Island Autism Group faces permitting hurdles

West Tisbury project referred to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission; neighbors criticize project’s size.


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. 


  1. Liberals like Cathy Weiss betray their principles and appear to prove they stand for what they believe in only in concept, not in reality. Feeling torn, whether “violently” or sensitively, is what it is all about — do the right thing for yourself or for the community. It can’t be both?

    • All liberals are not like Cathy Weiss, thankfully. Obviously her work with autistic people was just a job.

      • Dean and Nathalie

        I’m not Cathy’s daughter and I can attest to what a kind and caring person she is. Both of your statements are. I have known her for most of my life in many different capacities and I’ve rarely met someone as generous, loving, and giving as she is. And knowing her as I have over the years, I knew when I read this article that speaking out in this way must have, indeed, been very, very difficult for her. All she did was ask that plans be altered and screening methods be improved to maintain the life she has built. She is not against the project. I think it is natural to want to protect what we work so hard for, especially as a single mom. Your harsh judgement of her is unfounded and wrong, not to mention unkind.

    • Dear Dean and Nathalie,
      If you knew my mom , Cathy , you would realize and probably feel bad about the way you feel license to speak about someone you don’t know . This online forum is a perfect example of online bullying that has effected the mental health of our society. My mom was a public servant and a renowned teacher for most of my life . She choreographed many years of school plays and offered shining moments on stage for countless kids. She fought and worked hard as a single mother to build a house for us 40 years ago, in a quiet , rural , farm, environment . Having a development built on your property line is not easy. She did speak from the heart, not to stop the project but to mitigate the effect of the development on her now quiet life in retirement And you both feel compelled to judge her life’s work and her political leaning ? Shame on you . You don’t know my mom. Words Matter .

      • Cathy is a sweetheart of a human being I’ve known since I was in elementary school- regardless of opinions on a town matter, of which there is always back and forth, she’s a person of lovely character.

      • No shame on me, Beka. Mitigation, like I mentioned below, is a normal part of approval. People are defined in life by their actions and how they approach real life. I don’t know your mom’s life or her accomplishments, and I am not passing judgement on any of that, but lest this become something of flaming-type exchange, it is ok to take issue with her stance. That is part of the dialogue in a community. The reason I come out so strongly for it is that this sort of hypocrisy — not speaking from the heart — is really just saying to you are — it would be good to hear from her and not her daughter. It’s nice to have all of the privilege of private land and a farm and so on, maybe this is part of understanding that privilege in a deeper way. Not for me to decide.

      • Beka ElDeiry- I apologize for my harsh words regarding your mother. They were written in haste from my knee-jerk reaction to her reported objections. I do acknowledge your mother’s honest admission that she is torn between supporting this much needed facility but not wanting it built next to her property. I just don’t understand how someone can dedicate a great portion of their working life caring for and enhancing the lives of a group of people with special needs, and then be so “violently”(her words) opposed to a perceived threat that building a permanent facility for this community will violate her privacy. If I were a parent of one of her autistic clients, I would be very upset.

  2. Dean–your first word, and more to the point , your first seven words betray YOUR principals . You lump a whole group of people into a right wing talking point.
    You assume that since Ms, Weiss shows some concern and some compassion for others she is a “liberal”, but you have no idea, Yeah, it’s likely she is a “liberal” because she cares about the well being of others who are less fortunate than she is.
    At least she is honest and open about her feelings.
    She requested some changes to protect her privacy and improve the safety of the clients.
    Your comment is way off base.
    So let me step into the the breech of biased ignorance, and say that conservatives would never admit to being “torn”. They would just flat out say NIMBY, and would fight tooth and nail to not have such a facility as a next door neighbor. How would you react ? “Conservatives” could care less about people with “issues” —
    You know it, I know it, we all know it.
    How’s that for bias ?
    Thank you Cathy for publicly expressing your feelings.

    • NIMBY is not owned by one political orientation, but it’s a little tougher to take from self-professed liberals who are eager to point out the shortcomings of others and what other people should be doing differently, yet blanche when faced with repercussions of noble ideals impacting their secluded and protected realities.

    • I just don’t consider her for real. I’m a liberal, I guess, I can’t tell what you mean. I certainly would not boil down people’s responses to politics, so much as the espousing of a political stances that are not backed up by the actual fact of sacrifice and equity. That’s what’s real.

      • If the project is approved, there are plenty of mitigation areas to consider. That’s perfectly normal, but you have to come out in support of it. That’s real equity in the service of progress. I’m also not at all convinced that people who are of the conservative persuasion who are not insane would have a NIMBY problem. It really comes down to the person and their real life world. Mitigation is a normal part of the process.

    • Keller you have no facts to demonstrate liberals are more compassionate than conservatives in fact the former give less to charity than the latter as one indication you are wrong. Conservatives have different views of how to solve societal problems than do liberals and show lots of empathy towards those who are intractably poor.

      • Hey Andy, got anything to back up your claim that conservatives give more to charities then liberals? We’ll wait….

      • Andy–You are in fact correct that conservatives give more to “charity” than liberals. But the majority of those charitable donations go to christian churches. Those churches have increasingly been spending an ever growing portion of those donations on legal fees defending pedophile clergy, and compensation for the victims of such atrocities.
        In my opinion, a truly charitable donation should not go to the legal defense of pedophiles.
        But—I disagree with you that conservatives show empathy towards the intractably poor.
        Just look at which party tries to restrict help towards the poor.
        Who is against raising the minimum wage?
        Who is against food stamp and welfare benefits?
        Who is against subsidized medical care ?
        Who is against the child tax credit ?
        Who is against free or subsidized child care for working parents ?
        Who is against paid maternity leave ?
        Who is against abortion even in the case of rape or incest ( which happens
        more often in poor neighborhoods) ?
        Who is for tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations ?
        If you said “conservatives” to all 8 of those questions, you would be correct..
        If you said “liberals” to any of them, you are not paying attention.
        Perhaps your run of the mill conservative cared a few decades ago, but not now…

  3. The only thing I see wrong with Cathy’s comment was the use of “violently”. That is a threat and totally unacceptable! Her concerns seem perfectly valid and should be addressed.

  4. It’s not a matter of “privilege” to want to enjoy the privacy and quiet of your own property, something a lot of us have worked hard to acquire and maintain. Having expectations of being able to enjoy where one lives is part of owning property in a residential area.

    It all depends on perception when it comes to how much one is “allowed” to question the extreme building and usage that will result in a disruption to one’s quiet enjoyment of one’s own home. Is Mother Teresa moving in next door to open an orphanage? If so, you’re not allowed to question any disruptions to your life. Or is it a gazillionaire show-off Hollywood type wanting to hold artistic soirees and put on outdoor theather shows when they propose their extreme building and usage for the next umpteen years? Either way, a next-door neighbor’s life will be negatively impacted by exteme building and extreme usage that is not what one expects or bargained for in a residential area.

    Don’t see how objecting to this is any different from when the film group wanted to build their outsized fantasy in the middle of West Tis and neighbors didn’t want it.The perception of how much “good” the extreme building does for enough people who need it, usurps the misery the neighbors must endure during the extreme building and usage. Easy to say, “tough toenails” to someone who isn’t you.

    Cry NIMBY all you like. I am sorry for any neighbors who are absolutely right to question the kind of building that will impact and change their lives.

  5. I am a member of the West Tisbury planning board, and I was present at the entire meeting. It was my impression that Ms. Weiss was not in the least rejecting the project, but was requesting mitigation in the form of relocation of the roadway leading into it and vegetation screening. There are good reasons for leaving the roadway where it was proposed, and there are good reasons for moving it. We will have to consider these in our deliberations.

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