Amid conciliatory expressions and with the developer's representative waving a white hat in the air, the Martha's Vineyard Commission voted without dissent last night to approve a plan that is expected to close the final chapter in a bitter four-year battle over the development of the southern woodlands in Oak Bluffs.
"This has been a really trying time for the commission and for all those in the community that have been on both sides of the issue. I hope this is now time to put it behind us and heal the wounds," declared commission member Andrew Woodruff.
The commission voted 14-0 to approve a plan for 26 houses on 90 acres owned by Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith. Mr. Kupersmith has signed an agreement to sell the rest of his property - some 190 acres including the former Webb's Camping Area - to the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank for $18.6 million.
The agreement was announced by the land bank two weeks ago; MVC approval of the cluster subdivision plan was required for the deal to be complete.
"This property is an unbroken woodland, a significant large unbroken woodland. The land bank has always taken an interest in this property," said land bank executive director James Lengyel, who appeared at the meeting alongside Brian Lafferty, a housing developer who lives in Concord and has been the chief spokesman for Mr. Kupersmith.
"This is consistent with what the Martha's Vineyard Commission is asking for and it is consistent with what our opponents would like to see happen here. It's not consistent with what Corey Kupersmith's dream was and that was to build a golf course ... but this is a good alternative," Mr. Lafferty said.
Mr. Kupersmith has tried without success for the last four years to build a luxury golf course on the site.
The vote by the MVC came at 11:30 p.m. last night, after a speedy three and a half-hour review of the 26-lot housing project as a development of regional impact (DRI).
Just before the vote, the commission's Boston attorney announced that the developer has agreed to drop all lawsuits against the commission once all permits are approved for the development project. The subdivision still needs approval from the Oak Bluffs planning board.
Mr. Kupersmith has eight lawsuits pending against the commission.
The meeting last night was marked by a tone of quiet celebration, and at the outset Mr. Lafferty pulled out a white golf cap that he had told the commission about at a subcommittee meting on Monday afternoon. "As promised, I did bring the brand new white hat tonight; I'm not wearing it because I'm inside," he said.
Potential conflicts were kept carefully under wraps, including a sharply worded letter from the director of Island Elderly Housing that accused Mr. Kupersmith of reneging on his original land deal with IEH, a group that builds housing for low income elderly residents.
Down Island Golf Club, Mr. Kupersmith's group that wanted to build a golf course, had donated one acre of land to IEH last year along with a promise to install a denitrifying septic system. IEH plans to build 14 units of low income elderly housing on the land.
The one-acre land gift is cited as one component of the affordable housing contribution in the development plan approved last night.
But in the letter to the commission yesterday IEH director Carol Lashnits said Mr. Kupersmith had never fulfilled his promise to install the denitrifying septic system. Because the land lies in the watershed for the Lagoon Pond, without the special septic system the housing project cannot go forward.
Mrs. Lashnits said the only other alternative is for the land bank to allow the housing group to use 20 acres of the open space as "nitrogen credit" land. "I firmly believe that the MVC should insist that prior to any approval, Down Island be required to fulfill their obligations to IEH," Mrs. Lashnits wrote.
The letter was sent to the commission yesterday afternoon, but commission member Christina Brown, who chairs most DRI hearings, failed to include it when she read letters into the record of the meeting last night.
Commission member Jennie Greene raised the subject of the letter, but no one appeared able to meet the issue head on. Mr. Lafferty brushed it off, saying: "We donated the land to them . . . where Island Elderly Housing is going from here, I don't know."
Mr. Lengyel said the land bank may decide to allow the use of open space land for nitrogen credit, but he said could not commit to anything without a vote of the land bank commission.
In the end the problem was left dangling, and the commission voted to approve the subdivision plan with an array of other conditions, none controversial.
There was even a new euphemism for the portion of land that the developers had clear-cut in open retaliation against the commission late last year. The land bank will remove the stumps, and last night Mr. Lengyel called it "the Barnes Road field creation program, which was started by the previous owner."
The subdivision plan calls for clustering the 26 homes around a large area of open space with a manmade pond, a horse barn and a riding ring. Access to the subdivision will be off County Road.
There is also a planned land swap between a landlocked 24-acre piece owned by the town resident homesite committee in the middle of the woodlands, and an equivalent-sized piece owned by Mr. Kupersmith in the south-central portion of the property. Mr. Kupersmith plans to establish an affordable housing trust; money from the sale of each home will be deposited into the trust. At the outset Mr. Kupersmith will also contribute $50,000 to the town homesite committee. The money will be earmarked for a feasibility study on affordable housing for the town-owned land in the woodlands, Mr. Lafferty said.
Mr. Lengyel presented the commission with a preliminary management plan for the land bank portion of the property. The land bank will do a biological inventory, and it will explore the possibility of resurrecting the old camp ground, possibly through a lease arrangement with a camp ground entrepreneur, he said. Hunting will be allowed.
The property will be named the Southern Woodlands Reservation.
"We're very proud that the land bank has elected to do this. The board of selectmen has always been concerned about placing a huge piece of property into conservation," said Oak Bluffs selectman and board chairman Richard Combra.
"Life is full of compromises and this is a good compromise; this plan will preserve two thirds of the southern woodlands," said Oak Bluffs selectman Roger Wey.
"It's been a long haul and one of the things that is very gratifying to me to stand here and say tonight is you really did preserve the process and that is important to all of us who fought to save the Martha's Vineyard Commission," said Kerry Scott, an Oak Bluffs resident who led the fight to save the southern woodlands and is now running for selectman against incumbent Todd Rebello.
"The plan we have all seen tonight is 100 per cent positive. This town has water views everywhere, but the one thing we do not have in this town is a large piece of conserved land and this accomplishes that," said Robert Hammett, a member of the land bank town advisory board.
"This is going to ensure that Oak Bluffs will have its own rural character, its own open space and forest land. This is definitely a win for the town of Oak Bluffs," concluded commission member Richard Toole.