Threat of Housing Plan Overshadows Hearing on Oak Bluffs Golf Course

Gazette Senior Writer

Reports on wildlife habitat, turf management and fiscal impact were the scheduled fare at a public hearing last night on a proposal to build a luxury golf club in the southern woodlands section of Oak Bluffs - but in the end, discussion about the golf course plan was overshadowed by a discussion about housing.

A respected Massachusetts planner who works for developer Corey Kupersmith compared the fiscal impacts of the golf course with the impacts of a housing development, amid repeated statements about using information that will "stand up in court."

A commission staff planner compared the nitrogen impacts from the golf course with the impacts from a housing development.

In fact, Mr. Kupersmith has no housing plan in front of the commission for review, and later in the evening one Oak Bluffs resident remarked on the irony.

"Should this be about housing? It's about whether a golf course is the right thing to do. How can Corey Kupersmith threaten us with that? If he really cared about the Vineyard, he wouldn't be saying these things," declared Gretchen Maher.

The public hearing on the Down Island Golf Club plan was held in the cafeteria of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. About 50 people attended. The plan is under review by the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI).

Mr. Kupersmith wants to build an upscale 18-hole Rees Jones-designed golf club on some 273 acres he owns in the southern woodlands. This is the second golf club plan for the same site; the first plan was rejected by the commission a year and a half ago and is the subject of an appeal in superior court.

The first public testimony on the plan was heard two weeks ago; a second session opened last night. A third session is set for Nov. 15; at the conclusion of the meeting last night, commission members were still undecided about whether to schedule a fourth hearing.

Mr. Kupersmith also filed an application with the town of Oak Bluffs for a massive affordable housing complex on the same property months ago, but the project was never properly referred to the commission by the town for review. Mr. Kupersmith has since filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts land court challenging the commission's right to review the housing project.

Meanwhile, review of the golf course development project is now in full swing. The session began with testimony from experts for the developer. Charlie Passios described the organic turf management plan. Ron Abrams, an ecologist for the developer, talked about the wildlife habitat on the property, describing a plan to create wildlife corridors that include the concept of what he called a "habitat hop" through the middle of the property.

The developers are offering to donate large sums of money to a variety of Island causes, including Island Elderly Housing, the Oak Bluffs library and the Martha's Vineyard Arena. A plan to create a town betterment fund has been replaced with a plan to host four golf tournaments during the summer. The tournaments will be designated as fundraisers for affordable housing, conservation, education and medical needs.

The threat of housing on the land was a theme that resonated throughout the night.

John Mullin, a well-known planner who has done much work on the Vineyard over the years, played an unusual role last night as an expert for Mr. Kupersmith. Using charts and numbers, Mr. Mullin compared the fiscal impacts from a fictional 91-home development with the impacts from the golf club. The most dramatic numbers were reflected in town expenses associated with school children.

Mr. Mullin admitted that his work was an academic exercise based on a New England planning formula that does not necessarily apply to a seasonal community. He also made repeated statements about the strength of his work in court. "Everybody can come out with a different set of numbers, but at the end of the day if we have to stand up in court, this is the figure we use," Mr. Mullin said.

The statements had their intended effect.

"Those figures are really scary," said Tim Dobel, an Oak Bluffs resident and business owner who favors the golf club. Mr. Dobel, who is also a former school committee member, spoke at length about the negative impacts on local schools from housing development.

Mr. Dobel also broached the third alternative which has been the silent subject: the alternative of putting the land into conservation. "If it's going to end up conservation land, then by God let's pull the trigger and make it happen now. We are playing Russian roulette," he said.

Most of the public testimony was against the project.

"You're headed in a direction and you're going to become a different community," warned Craig Whittaker, a New York city architect and Tisbury resident. Mr. Whittaker said the Vineyard is taking steps toward becoming like Hilton Head, an island in South Carolina that is known exclusively as a golf destination and has lost most of its indigenous character. "I can't argue that this is going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. But I am telling you that you are heading with increasing speed toward the Hilton Head mode," Mr. Whittaker said.

Ms. Maher said the property should be set aside as conservation land. "Conservation is a viable option and that is the way we need to go," she said.

Oak Bluffs resident Cheryl Sashin disagreed.

"I cannot stand to listen to people say that we have choices. This land is privately owned, and this golf course is conservation. We don't have a choice to keep this land as it is," she said.