The Martha’s Vineyard Commission found itself in the defendant’s seat as a trial between developers Meeting House Way LLC and the commission commenced in Dukes County Superior Court Tuesday morning.
The MVC is being sued by Utah-based developers Douglas K. Anderson and Richard G. Matthews — represented by attorney Edward Dangel — following the commission’s 2020 denial of the proposed Edgartown subdivision Meeting House Place.
Triggering the denial of the proposal was the commission’s assertion that the subdivision would threaten Island character via suburbanization, and ultimately deciding that the project is more of a detriment than a benefit to the Island community.
In addition to the concerns raised by the commission that the new housing wouldn’t blend well with surrounding residences, the MVC and various opponents of the project, including Great Pond Foundation executive director Emily Reddington, questioned the effect Meeting House Place would have on the already increasing nitrogen levels in Edgartown Great Pond.
The project proposal was first heard by the MVC in February 2019, and after multiple modifications, the developers settled on a 28 single-family, 14 below-market-rate townhouse subdivision on its 54-acre parcel off Meetinghouse Way. The land was purchased by Anderson and Matthews in 2017, operating as Meeting House Way LLC, and 30 of the total 54 acres of the land was set aside by the developers as open space.
Meeting House Way LLC filed an appeal to the Dukes County Superior Court subsequent to the commission’s denial, which cited that the MVC’s ruling “exceeded its statutory authority, was arbitrary and capricious, was based on subjective opinions devised for the occasion, not uniformly applicable regulations.”
“Further,” the preliminary statement continued, “the decision was unmoored from the facts, scientific evidence, and in several instances from the reports of its own staff.”
“The institutions that are supposed to protect us must function fairly and in accordance with the law, or else. The commission is supposed to protect the general welfare of our Island,” Dangel argued in his opening statement. He added that commissioners “follow their own agendas.”
“It is possible that growth denied for one person they [don’t like] today can become twice the growth for the person they like tomorrow,” said Dangel. “Where one 28-unit development is denied, another 25-unit one is allowed.”
Dangel argued that the MVC has been “unwilling to tell the people who live here, and the summer people, how big their house can be. They keep it close to the vest.”
Dangel said Meeting House Place is a “carefully planned development,” and in tune with the regulations regarding open space and limiting nitrogen. The project, he said, “is more of a benefit than a detriment.”
Representing the commission, Johanna Schneider issued her opening statement, outlining the broad spectrum of the MVC’s responsibilities, including ensuring that proposed developments are compatible with and in consideration of the land and its natural resources, in addition to surrounding houses and the community, per the MVC’s regional impact studies.
Schneider said with each proposed dwelling planned to be up to 3,800 square feet, they will exceed many surrounding houses in square footage.
The land is “not suitable” for the kind of development proposed, said Schneider, with the subdivision plans citing lots ranging from a half-acre to three-quarters of an acre.
Additionally, Schneider argued that the units, which will be sold at market rate, do not provide relief for the Island community, who are in desperate need of affordable housing.
In the end, Schneider said, “this idea was left half-baked … [the developers] did not present a proposal that was workable.”
On the commission’s 2020 denial, Scheider reasserted, “the probable benefits did not outweigh the detriments.”
Dangel’s first witness, John Larsen, a real estate and genealogy researcher, was asked to compare Meeting House Place plans with existing Island subdivisions, citing a similar number of lots within Edgartown’s Island Grove and Bold Meadow, and Dodgers Hole. Additionally, Larsen pointed to Meeting House Village condominiums and Katama’s Field Club to provide comparison.
On the comparisons, Schneider quickly noted that most of the subdivisions mentioned predate the adoption of the Edgartown zoning bylaw, in addition to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which was established in 1974. In the case of Katama’s Field Club, explained Larsen, the property was previously a gravel pit with “a most hopeless appearance,” and “worthy of no possible use.”
“This case is not about being out for anybody. It’s about the commission’s decision to deny a proposed subdivision in Edgartown,” she argued, adding that Meeting House Place would be the “largest and densest” subdivision considered in over a decade — with no set precedent for the commission. The proposal, said Schneider, simply “fails to comport with state and federal law.”
Judge Paul D. Wilson is presiding over the trial, which is expected to continue into next week.