Building Plan Comes to MVC
Commission Pledges to Expedite Hearing on Kennebec Proposal; Developer Requests Leniency on Project Restrictions
By IAN FEIN
An Oak Bluffs building owner made his case to the Martha's Vineyard Commission last week that the regional planning agency should not impose any restrictions on the three-story structure that is nearing completion on Kennebec avenue.
Project developer Alan Schweikert told commission members on Thursday that the 5,600-square-foot, mixed-use building was commensurate with a number of town goals. He also noted that the project underwent almost two years of public scrutiny on the town level before anyone realized that it must be sent to the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI).
"At no time was there ever an interest on our part to circumvent any regulatory permit," said Mr. Schweikert, a former commission member and Oak Bluffs selectman.
Formal plans for the project were first filed in the spring of 2005, during a period of transition in the Oak Bluffs building department, and in the months before and after that went before the town planning board, wastewater commission, board of selectmen, historical commission and zoning board of appeals.
But the six-unit building was not referred to the commission until this June, after construction was already well under way. The commission is now reviewing the project as a DRI.
Commission member Christina Brown of Edgartown, who presides over the public hearings, blamed the untimely referral on "a variety of misunderstandings," and did not allow discussion about it.
"Our apologies on our side," Ms. Brown said. "I know everyone feels it's too bad it didn't get here sooner, but it's here."
As a courtesy to Mr. Schweikert, commission members pledged to expedite the permitting process as much as possible. They considered voting on the project on Thursday, but instead closed the public hearing and will deliberate on the project's merits sometime next month. With permission from the commission, Mr. Schweikert will continue construction work on the building during the DRI review.
The building is owned by Mr. Schweikert together with business partners Raymond Bilodeau and Eugene Erez. Mr. Erez attracted attention last spring for illegally demolishing the historic Army Barracks building on Circuit avenue without obtaining town permits or undergoing a required commission review.
The three partners in November 2005 purchased the then-undeveloped Kennebec property, which is one-tenth of an acre, for $330,000. The property was previously used for private parking.
The new building has a total of six units; two units of retail space on the ground floor, a pair of two-bedroom condominiums on the second floor and a pair of one-bedroom condominiums on the third floor. Mr. Schweikert said he and his partners plan to sell all six units, and will price the residential condominiums in the mid-to-high-$300,000 range.
Historical commission chairman Renee Balter and member Priscilla Sylvia both spoke in favor of the project at the public hearing last week. Mr. Schweikert and his partners brought their building to the Oak Bluffs historical commission, even though it is not located in the town historic district, and two mansard turrets on either end of the building were added to the design at the request of the historical commission, which wanted the project to look as Victorian as possible. Oak Bluffs voters at their annual town meeting this spring adopted a zoning bylaw, authored by the historical commission with the Kennebec building in mind, which allowed the zoning board to grant height waivers outside the town historic district.
At its tallest, the building now stands 38 feet high. Mr. Schweikert said that downtown Oak Bluffs at the turn of the 20th century had a number of four- and five-story buildings. He added that he knows of other developers in town who would like to rebuild some of the tall commercial structures, "but they're all definitely afraid of going to the Martha's Vineyard Commission."
In response to a question from commission member John Best of Tisbury, Mr. Schweikert said that he had not discussed energy-efficient design techniques with his architect. Mr. Best recommended that he explore such possibilities before he gets much further with construction.
Parking issues dominated much of the discussion at the public hearing. The Kennebec property is bordered by two town parking lots on either side, and the owners have negotiated a mutual easement with town selectmen to allow for a curved drive-through connecting the three lots. The building lot will have only three parking spaces - ten less than the number that the planning board typically would have required.
Planning board chairman John C. Bradford told commission members that the board granted relief for the small number of spaces because the mutual easement layout will improve parking in the area, and the building owners will pay roughly $900 per year into the town parking mitigation fund. The fund will go toward future town-sponsored parking solutions - such as a satellite park-and-ride.
Commission member Christopher Murphy of Chilmark seemed skeptical of the mitigation fund, and also criticized the parking arrangement for the new building. He said it was unfair that building occupants would likely use public parking, while the three spaces on the building lot would be reserved for private use.
"It seems like you're making things worse before making them better," he said of the town fund. "And I see this as double dipping - the owner gets to have his private parking, while taking up parking elsewhere. At the least, the building spaces should be open to the public."
Commission member Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs listed some of the smart growth aspects of the project but questioned whether the parking-starved town should be encouraging a longtime parking lot to be turned into a mixed-use building. Kennebec avenue primarily used to be a service street running parallel to the busier Circuit avenue, but in recent years has seen its own business activities increase.
Familiar with many of the commission talking points, Mr. Schweikert in his presentation on Thursday tried to convince sitting members that many of their typical conditions were not needed for his project. He argued that the retail units by design and location will not generate much vehicular traffic, and that the moderately priced residential units will have an overall positive effect on the affordable housing situation on the Vineyard.
He requested that the commission refrain from burdening any of the retail or residential units with additional restrictions. But commission member Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark noted that the commission frequently imposes conditions on such units to prohibit high-traffic generating businesses and short-term rentals.
"I'm not sure if the project came in at the beginning, rather than a fait accompli, whether we would have looked at that a lot differently," Mr. Sederholm said.
Mr. Schweikert responded by raising his voice and asking that the commission continue its public hearing so he could bring in statistical market data about the availability of long-term rentals. Mr. Sederholm suggested that Mr. Schweikert had overreacted, to which the former selectman and commission member replied:
"I think it's an overreaction to put a restriction on six residential bedrooms, when there are McMansions going up that no one seems concerned about," Mr. Schweikert said. "This is a small project."