go to affordable housing each time the property changes hands.

This is an important time for the Vineyard. We don’t know yet, fully, how COVID-19 has changed the Island, but anecdotal evidence is that more people may seek the Island as a refuge as their primary place of residence. One lesson from the pandemic is that a lot of jobs can be done remotely, and some people who have traditionally worked in crowded cities may be unwilling to return to that environment. But what will these new year-round residents look like? If it’s going to be young professionals, they’ll either have to have high-paying jobs or their families will have to already own real estate on the Island that they can move into, because the average cost of real estate is so prohibitive.

We’ve also heard anecdotal evidence that despite the uncertain times, people are buying real estate, which leads to an economy of scarcity — a lot of people going after a limited supply, which threatens to push prices further out of reach.

A second lesson of the pandemic is just how much we rely on the frontline workers. Not just the hospital workers and the first responders, but the folks working at supermarkets, in gas stations, and making takeout at Island restaurants. If more people decide to live on the Island year-round, we’re going to need a bigger workforce.

While we appreciate what communities have done with their limited Community Preservation funds, and what organizations like Island Housing Trust and Habitat for Humanity have been able to accomplish to put home ownership within reach of Islanders, there is unquestionably a need for more.

Meeting House Place provides an opportunity to add a significant bump in below-market housing that can be purchased by the Island’s teachers, healthcare workers, and others providing services to year-rounders. 

It’s time to make this project a reality.