The owner of 6 Circuit Ave. in Oak Bluffs, the building that houses the Cardboard Box and Oyster Bar 02557, will seek a modification to his development of regional impact (DRI) after a tense argument with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Thursday night over whether renting out units in the five-story building as short-term rentals on Airbnb violated prior commission conditions.
Building owner Adam Cummings spoke to the commission at its Zoom meeting Thursday night. He said he has been renting out units on Airbnb, but that he was well within his rights to do so.
“We have not hidden what we’re doing,” Cummings said. “We feel we’re in compliance with what we said we were going to do when we came in.”
Commissioner Douglas Sederholm, who led the committee investigating the violations, briefed the commission on the history of the issue and the violations.
The issue stretches back to May, when Mark Leonard sent a letter to the Oak Bluffs building department, concerned about the building units being offered on Airbnb. Rates for the units were as much as $750 a night during the busy summer months. Airbnb reviews for the units stretched back to 2019.
Commission DRI coordinator Alex Elvin said commission communications began in July, when Cummings met with commission staff. After no response, the commission sent a letter in August outlining the building’s conditions. “There was essentially no response to that. There was also no response to our emails in September, so we followed up with the compliance committee,” Elvin said.
The commission’s decision, made in 2017 and modified in 2018, states that yearly rental documentation is required to prove the residential units are “utilized by Island employees,” that the building shall be heated year-round so “workforce housing” can be provided to workers, and that compliance will be enforced by the building and zoning enforcement officer of Oak Bluffs.
“As offered by the applicant, the units shall be rented to employees of local businesses either as permanent year-round housing or temporary housing as needed,” the decision reads.
Cummings said the language in the conditions described the housing “as needed” and that the intent was workforce housing — seven of which are year-round and three are vacant.
He also disagreed with the commission’s timeline of events, which prompted harsh criticism from commission executive director Adam Turner.
“We’ve tried to work with you. I mean, stop, stop,” Turner told Cummings. “We’ve tried to work with you, we still will.”
Both commission staff and several commissioners said Cummings was out of compliance.
Commissioner Fred Hancock said Cummings came to the commission to change the building from a nightclub, formerly the Lampost, and hotel rooms to units that could be rented at an affordable rate for workforce housing.
“This was not an affordable housing mitigation,” Hancock said. “This was their business plan.”
Hancock also said the time to talk about this was in the summer, when the commission originally notified Cummings of the violations.
“What we take away from that is that you weren’t interested in doing anything other than what you were doing,” Hancock said. “I think you can understand from our point of view, that’s not acceptable.”
Additionally, Sederholm said, Cummings has not provided the required yearly rental documentation.
Cummings doubled down that he was within his rights and has been an open book, claiming he told commission staff about the Airbnbs and that he had the right to rent short-term rentals.
“I understand your position that you feel the entire building should be workforce housing, we have an opposite position because we’ve worded it that way,” Cummings said.
Sederholm said there was a difference of opinion over what “as needed” means in the conditions. “It sounds to me like it means that if there are workforce people on this Island who need housing, it should be available to them,” Sederholm said.
Cummings said he was not aware of Thursday’s meeting until he saw The Times article on Thursday that the commission was considering legal action against him. He also claimed The Times rented a room at his building, which is not true.
“We have never rented an Airbnb from Mr. Cummings. Any suggestion by him that we did is hyperbole,” Times Editor George Brennan said Friday. “We did reach out to his host on the Airbnb site Thursday, in our due diligence reporting the allegations against him. The host referred our reporter to him, and he did not respond ahead of Thursday’s meeting.”
Cummings also said The Times “caught wind of the issue” and members of the commission “went around” him, instead of contacting him directly. Members of the commission denied that, and The Times does as well. The possible litigation against Cummings was listed on the commission’s agenda for Thursday night, and The Times requested copies of commission emails sent to Cummings through a public records request, which were later posted on the commission website.
Commissioner Jim Vercruysse said that the obligation ultimately falls on the applicant to follow conditions. “We don’t want to be policemen. It was pretty clear to me what was supposed to happen, and that’s not happening,” he said.
“If you’re compliant, you’re compliant. If you’re not, you’re not,” commissioner Christine Todd said. “Obviously it seems like we’re at odds, so we’ll take it to the next step.”
Commissioners asked why this issue was only just now coming to light, considering the project was approved in 2017 and the original complaint about the Airbnb units was made in May.
“What do we have in place that’s holding everyone to task?” Todd said.
After reading through the email correspondence, commissioner Ted Rosbeck said he didn’t see any attempt to hide the Airbnb rentals. “There doesn’t seem to be any denial of what’s going on,” Rosbeck said. “I think they’re just asking for a modification, maybe just give them a time frame to do that.”
“They have not acknowledged they were renting these on the open market,” Sederholm responded. “They haven’t denied it, but they haven’t said, ‘Yeah, this is what we’re doing.’”
Hancock suggested having the commission’s legal counsel initiate proceedings. “This applicant has shown no remorse in what he’s doing, and plans on continuing doing it,” Hancock said. “At the very least, what we need to do is say, No, you may not continue renting this property to whoever shows up with a fistful of money.”
Sederholm said deciding on legal matters was best done in executive session.
The commission voted to give Cummings 30 days to submit a modification proposal. Cummings said he would temporarily stop taking new reservations, but would not cancel reservations already made.
In an email to the commission prior to the meeting, Cummings attorney Geoghan Coogan requested any commissioners who own property, Airbnbs, or restaurants in Oak Bluffs recuse themselves from the discussion. Commissioner Brian Packish recused himself from the discussion and vote, but for separate reasons. “I have spoken as an applicant directly with this applicant as to how to navigate the challenges of the housing mitigation fee,” he said.
In other business, the commission reappointed commissioners Joan Malkin, Jim Vercruysse, and Ernie Thomas as chair, vice chair, and treasurer, respectively.