Aquinnah speeds through annual town meeting

Voters support planning for town facility upgrades and affordable housing, kick the can on land disposition. 

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Aquinnah residents gathered for the 2021 annual town meeting in front of the fire department Saturday to approve several age-old town initiatives, such as improvements to town facilities, and plans and funding for developments on town-owned property that include a food forest, a playground, affordable housing, and new or renovated bathrooms at the Circle.

The meeting started with a moment of silence for the Aquinnah residents lost in the past year, a standing recognition of Juneteenth as a new holiday, and applause for retiring select board chair Jim Newman, who has served on the board for 18 years.

Much of the conversation and debate throughout the meeting involved the future of the town, and what the best financial decisions are to improve the comfort and well-being of Aquinnah residents.

One article that would make a parcel of town-owned land available for disposition and purchase for $450,000 drew a stir from some residents, who believed the land could be better utilized for some sort of public benefit.

Although the land would be placed on the tax rolls and available for purchase, the parcel is landlocked between three developed properties, and is inaccessible unless through a property easement. 

Some Aquinnah residents were concerned that the three abutters of the town-owned parcel would have exclusive access, and could purchase the land, develop it, create an access point, then sell it for a profit.

Resident Barbara Bassett noted that the land has been devalued over the years, to the point where the potential price tag for the land is double what the select board members (who have say over town-owned land) are asking for it.

She added that Aquinnah currently retains a limited amount of property, and stressed that officials should strongly consider if a land disposition would be the right route: “There are ways to think about using it for a solar array — either by talking to abutters and getting an easement for installation and maintenance access once a year, or perhaps even taking the easement [by eminent domain].”

As for the $450,000 value, Bassett said the property is worth far more than that, especially to one of the three abutters, who could purchase the land, even if only to raise their property value “by millions.”

Another resident, Wendy Swolinzki, said even with no current access point, a buildable piece of land with a water view in Aquinnah would be worth $900,000 “at the minimum,” but would more likely come in at above $1.4 million.

“We are selling it, but we are really selling it to three possible people who will have the frontage,” Swolinzki said. “I don’t think it’s right for us to give three landowners the opportunity to make an extra one or two million dollars off of it.” The article only relates to the disposition (not the sale of) the land.

Several Aquinnah voters were concerned with the land disposition decision as it relates to overdevelopment, and the impact that too many large seasonal homes could have on the environment in town.

Resident Kristina Hook said the town needs to start paying attention to the direction development is going, and take into strong consideration the health of important up-Island natural resources, like Nashaquitsa and Menemsha Pond. 

“We aren’t thinking about that at all, we are thinking about the exclusivity of the place we live,” she said. “It is becoming impossible to live here if you are not very wealthy, and it’s very scary what is happening to our land, our water — yet we keep allowing these places to be built.”

Finance committee chair Alan Rugg said the committee recommended approval of the article because the parcel currently generates no revenue for the town.

One abutter of the parcel, Howard Goldstein, said he agrees that the town should have the tax money from the property. However, instead of developing it, Goldstein said he would be willing to purchase the parcel jointly with the other abutters, so long as they can agree in a consensus. Goldstein continued that the land could then be donated to the Land Bank for use as an open space that would be restricted from development. 

The land disposition article was indefinitely postponed, 37-17. 

Other articles that drew significant debate dealt with whether to allow the town to spend money for planning and designing a slew of upgrades to town facilities.

Some residents wondered about the $85,000 price tag for planning and design for new restrooms at the Circle, and improvements to town buildings.

Select board member Juli Vanderhoop said town facilities are “in a state of disrepair,” and proper planning needs to take place so that space and money aren’t wasted when trying to make improvements.

“We have been piecemealing things together — rates are low, so we hired a firm to tell us how much this will cost, then we will bring it back to another town meeting once we have a figure to repair things all at once,” Vanderhoop said. 

Town administrator Jeff Madison said state law requires that municipal projects of a certain scope and cost be put out to bid to a professional architect, and an owner’s project manager.

He added that the town can’t continue placing Band-Aids on facilities and infrastructure, and the situation right now with buildings like the town hall and police station needs to be addressed “immediately.”

“If you go out on the deck in front of the police station, you can literally put your hand through the windowsill onto the sergeant’s desk,” Madison said. “We have a chance today to get a plan together to fix what needs to be fixed.”

Resident Adrian Higgins, who is running for Newman’s soon-to-be-vacant seat on the select board, said, “It’s just too much money,” although he acknowledged the need for major fixes in town. “The goal is to get the job done, but to get it done affordably. If you spend that much money to permit and design something, it’s not in scale. It just needs to be palatable to everybody.”

“We’re not looking to build the Taj Mahal, for sure,” Vanderhoop responded. “But we are behind the eight ball when it comes to rehab on these old buildings. If there is any way to reduce the cost for these designs, trust me, I would.”

The article passed overwhelmingly.

Another article surrounding big future projects related to land behind the town hall being used to construct four units of affordable rental housing, a food forest, and a playground. The plan to create a kind of town common area behind the town hall began to be realized when the Aquinnah select board agreed to work with the Conway School in 2017 on a comprehensive layout for the six-acre parcel.

Town moderator and Aquinnah housing committee chair Mike Hebert said when the Island Housing Trust (IHT) built Smalley’s Knoll — a recently built affordable housing development in town — they were targeting a large section of people who couldn’t afford to build a home. 

This time around, he said, the town and IHT are looking to support a group of folks who not only can’t build their own home, but simply aren’t financially prepared to own a home at all. “They need a temporary place to stay until they can afford a home,” Hebert said.

Vanderhoop added that the town has worked extensively with IHT, and they have a proven track record of benefiting the community through affordable housing initiatives. “We have been working on this plan in open meetings many times, and we have brought the entire community into this conversation,” Vanderhoop said. 

She agreed with Hebert’s point that affordable housing behind the town hall would serve to aid a large and important sector of the Aquinnah community. “If you run a business on this Island, these are the people who are serving you who need homes. We cannot cut them out, and we need to be responsible. IHT has been a responsible party. It has many different projects that have been extremely successful — I believe in what they do,” she said.

In other town business, voters approved an approximately $5.6 million budget for FY22, along with a number of Up-Island Regional School District capital expenditures.

Voters approved articles for Aquinnah’s shared cost of a new roof, refrigerator, and elevator for the West Tisbury School, replacing doors and windows at the Chilmark School, and upgrading the tech infrastructure at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

Residents also supported paying the town’s share to hire an Island-Wide emergency management coordinator, and using town funds to pay for the first year of a four-year lease for a hybrid police cruiser.