Housing Plan Hits Water Quality Snag


Septic discharge from the Bridge housing project could pose a problem for neighboring wells, the Martha's Vineyard Commission water quality planner said last week.

"The somewhat knotty issue concerns nitrogen loading with respect to abutting lots and their wells. . . . There is a risk associated with having a groundwater contamination like that crossing a property line," staff planner William Wilcox told the members of the MVC. Mr. Wilcox addressed the commission during a public hearing on the Bridge affordable housing project last Thursday night. The project is under review as a development of regional impact (DRI).

It was the second public hearing on the housing project planned for eight acres of land off State Road in Vineyard Haven. The Bridge group, a consortium of five Vineyard churches founded two years ago, hopes to buy 24 acres from the Norton family on State Road in Vineyard Haven. The plan calls for selling 16 of the 24 acres to the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank for $960,000 and using the remaining eight acres to build a cluster housing project under Chapter 40B. The group wants to build 32 units of housing with 64 bedrooms in 16 duplex-style buildings. All the houses in the project are planned as a range of affordable units for Island residents with low and moderate incomes. Home ownership is planned as a cooperative, and the project is named Bridge Commons.

Last week Mr. Wilcox told the commission that the well configuration for the housing project as it is now planned would not be allowed under state health rules. The six wells planned to serve 32 units of housing would be defined as a public water supply, and each well must have a special protective zone around it, Mr. Wilcox said. The problem with the wells was noted at the first public hearing by an engineer at Horsley and Witten who represents one of the abutters to the property.

Last week Mr. Wilcox confirmed the problem. "The initial placement of the wells is not workable," he said. He also said the problem with the wells could be solved by putting the wells on the land bank property.

The septic discharge problem is another possible sticking point, because the nitrogen discharge from the housing project is near the state health limit of 10 parts per million. Mr. Wilcox said he estimates that the nitrogen discharge from the housing project would be seven to nine parts per million - a number he called too high for comfort.

He also said the discharge could affect neighboring wells because of the direction of the groundwater flow in the area. Mr. Wilcox said the problem could be solved if the developers install high-technology nitrogen-removing septic systems, but he acknowledged that the systems are more expensive and that may pose a problem for the Bridge group, which is developing the project on a thin margin. The all-volunteer group plans to make no profit on the project.

At the first public hearing early this month, neighbors raised an array of concerns about the density of the project, and last week commission members reflected some of the same concern.

"I hear the concerns of the neighbors and I think density is something we really have to look at," said commission member Andrew Woodruff.

"It's pretty clear that the big issue is density," agreed commission member Linda Sibley, adding: "I was very struck by the neighbor who said you can't solve the affordable housing problem at the expense of particular neighborhoods. I understand that you say the density is needed, but that means separate neighborhoods are asked to bear the burden of solving the problem that belongs to the whole Island."

She continued: "And it's obvious that the biggest detriment to lowering density is lowering the number of affordable units. How did you arrive at this as the best density?"

Brad Austin, a partner in the Bridge group, reminded the commission that the group had made a conscious decision not to build market-priced housing, and he also reminded the group that the project includes a large chunk of conservation land.

"This is a cluster subdivision and I think the neighbors have lost sight of that. If we had known we were going to go before the Martha's Vineyard Commission, we would have puffed up the numbers - even at 32 we have a shortfall. This project is squeezed," Mr. Austin said.

But Mrs. Sibley quizzed Mr. Austin about whether the land bank portion of the project can properly be held up as an offset to the dense housing project. "The conservation land is being purchased with public money, and I fail to understand why Bridge continues to point to the conservation land when we talk about density, because that land is being bought by the public. It's spurious to argue that your density is being offset by the land bank because that property isn't being gifted in any way," she said.

Commission chairman James Athearn praised the work of the Bridge group. "I don't think I have seen a more thorough presentation in the two years I have been on the commission. It's an impressive preparation job,' he said.

Mr. Athearn asked Mr. Austin to sketch the business deal in numbers, and Mr. Austin replied that the project costs are estimated at about $6.5 million while the project is expected to generate about $5.9 million. "There will be a small shortfall, although it will almost pay for itself," he said. Mr. Austin said any change in density will mean a change in the affordable "mix" of the homes, with more homes on the moderate end and fewer on the low end of the income scale.

In a brief traffic report, commission staff planner David Wessling said the traffic impacts from the project will be negligible. Commission member Linda DeWitt later questioned the conclusions on traffic impacts, given the numbers: The project is expected to generate some 600 extra trips a day in and out of State Road, and the developers have estimated one and a half cars for each of the 32 units.

"I just don't see how you can say it's not going to have an impact," Ms. DeWitt said.

"It is going to have an impact, but the deluge will be acceptable," Mr. Wessling replied.

The traffic report prompted a wry observation from Mr. Athearn. "We have had a number of projects in the last several months from the Wintertide to the Mansion House to Cronig's and beyond - and each one we have heard will have a negligible impact on traffic. When do we add them all up?" he said.

In the end, commission executive director Mark London pointed to an upcoming land use planning subcommittee (LUPC) meeting on March 3 and reiterated the central theme of the public hearings to date.

"You've heard the concerns of the neighbors, and now it would be useful if you could come to the LUPC meeting prepared to go through the list, item by item, impact by impact," Mr. London said.

The public hearing on the Bridge housing project will continue on March 13.