The Martha’s Vineyard Commission denied owner Adam Cummings’ request to reduce the number of workforce housing units in his 6 Circuit Ave. building in Oak Bluffs known as the Lampost building.
Thursday’s decision followed a heated discussion at the commission’s April 7 meeting concerning Cummings’ use of promised workforce housing for short-term profit through Airbnb rentals. Earlier in the week, the land use subcommittee voted 7-0 to deny the application for modification. An array of Oak Bluffs planning board and Oak Bluffs affordable housing committee members pleaded with the MVC to also reject the request.
The modification proposal sought to reduce the workforce housing units in the building from 10 to four, a stark contrast to the initial 2017 proposal, which had allotted all units for workforce housing. After being served with a compliance notice — a warning — for misuse of units in June 2021, Cummings responded with a second modification request, decreasing the amount of units required for the workforce, in an attempt to remain in compliance.
During deliberations to determine benefits and detriments of the modification request, the commission followed protocol, considering economic development and Island housing needs.
“In regard to our economic development,” said commissioner Fred Hancock, “the elimination of workforce housing negatively affects businesses that need the workforce housing so that they
can provide services to the economy … I don’t see how we could possibly think that a 60 percent reduction in workforce housing could be anything but a detriment. It’s not neutral, and it’s certainly not a benefit.“
“We have businesses that can’t open because they can’t find employees, and when they do find somebody, they have no place to live,” said commissioner Kathy Newman. “So the real big push here is to allow Island businesses to stay open.”
Commissioner Linda Silbey noted that she felt “blindsided” by the request, and sees it as an intentional move, adding that “if the applicant had been proposing mainly hotel rooms, I’m not sure we would have approved it in the first place.”
Aligned with his previous stance, commissioner Doug Sederholm insisted that there was no room for interpretation in the agreement. “There is absolutely no logical reason to think that this applicant offered or we allowed the rental of these units to anyone but people employed on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said.
Hancock agreed, adding that the commission’s initial agreement was already clear. The wording of the agreement, he said, was “to avoid this kind of situation. We tried to make this as bulletproof as possible.”
Despite the commission’s past efforts to prevent misuse of alloted workforce housing, the fact that Cummings and his lawyers found ways around the terms directed the discussion toward honing in firmly on verbiage, with back-and-forths regarding definitions of “workforce,” and “temporary housing” and “unit,” working to close any possible loopholes.
“Unless anyone has an articulation of a benefit to this modification,” said commissioner Michael Kim, “I move that we proceed to vote. I’ll defer to anyone who can give me a benefit on this.”
The proposal for modification was subsequently denied by a commission vote of 15-0, with commissioner Brian Smith, citing his absence from the original discussion, as the only abstention.
The commission’s next task was to determine whether Cummings, who was absent from the meeting and represented by his attorney Jonathon Holter, should be designated as not in compliance with the terms of agreement.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that the applicant was required to rent to people employed on Martha’s Vineyard by Martha’s Vineyard businesses,” Sederholm said. “And any time he didn’t he was not in compliance. There isn’t any ambiguity there.”
Opinions wildly varied on how to move forward.
Hancock, advocating for an official citation of the noncompliance, said, “I think that’s very important to note … Otherwise, it seems like our decisions have no meaning.”
Commissioner Ernie Thomas disagreed. “It’s their first offense, give them a couple strikes at least,” he said, adding that the findings will still be public record.
The commission’s decision “isn’t necessarily the end of the story,” said Sederholm, adding that when it comes to consequences and enforcement, “the town of Oak Bluffs also has the power to take action.”
Commissioner Ben Robinson said he felt it important to “memorialize” the noncompliance by filing it with the deeds office, and not rely solely on the town or MVC files.
After tirelessly discussing the wording of the conditions, including efforts to define “seasonal” and “as needed” — again to close loopholes to prevent similar situations in the future — the commission eventually came to a unanimous decision in a two-part vote by determining “compliance/noncompliance.”
Cummings is currently under compliance, and a certificate of past noncompliance must be filed with the Registry of Deeds.