On Monday, the West Tisbury planning board held a public hearing about an application from Island Autism Group for a special permit for development on 515 Lambert’s Cove Road. The development would create a community area run by Island Autism Group consisting of a hub house, two shared four-bedroom houses, a barn, three two-bedroom cottages, and a farmstand. The size and proximity of the project were met with pushback from neighbors, including a planning board member who participated in the discussion but did not vote on it.
The board voted 5-0 to refer the presentation to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Board member Matt Merry, who is a neighboring resident of the project, abstained from the vote.
Kate DeVane, executive director of Island Autism Group, led the presentation with Stephanie Zurek from Union Studios, Kris Horiuchi from Horiuchi & Solien Landscape Architects, and Derrill Bazzy of Island Housing Trust.
Zurek said the plan is to build around the existing area, keeping the farmland for crops and programs. These areas will be for adult residents with autism, alongside their caretakers, and for children with autism participating in the group’s programs. For high-functioning adults with autism, they may share spaces as roommates. Additionally, the crops raised by the program residents will be sold at a farmstand on the property.
DeVane said the farm is an opportunity to foster the interests of children with autism, mainly in agricultural subjects. For adults with autism, the farm is a place for them to safely develop skills to work on the Island. “There’re a lot of opportunities for this farm to help us to train people so that they can move out and do jobs that are pretty common in the community on Martha’s Vineyard, and also so that they can interact with what we in the autism world call the neurotypicals of the world. So, everybody will interact,” DeVane said.
Horiuchi said because the location is connected to woodlands, she plans to utilize the existing foliage and environment for the landscaping. She also plans to make a buffer zone between the facilities and the neighbors, using trees that would be native to the area.
According to Zurek, the facilities are expected to be built in three phases, starting with the area containing the barn, farmhouse, and open space. DeVane said she hopes to be done with the permitting process in the next couple of months, and break ground with phase one in the spring. DeVane said they plan to complete the construction as quickly as possible in consideration of the neighbors.
The board members’ comments were overall in favor of the project. Board member Leah Smith wished the group success, and associate board member Amy Upton said the project reminded her of the time she spent at Camphill in Copake, N.Y., as a counselor, which housed people with autism and other disabilities.
However, board member Bea Phear pointed out several parts of the project that require it to be referred to the commission: More than 10 parking spaces, the five planned residential buildings, and the size of the area being larger than 3,500 square feet.
According to Bazzy, the proposed facilities would include 4,500 square feet for the cottages, 4,800 square feet for the farmhouse, 9,000 square feet for the bedrooms, and roughly 2,000 square feet for the barn.
During the time for public comment, there was some discontent about the project from its neighbors.
Merry said that while he thinks it is a “wonderful program,” he would like to see a more definitive time frame because of the project’s size and scale. “I don’t think it would be fair to the neighborhood if this goes on for 10 years,” he said.
DeVane agreed, saying a five-year fundraising plan is in place, with specific goals that need to be met. She said residents receive some money from Social Security for room and board, but it’s not enough to pay back a mortgage. Additionally, the group is focusing on getting local funding rather than federal funds, so that the facilities can focus on serving Islanders with autism.
“We are not reinventing the wheel … 70 percent of the 1.7 million people who live in the U.S. with autism right now over the age of 22 are actually living on their parents’ couches,” DeVane said. “We can’t afford to do this wrong, so we’re really thinking it through.”
Meanwhile, Cathy Weiss is concerned about the impact the project would have on her peaceful life from the increased traffic, population, and noise. “I know this is a good project, and I understand the joy … but I felt so torn because I would normally be in that circle jumping with them [Island Autism Group],” Weiss, who has worked with children and adults with autism before, said. “Half of me is in that corner, but the other half of me so violently wants to protect the sanctity of the life that I’ve had here.”
Weiss requested the driveway to be moved so that the traffic would not affect her and her family. Additionally, although Weiss appreciates the tree buffer, she would like a fence to be erected between her property and the Island Autism Group’s facilities, citing disruption of the peace from the farm’s activities, and safety concerns.
“I know that you have safety for your children that you’re concerned about. I have safety concerns for me, living in such proximity to such a large community, whether it be regular affordable housing or whatever kind of housing of that density,” Weiss said. “Also, I know autistic children can be random. So I feel that I need some kind of protection. I live in a house that is primarily all windows … at night when I think about it, I feel concerned about that.”
DeVane said legal and safety issues, such as children running around, prevent the group from moving the driveway. However, she is willing to discuss other methods of accommodating the neighbors’ concerns.
Merry questioned the safety concerns that DeVane pointed out, not convinced that the driveway cannot be moved, since there is also a parking lot near the residential area.
Smith recommended DeVane discuss this matter with Merry and the other neighbors prior to presenting the project to the MVC.