In a joint meeting with the Oak Bluffs affordable housing committee Tuesday evening, the town’s select board approved a request of $250,000 by Island Housing Trust and Boston-based Affirmative Investments to help fund the affordable housing project Southern Tier.
The project was made logistically possible by the recent “doughnut hole” land swap signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker in August.
At a previous joint meeting on August 9, affordable housing committee member Mark Leonard told select board members that the $250,000 from the town’s housing trust is just a portion of the funds needed for the project. Leonard said the Southern Tier project will require additional funding from the town — around $750,000 — which was included in the initial proposal by IHT and Affirmative Investments.
On August 9, select board members aired concerns about “decreasing the balance” of the town’s funds, and then struggled to recall their commitment to the additional funding, and decided to table the decision to approve the $250,000 in order to review the IHT/Affirmative Investments proposal.
On Tuesday, despite select board chair Ryan Ruley confirming the board “committed to [the funding],” select board vice chair Gail Barmakian held to her August 9 statements, expressing distaste for funding the project at all. “Why is the town seemingly fronting all of the finances to [the project]?” she asked.
Barmakian said she doesn’t know enough about the project’s financial planning process, and that “all we know is that they’re asking for funding.”
Philippe Jordi, executive director for IHT, previously explained to the select board that the receipt of the funds from the town would be “important in terms of leveraging a lot more money” — $18 million from the state that will be needed to execute the project.
Additionally, the project cannot engage the state for the $18 million until all permitting and local funding has been secured.
Barmakian reiterated the impact approving funding from the town’s housing trust would have on the “balance in the trust,” noting “[Oak Bluffs] is a small town … we have this [housing] trust for our own needs,” she said. “We don’t have the ability to refurbish [the trust] easily. It took a long time to build this up.”
In other business, the select board heard from a handful of residents regarding the request for proposals (RFP) for the revamping of Healy Square, which is part of the Oak Bluffs streetscape master plan. Many of the commenters questioned the need for such an ambitious reconstruction.
Resident Duncan Ross recommended keeping the area as similar as possible to the existing layout. Tommye Brown said, “There’s nothing really wrong with Healy Square,” and made suggestions to tint the asphalt darker, to avoid the issues Circuit Ave. has seen with stains and dirt marks.
Other comments by residents present at the meeting concerning the plan involved changing the material of the surface, installing more reasonable bicycle racks, and allowing for the space to remain a community gathering spot. Many residents issued remarks about the lack of transparency there has been about the renovations, noting schematics/blueprints have not been made easily accessible to the public.
The select board proceeded to discuss, at length, the plantings that will be introduced to the area, as there will be a total of 12 trees in the square from Circuit Avenue to Kennebec Avenue. Parks commissioner Amy Billings said that too many trees would “block the view … [as] the whole point of this whole design was to see through to Ocean Park,” and suggested flowers be planted and changed out seasonally. Responses from the public involved questioning whether Ocean Park is even visible from Healy Square without any plantings in the way. “You can see the sky above the park,” said one attendee.
Town administrator Deborah Potter addressed a few of the common questions people have had about the project, as there have been revisions to the plans for the Healy Square portion. She said unlike what happened on Circuit Ave., where underground conduits for cables were installed after the grading of the street, Healy Square will be outfitted with the necessary subsurface installations before the work begins.
Potter reminded the board that the project has already been approved and financed but wants to “let people know what’s happening.”
Select board member Jason Balboni ultimately led the way to a vote to issue the RFP. “I think we’re ready to move on this project,” he said; “the fine details can be dealt with as we move along with the process.”
The board approved the issuance of the RFP for Healy Square in a 3-1-1 vote, with Barmakian opposing, and select board member Brian Packish abstaining.