The affordable housing project on 401 State Road in West Tisbury is being put on hold.
Island Housing Trust (IHT), the only developer that bid for the property, was awarded the project in August, although the design was still a work in progress. In a letter sent to West Tisbury town administrator Jennifer Rand, IHT CEO Philippe Jordi wrote that while the nonprofit “is thrilled to be continuing its partnership with the town,” he requested putting the project on hold.
“IHT will however need to request that the planning and design process for the 401 State Road
project be temporarily put on hold until such time as we can engage a new architectural
firm. South Mountain Co., who partnered with IHT on its project proposal submission,
has decided to withdraw from the project,” Jordi wrote. “Please be assured that IHT remains committed to working with the town to successfully realize the 401 State Road project.”
South Mountain Co. CEO John Abrams wrote to Jordi in a letter that “after careful consideration” and “with tremendous regret,” his company withdrew from the project because of “our sense that current circumstances will not allow us to create a successful project for the town of West Tisbury.” Although developing year-round affordable housing with IHT has been “effective and rewarding,” Abrams listed several reasons relating to the West Tisbury affordable housing committee (AHC) for South Mountain’s withdrawal.
Abrams wrote that the bid made for 401 State Road was “only an initial, conceptual idea,” which became “tightly clustered multifamily housing as a balanced approach to land conservation and development.” He wrote that this approach was meant to satisfy the competing camps revealed during the West Tisbury town meeting in April, where voters approved use of the property for affordable housing, but “a significant bloc of voters expressed the view that it was essential to protect this part of the roadside district at the junction of two major roads.”
The committee accepted the proposal, but Abrams wrote that most of the committee members “expressed their disappointment vehemently, and sometimes disrespectfully,” alongside being “unwilling to engage with us in a civil and collaborative process that would successfully lead to a solution that served all interests.” Abrams wrote that the committee was never clear about what they wanted. The final complaint toward the committee was their vote during a meeting on Sept. 13 requiring South Mountain and IHT to bring an updated design in four weeks “with no additional input from the committee,” or the request for proposal (RFP) would be readvertised. Abrams admitted that “the motion wandered some, so we’re not certain that our interpretation is entirely accurate.” However, if this is what was voted, Abrams wrote, the decision would be inconsistent with the schedule the committee had accepted.
“Over many decades we have learned that successful projects result from intense collaboration between professionals and clients who trust each other and are committed to honoring and incorporating diverse points of view. That relationship clearly does not currently exist with our client — the AHC — and we do not feel that it is fruitful to continue without those essential commitments,” Abrams wrote.
Committee administrative assistant Rhonda Conley was not immediately available for comment. Committee member James Klingensmith told The Times in a phone call that from his memory, the RFP had specifics regarding setbacks and living units, and while the proposal brought before them had “met the bedroom count,” the “overall design was not satisfactory,” and the setback requirements were not met to provide abutters their privacy. Klingensmith said what they asked for was a new sketch so the committee could have a “rough idea” of how to proceed, not a full redesign.
“We are sorry South Mountain felt that way,” Klingensmith said, but also expressed confidence in IHT finding a new partner.
During a committee meeting Tuesday evening, committee member Jefrey DuBard said, “A lot of the process has been us telling the team that was chosen what we want them to do,” and asked IHT to discuss what they planned to do as “the ones experienced in getting these things done.”
Jordi said, “It’s very hard to say at this point” to discuss details about 401 State Road, but IHT is “putting all of our efforts” into the issue. “We hope to be able to provide you with more information once we have it,” he said.
Committee member Ted Jochsberger said while he did not know why South Mountain withdrew, “it seems we can have a reasonable resolution to this.”
“If we lose this opportunity, it would be really shameful,” Jochsberger said.
Committee members Amy Upton and Lawrence Schubert suggested some time be spent reflecting, or the same mistakes could be made in the future.
West Tisbury select board chair Cynthia Mitchell said during the Wednesday, Sept. 21, select board meeting, “I think it’s a matter we need to turn our entire attention to pretty quickly” at the news about South Mountain Co.’s withdrawal from the project. The matter of 401 State Road was scheduled to be discussed during the select board meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 28.
Schubert encouraged his fellow members to attend this meeting during a West Tisbury affordable housing trust meeting on Tuesday evening. Mitchell, who is also the trust’s chair, suggested that those present read the letters sent to the town from South Mountain.