It seems every time the Vineyard’s housing crisis is mentioned, someone in an online comment or on social media comes up with this solution: Locate affordable housing at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport and its business park.
With a housing crisis that’s forced teachers to leave, kept Island businesses from hiring enough workers, and drove overwhelming support from voters for a Housing Bank, building on the airport’s ground sounds genius, right? There is land available, the area is not located near other houses where NIMBYism (not in my backyard) becomes an issue, and public transportation is nearby.
There’s just one problem. It can’t happen.
“This topic rears its head once again,” Martha’s Vineyard Airport director Geoff Freeman said, asked by The Times to explain why airport housing is not feasible. Freeman has addressed the plausibility of constructing affordable housing units at airport grounds multiple times over the years. He said the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) code of compliance is “pretty black and white” regarding what it qualifies as “compatible land.”
“We advised everyone and anyone that the airport cannot allow residential development on its property per FAA grant assurance obligations, and you can look that up in the FAA code of compliance 5190.6 B chapter 20: Any residential use on an airport or residential use granting through-the-fence access is incompatible land use,” Freeman said. “It is not allowed, and it has been told to every agency on this Island on numerous occasions for numerous years.”
Martha’s Vineyard Airport commission chair Bob Rosenbaum underscored the chances of this idea happening.
“No way in hell,” Rosenbaum told The Times.
More specifically, Rosenbaum said, there were “several issues” with the idea of building affordable housing on the airport’s lands. Rosenbaum said the only type of housing allowed would be for the airport director, or short-term rentals like a hotel.
“We have looked into this, and we have been asked several times about it,” Rosenbaum said.
Another roadblock is regulations from the Federal Housing Administration.
“The rules for affordable housing are that you can’t put affordable housing on any areas considered … basically substandard. Nobody wants to build a house next to a landfill,” Rosenbaum said. “Basically, any affordable housing has to be in an area that’s considered adequate for a nonaffordable house, if you will, and airport property is considered sort of not appropriate for residential housing. You won’t find people that would build a house on an airport because of the various issues: traffic, noise-related stuff.”
Rosenbaum said the commission “would love to do something, but it’s flat-out not possible.”
Rosenbaum added that Nantucket is facing similar housing issues as Martha’s Vineyard. He said the Nantucket Memorial Airport commission has also been pondering the possibility of putting housing on its property.
“They’ve been working for years to get something just for airport employees on the airport property, and it’s a no-go,” Rosenbaum said.
The Times reached out to the FAA on whether exceptions or code amendments could be made to allow affordable housing on airport lands. Spokesperson Elizabeth Isham Cory said in an email this was a question that needs to be directed to the “local government, and the airport sponsor.” Additionally, she said factors like zoning laws and the airport’s master plan would “come into play.”
“Unfortunately, we cannot accommodate that in any way, shape, or form,” Freeman told The Times. “The FAA has advised us that they would not approve that in any way, shape, or form, and the best option would be for the towns to be looking at their own town-owned properties for these types of things.”
Even if the FAA rules allowed residential units, the airport does not have a lot of land available for affordable housing, Rosenbaum said.
“The towns need to step up,” he said. As an example, Rosenbaum mentioned how “disappointing” it was when Chilmark did not add more affordable housing units to the Peaked Hill Pastures project (10 rental units, four units for ownership on six acres). “It doesn’t make sense. There is a significant amount of land around, but nobody wants to put in the density necessary to actually address the affordable housing issue on this Island.”
Rosenbaum said projects of higher density, such as Island Housing Trust’s 20-unit Kuehn’s Way property in Tisbury, are needed for Martha’s Vineyard’s housing crisis. However, more apartment-like structures may also be needed. NIMBYism (not in my backyard) is a factor that limits the development of affordable housing on the Island, he added. “Everybody agrees we need affordable housing, just don’t put it anywhere near me,” Rosenbaum said.
Freeman suggested The Times contact Jorge Panteli, who is the compliance and land use specialist of the New England region, for more information about the FAA’s rules and potential amendments. Panteli did not respond to messages left by The Times.
Rosenbaum told The Times he does not expect the federal regulations to see amendments to allow affordable housing units at the airport during his lifetime.