Commission needs consistency


To the Editor:

Thomas Bena’s Stillpoint project has been on my mind a lot. Thomas is a friend of mine; what happens to him is important to me. Several years ago he came to me to talk about a project he had in mind. His friend Claudia Miller had a large piece of land right on Mill Brook in West Tisbury that had already been approved by West Tisbury and the MVC as a subdivision with 12 house lots, including two that already had houses, and 10 approved and ready-to-build lots. The property was up for sale, 52 acres with beautiful, unspoiled land bordered by both Crocker Pond and Priester’s Pond and the brook connecting them. We walked it and we talked about it, and he explained that while Claudia Miller had rebuffed other attempts to buy or protect parts of the property, she would give Thomas a one-year window to put together a plan so that he could have the lovely existing barn for the nonprofit educational center he envisioned and protect the fragile area around the ponds and brook. Truly an amazing opportunity.

What he eventually worked out was a plan to sell the two houses, put the six lots along the ponds and brook into conservation, and have Stillpoint (now a nonprofit entity) take on a mortgage to buy the remaining four lots. One of those lots contains the lovely barn that inspired Thomas to begin Stillpoint. Exactly what would happen to the other three lots was left to be decided by Stillpoint at a later date. Thomas asked me what I thought.

The one-year clock was already running, and I tried to explain that while this seemed like a truly wonderful project, a gift to the whole Island, there was no way he was going to get through the Town review and the MVC review in less than a year. Rather than try to keep all the balls in the air and risk losing everything to a developer who would put a seasonal home and all its accessory structures on every lot, he should convince his board of directors to move forward ASAP and lock up the deal.

Stillpoint did move forward, great buyers were found for the two existing house lots, and Thomas worked with The Land Bank and numerous donors to forever protect the six lots along the water. All of the deals closed at the same time, and they made the deadline. Quite an accomplishment, from 14 possible houses down to two and a barn containing an educational nonprofit, and three still unbuilt but possibly buildable lots.

And then began the long dance. Stillpoint applied to the town for a change-of-use permit and was promptly referred to the MVC because of an arcane MVC rule that any property that is ever reviewed as a development of regional impact must always come back to the MVC for any change. The original referral was for a land subdivision, and this was for a change of use for an existing barn, but no matter, back to the MVC. 

After many years of serving on the commission, I was sure Stillpoint would be greeted with open arms and gratitude for the wonderful job of cleaning up a sad mess the MVC had helped create. The only attempt at reining in the original subdivision was for the MVC to extract an affordable housing lot to balance the impact of a dozen large houses. The affordable lot was given in good faith, but the development was never built out (thank you, Stillpoint), and now the current commissioners want to extract more affordable housing concessions. In 2023 dollars, that lot would certainly be worth a million dollars. 

I have listened to every public hearing and Land Use Planning Committee meeting the MVC has held about Stillpoint, and I am glad I have. The process has opened my eyes. My unquestioning support of the MVC as a force for good has turned into disbelief at the cavalier way Doug Sederholm and Joan Malkin have run roughshod over the applicant’s attempt to do something that will be good for M.V. and the people who live here. Instead of looking at the big picture and congratulating Stillpoint for the good they are doing, Doug and Joan, especially Joan, have gotten lost in the minutiae. Questioning every detail, questioning things that cannot possibly be said to have Island-wide impact, and seemingly searching for ways to derail this wonderful project. We all worry about traffic and parking, but Joan is the first to worry that an applicant has too much parking. Stillpoint is proposing parking in existing clear spaces, similar to Polly Hill right next door.

Using the term “throughput,” another Joan Malkin first, she had staff take the worst-case scenarios the MVC had asked Stillpoint to develop for the traffic study, add them all together, and multiply by 365 days a year to determine how many possible people might pass through. Wow, surprise, what a big number. If the MVC applied the same distorted logic to the the recently approved taqueria in the mixed-use development next to the SSA in Vineyard Haven, the 75 seats turning over twice an hour, 10 hours a day, 365 days a year would drop 547,000 people on Main Street, and that doesn’t count the takeout customers who don’t sit. Of course it is a silly number, of course it would be silly to ask for such a number. While we are sitting at the taqueria, let’s ask what they were asked to contribute to workforce housing. Like Stillpoint, they said they would be employing people who already live here, so no impact on housing, but they did not already give a lot suitable for two affordable housing units. 

One of the problems with the MVC and its LUPC is the total lack of consistency. In the interest of protecting Polly Hill Arboretum, Joan Malkin has continuously grilled Stillpoint about noise (a subject she claims to know nothing about). Polly Hill Arboretum is one of Stillpoint’s nearest neighbors, and they are in the process of building three houses as close as they can legally get to the Stillpoint barn. I get it, noise is disruptive, but West Tisbury has a noise bylaw, and it applies to everyone, including Stillpoint. 

When compared with other DRI applicants, Stillpoint certainly is getting special treatment, but not in the way you might think. 

Where is the consistency at the MVC when they easily and without question approve the considerable expansion at the Outermost Inn without questioning the effect of noise generated at the inn on the federally protected tribal lands next door? Where is the consistency in torturing Stillpoint endlessly over staff housing while allowing the Vineyard Wind project to slide through with 40 or 50 or more full-time employees and no staff housing?

It can’t be repeated often enough that Stillpoint is a nonprofit, educational organization that is subject to all the same rules as any other nonprofit. Town rules, IRS rules, state rules. Doug Sederholm seems endlessly worried that because of the Dover Amendment, the town can’t regulate Stillpoint, and that is simply not true. The Outermost Inn and the taqueria are for-profit, and there is a big difference; they are there to make money, and the nonprofits are here to benefit us all.

When the MVC proposed “big house” conditions be added to the LUPC review, the construction industry on M.V. turned out in force at a commission meeting. They came not because they were afraid of limits to the size of houses, but because they were afraid of the ambiguity in the way the conditions were written, and the capricious way the LUPC conducted its reviews. The commission was smart enough to listen then. 

Like anyone who loves the Island and cares that we retain some sense of what makes this place special, I remain grateful for the MVC. However, Joan and Doug’s recent behavior and wildly inconsistent treatment of Stillpoint, when compared with other DRI applicants, makes me wonder if we are seeing the end of the MVC. Or, could this be a moment for the MVC to move toward a more clear, consistent, and objective approach?


Chris Murphy