Chilmark Growth Points to Housing Problems


Driving along South Road in Chilmark, classic New England homes dot the main up-Island thoroughfare, remnants of a rural modesty common to the historic fishing and farming community of 850 year-round residents. But clusters of mailboxes along the roadway indicate a housing density tucked just behind the wooded roadway facade.

"We do a good job of protecting views along the road, but if you stand on South Beach and look back, it looks like the suburbs," planning board member Edward (Tip) Kenyon said.

In the last 10 years, Chilmark increased its housing stock by 50 per cent, adding 456 homes to the already existing 953 houses. One hundred ninety-three additional year-round residents - one-third of the total population increase - filled those new homes and doubled the school-age enrollment from 53 to 120.

And the development pressures of the last 10 years - a surge that brought 1,967 folks to construct part-time homes in Chilmark - could continue with as much intensity. As many as 1,341 more homes could push at the edges of the town's 12,304 acres in the coming years.

According to the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, those additional 1,341 houses bring nearly 3,000 more residents to Chilmark's remaining 4,794 acres of undeveloped land.

"It's not a sleepy little village anymore," Mr. Kenyon said, noting that in his earliest Vineyard summers, Chilmarkers who lived beyond Meeting House Road had no electricity.

But Chilmark is not likely to experience again the rapid pace of development seen during the 1990's boom, according to those who know the town well.

Developers devoured unspoiled tracks of Chilmark land in the late 1980s and the crush of subdivision development extended into the early 1990s.

"The Vineyard was discovered, and land became very desirable - land that no one would have looked at before. Backlands with no ocean view became developed," Mr. Kenyon said.

Only districts of critical planning concern covering Chilmark roads and shoreline attempt to keep houses in appropriate proportion to the rural Vineyard landscape.

Of the 18 definitive subdivisions approved by the town in the last decade, all but one occurred in the first five years of the 1990s. Another 60 requests to divide land along existing, adequate roadways (form A subdivisions) trickled into the planning board in the last decade.

Subdivisions Chilmark-style do not carry the density other Island towns know well. Most of the recent subdivisions provide sprawling properties for each owner - tracks well beyond the town's minimum three-acre zoning. Some of the new lots are so large that they would be further subdivided in many other Island towns. A definitive subdivision, approved in 1995 for 32 homes on 388 acres of land near Squibnocket, carved out 12-acre parcels.

"We've seen it go from subdivisions to country estates - a person keeping an entire 15 acres instead of turning it into four or five lots," board of health member Matthew Poole said.

While the 78 developments approved since 1990 signal rapid growth, the actual construction of homes on newly subdivided properties moved more slowly, largely due to building rate limits. In Chilmark, conditions to build on only 10 per cent of the lots per year accompanied many of those approvals. Only 29 of the possible units have been built on the 18 new definitive subdivisions - leaving 82 more potential units to be constructed in the coming years.

All is fairly quiet on the development front in Chilmark these days.

Scattered requests for small subdivisions along existing roads arrive at the planning board office. Tracks larger than 20 acres have all but disappeared from Chilmark's map. The board of health reviews requests to install septic systems and private wells on marginal lots.

"We see properties in the deep woods, swamps with poor drainage. The likelihood of getting a good perk is slim to none," Mr. Poole explained. He said the land is the limiting factor for building on these substandard lots.

A cap of 18 building permits per year, adopted in January of 2000, will also smooth any unforeseen spikes in the coming years. At this pace, the town has 79 years before it reaches the state's projected maximum capacity.

But many Chilmark residents put their money on the market rather than the building cap to curb any spikes in development.

Skyrocketing real estate values earn Chilmark the status of the most expensive Island town in which to buy a home. Median home prices soar well beyond a million dollars. Chilmark comes close to the top of the state's high real estate value charts. Homes below the million-dollar mark have all but disappeared from real estate listings. Those that remain move slowly.

Those prices will climb as more land is conserved. Currently, over 190 properties have conservation restrictions, accounting for some 2,000 acres of land.

High real estate prices will only turn away the young and year-round families in Chilmark where eight-figure transactions are not all that uncommon.

"People with money are willing to spend any amount. And it just means bigger houses," Chilmark conservation leader Pam Goff notes.

Chilmark residents have watched many of the old-style camps be replaced by eight-bedroom homes.

"Certainly the character of development in Chilmark has changed. Existing modest homes have been renovated into substantially sized homes. But Chilmark is not unique in that," Mr. Kenyon said.

Chilmark's young families have been priced out of the town at rates that leave political leaders thinking the state's estimate that a third of Chilmark's future 3,000 residents will be raising children is too high.

"With the rising cost of land and construction, I don't see how young families can afford to buy and build in town. I see more year-round residents living here that are past the child-raising state of life," planning board chairman Bill Meegan said, noting the state projection that the school may experience as many as 126 more school-age children in Chilmark.

Balancing the need for affordable housing with a soaring real estate market and conservation initiatives has been a struggle in Chilmark. While residents appear to be in agreement that not nearly enough affordable housing opportunities exist for Chilmark children and the town work force, solutions to the rising problem of how to provide more housing opportunities are not quite as clear.

"I don't sense the need for affordable housing will be controversial, but the solution probably will be," Chilmark affordable housing activist Zee Gamson said.

In the 1970s, Chilmark stepped to the front of affordable housing activity on the Vineyard when the town created a youth lot program. But until the year 2000, Chilmark fell behind and offered no housing deemed affordable by the state. With the adoption of the resident homesite committee two years ago, Chilmark voters will see a proposal as early as the fall that enables landowners to carve out land for affordable lots to be permanently designated affordable under deed restrictions. Other proposals include offering mortgage assistance to homeowners willing to place an affordable deed restriction on the house. Officials also want to commission a feasibility study for a cluster of affordable homes on town property, possible through revenues generated by the adoption of the Community Preservation Act in 2001.

"New things are often hard to accept. When you say affordable housing, people have an instant image of a high rise. People should see this as just another house, something they would see next door," said Molly Flender, chairwoman of the Chilmark housing committee.

"The work force of Chilmark has had to live elsewhere for so long; it's time we take care of our own," she added.

But as town planners look at large pieces of land and observe aging families, they know current development levels may fade to occasional spurts of growth in the coming years.

"It may look like there are large holdings of land, but in a generation or two, they may be forced to sell or subdivide," Mr. Meegan said, referring to heirs unable to find a way to divide assets other than by developing inherited land.

But development, at whatever rate, is unavoidable for the rolling 12,000 acres of this western Island town.

"We haven't stopped building, and we can't. People have a right to use their land," Mr. Kenyon said.

But state buildout projections help town planning that will determine use of the town's remaining 4,794 acres of undeveloped land.

"This buildout information is a useful planning tool, though one has to sift through the notes and projections and consider them realistically," Mr. Meegan said. "We can zero in on a proposed subdivision and see how it fits into the big picture."