Claiming a mandate from town voters that supports turning the southern woodlands into a private luxury golf course, Oak Bluffs selectmen this week officially joined forces with Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith in a plan aimed at making the golf club a reality - even if it means leaving the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
In a special meeting held at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, selectmen voted 4-0 with one abstention to sign onto a deal with Mr. Kupersmith, backing a mixed-use proposal for the 273 acres owned by the developer. Selectman Roger Wey, an opponent of the golf proposal, abstained.
Like the old plan, the new one still calls for an 18-hole luxury golf course, but this one would be shifted farther away from Lagoon Pond and would include 14 luxury homes, 16 affordable housing units and a state-owned, 12-acre camp ground. Just over 32 acres would be set aside as public conservation land. In the previous plan, the developer offered to set aside 76 acres as open, wooded land.
In this new proposal embraced by selectmen, the developer has also promised to buy the controversial Windfarm Golf driving range and then sell it to the town and the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank for use as open space.
"The people of Oak Bluffs have made it very clear how they feel about this issue," said selectman Richard Combra.
"This plan needs to find itself an approval," Mr. Combra added.
In fact, selectmen have no say on whether the golf course plan wins approval. That power still rests with the Martha's Vineyard Commission, which to date has rejected two previous golf course proposals submitted by Mr. Kupersmith.
But the four selectmen, who want a victory in the next round of golf, are putting all their hopes on the deal signed Tuesday by board chairman Todd Rebello.
The terms of the proposal were hashed out entirely behind closed doors in meetings among selectmen and in one May session in Boston at which developers sat down with one selectman, the executive director of the land bank and state environmental officials.
Selectmen Tuesday rejected requests to subject the plan to a town-wide referendum. Both Mr. Wey and some members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission have asked for a ballot question that would give them a sense of how voters view the plan for a golf course in the woodlands.
So far, the only people to have signed the proposal are Mr. Rebello and the real estate developer. Neither the state nor the land bank has made any official commitment to the plan, even though pieces of the plan hinge on substantial financial contributions from both.
On Tuesday, Mr. Wey pointed out that Mr. Kupersmith paid the tab for lawyers used by the town to draft the document. Other selectmen said it's a common practice when towns deal with developers on certain kinds of projects.
While selectmen also took pains to refer to the 24-page document as a legal agreement between the town and the developer, it is really more than that. It spells out the political strategy of selectmen whose goal is to convince members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission that their plan has the backing of the town.
Failing commission approval, Mr. Combra said, he was "more than willing" to push for the town's withdrawal from the commission. In one clause, the document specifically calls for the "removal of the MVC impediment" to the golf club.
Over the next week, Mr. Rebello said he intends to take the plan to the building inspector, the zoning board, planning board, resident homesite committee and board of health and ask them to endorse the plan with their signatures. The conservation commission will not be asked for a signature, according to the document.
"With the settlement signed by town boards - most of them elected officials - it will represent the sentiment of the town," said Mr. Rebello.
Actually, voters were split down the middle, at a special town meeting held in March, over a proposal to take the woodlands by eminent domain. The vote was 427 in favor of a public land-taking for conservation and 433 against. That article needed a two-thirds majority to win approval.
At the same meeting, voters resoundingly supported taking a first step to leave the commission. Selectmen this week focused on that vote when they said repeatedly, "The people have spoken."
But back in March, the political landscape was far different. The town of Oak Bluffs faced the threat of a massive housing development in the woodlands. Mr. Kupersmith had filed plans to build 366 units in the woodlands under the state law called Chapter 40B.
Town leaders warned that such a development would spell ruin for the town, overwhelming town services such as the school system. Many viewed Mr. Kupersmith's housing application as a threat meant to intimidate the commission and win support for a golf course as the lesser of two evils.
In late March, when the Oak Bluffs town meeting convened, many voters were angry, convinced that the commission's second rejection of a golf course had left their town vulnerable to a plan for hundreds of houses. Chapter 40B allows developers to avoid local zoning restrictions if less than 10 per cent of a town's total housing stock is not considered affordable.
But just over a month later, the Martha's Vineyard Commission won a major victory when the chief justice of the state land court ruled that the commission's authority supersedes Chapter 40B. The commission would have full review of such housing plans, and has, in fact, started to review Mr. Kupersmith's plan for a 320-unit housing project in the woodlands.
That ruling essentially resolved the core questions of two lawsuits that the town and the developer filed against one another last year - the lawsuits that the selectmen's agreement with Mr. Kupersmith proposes to settle.
"It has done that," acknowledged Mr. Rebello, "except with any litigation, there are grounds for appeal. This could very well be dragged out at a great cost to the town of Oak Bluffs. We don't want to go that route."
On the legal side, therefore, selectmen are describing the document as a "settlement agreement" with Mr. Kupersmith.
Specific terms of the agreement signed this week call for the state Department of Environmental Management to purchase 12.5 acres of Mr. Kupersmith's land for $2 million, or $160,000 an acre, and use it to operate a camp ground.
Mr. Kupersmith paid about $6.4 million for his land holdings in the woodlands, or about $23,400 an acre. His property is now assessed at about $11 million.
The plan also specifies that the land bank would commit $1.76 million toward buying 32.5 acres next to Featherstone Center for the Arts, or about $54,000 an acre.
And while the property is not part of the woodlands, the Windfarm driving range would also be purchased as part of the deal at a price not to exceed $1.1 million. Of that price, $600,000 would come from the land bank, $250,000 from a state grant and the remainder from Mr. Kupersmith. Mr. Rebello said that Windfarm owner Tim Creato might not accept less than $2.2 million for the property. Mr. Creato and his partner paid $300,000 for the 10 acres seven years ago.
According to the agreement, if either the land bank or the state cannot commit funding, then Mr. Kupersmith would honor the agreements to set aside the land in exchange for permission to build more houses in the woodlands.
It would be up to selectmen and the developer to determine the number of additional houses. The plan also calls for tree-cutting in the woodlands to allow for views of the Lagoon from house sites and the golf course.
Selectmen this week said this plan represents the best use of the woodlands that the town can expect. Selectman Michael Dutton pointed out that the affordable housing component would satisfy the 10 per cent minimum needed to avoid future Chapter 40B projects in town.
But Mr. Wey this week called for more public input on the plan. "This should go to a ballot vote," he told fellow board members.
But the rest of the board reacted forcefully to that request, arguing that the vote in March gave them a clear reading of what voters wanted. Selectmen said the results of such a ballot could then be subject to interpretation.
"If it's a vote that isn't clearly decisive, even though the town voted for it, people will say they didn't vote for it overwhelmingly," said Mr. Combra.
"We can't have people grabbing a spin on this," Mr. Rebello said, adding that Oak Bluffs shouldn't be treated any differently from other towns where the commission is reviewing a development of regional impact (DRI).
This week, commission chairman James Vercruysse said, "We would really like to have a referendum in the town so we have a voice from the town other than just the five selectmen."
The March vote, he said, was "under the fear of the 40B application being able to be pushed through without the commission saying anything."
Mr. Wey told the Gazette this week that the discussion of the woodlands in the aftermath of the March special town meeting was supposed to be a public process.
"But it's been just the majority of selectmen," he said. "The voters? They've put blinders on them."
To Renee Balter, who attends nearly every selectmen's meeting but couldn't make Tuesday's early morning meeting, the latest move by selectmen is discouraging.
"The process should have been much more public and much more inclusive," she said. "I feel as though selectmen are relying strictly on the town meeting, which basically said half want golf and half didn't. I don't think there's overwhelming support one way or another. I'm very disappointed there wasn't more effort made at better understanding the community, at going to the polls to get everybody's opinion."