When the Oak Bluffs resident home site committee was established by a nearly unanimous vote at a special town meeting in September of 1987, it was widely heralded as an innovative and proactive measure to combat the dearth of affordable housing on the Island by creating low-cost lots for qualified, year-round town residents.
Since that time, the committee has seen its share of highs and lows.
While providing dozens of affordable lots to town residents who otherwise might not be to afford them, it has also served as a political battleground on numerous occasions. In the winter of 1990, one of the selectman accused the chairman of the committee of withholding public records, which led to a decision from the state supervisor of public records that all records of committee meetings be open to the public.
During the prolonged battle over the proposed Down Island Golf Course in the Southern Woodlands, selectmen opted not to reappoint the resident homesite members so they wouldn’t be able to take a position against the golf course. The homesite committee at the time held title to 25 acres in the middle of the proposed golf course site.
Although the committee was highly active in the early 1990s, there have been long stretches since when the panel has not awarded affordable lots. The last time the committee awarded lots was in June of 2006, when a total of six affordable lots were awarded through a lottery system.
Since that time, chairman James Rankin has left the Island and moved to Florida and another member, Harvey Beth, has resigned to become the treasurer of the Island Housing Trust. The appointment of the three remaining members have been allowed to lapse by selectmen.
These three remaining members — Jesse B. (Jack) Law 3rd, Brian Hughes and Tony Ferreira — appeared before selectmen on Tuesday to ask the pressing question if their committee still exists.
“Do we, [as a committee] even exist? In other words, do you guys believe we exist? And just as importantly, should we exist?” Mr. Ferreira asked.
The three homesite committee members said they were initially unaware that their chairman, Mr. Rankin, had left the Island last year or had been planning to leave. They also said that since Mr. Rankin left, questions have surfaced as to the location of many resident homesite documents, including minutes of meetings.
Selectman on Tuesday also revealed they recently appointed themselves resident homesite members in order to transfer the title of a homesite lot awarded through the lottery two years ago. The lot in question was held up due to lingering legal questions surrounding the title.
Following the meeting, town administrator Michael Dutton said there has been little communication between the resident homesite committee and selectmen over the past two years. Historically, the committee has largely functioned independently from the rest of the town, and many of its records — including minutes of meetings — have not been kept with either the town clerk or selectmen.
Mr. Dutton said Mr. Rankin did a good job as chairman, but also confirmed there has been confusion surrounding the committee since his departure.
“I don’t think the homesite committee is to blame for anything, and that includes [Mr. Rankin]. I just think there is a lot of confusion about the future of the committee right now,” Mr. Dutton said.
Mr. Dutton said selectmen have also been careful about reappointing certain members of the homesite committee because of potential conflicts of interest with certain members. Mr. Law is a former recipient of a town youth lot while Mr. Ferreira is a former recipient of a resident homesite lot.
Both received their affordable lots before being appointed to the resident homesite committee.
Mr. Dutton said some town officials in recent months have posed the question as to whether the town still needs both a resident homesite committee and an affordable housing committee.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the three remaining homesite committee members said they felt there was a continued need for the homesite program. “I believe there will always be room this program in town,” Mr. Law said. “People will need chances to own their land and build their own homes.”
Several selectmen agreed.
“I think there is room for both [a resident homesite committee and an affordable housing committee]; but I’ll go beyond that and say there is a need for this,” selectman Duncan Ross said.
“The resident home site committee was created to provide homes for our sons and daughters,” agreed selectman Kerry Scott. “I think there is more than enough room for two committees to address the issue of affordable housing.”
Peter Palches, a member of the town finance advisory committee, agreed there was a need for the homesite committee, but pressed selectmen to take better control in the future.
“The fact that the chairman of the [homesite] committee could move off the Island and records would disappear is confounding to me,” Mr. Palches said. “Somebody has to get control of the reins here.”
Selectmen did not vote to reappoint the homesite members or appoint new members. They instead asked Mr. Law and Mr. Ferreira to contact the state ethics commission and make sure they would not be in conflict if they were reappointed.
Following the meeting, Mr. Hughes said he agreed there was a continued need for the resident homesite committee, but also conceded the town may want to consider restructuring the committee.
He acknowledged there is a potential for conflict between the homesite committee and the affordable housing committee because both seek to accomplish the same goals in markedly different ways.
The affordable housing committee seeks to create housing units that remain affordable in perpetuity, while the resident homesite committee seeks to identify new lots that are sold to town residents lots at a reduced rate; if residents build a home and live on that lot for a certain period of time, they take ownership and can then sell the property for market value, if they choose to do so.
In essence, Mr. Hughes said, the homesite committee seeks to designate new lots for affordable housing while the affordable housing committee seeks to take more of “recycling approach” of existing buildings.
“I think there is a tension there, and a legitimate tension. The two are addressing the same need but doing so in a different ways,” he said.
“That being said, I do feel there is room for both . . . perhaps the committee can continue in some limited fashion.”
Ron DiOrio, newly elected chairman of the board and also chairman of the town affordable housing committee, said the town may wish to consider changes to the homesite committee.
“As for abolishing the committee, that is a decision that needs to be made by the voters of this town, not the selectmen,” Mr. DiOrio said.