Tisbury Faces Buildout Issues

State Forecasts Show Potential for 1,000 New Homes and Over 2,000 More Residents Before Town Reaches Full Capacity


In a town that claims the largest year-round population and the smallest geographic area, many citizens feel the crowding these days. And the thought of planting another 1,000 homes within Tisbury's six square miles or adding more cars to the Five Corners intersection adds fuel to recent public debates over growth within the town.

Development appeared to sneak up on the port community - arriving at the planning board office as requests to subdivide a few lots along existing roads or through applications to chisel two-acre lots into half-acre fractions. Only a handful of subdivisions large enough to trigger review as a development of regional impact trickled into the Martha's Vineyard Commission in the last two decades.

"We've grown in bits and snatches. It's a community that doesn't yield itself to larger developments," Tisbury planning board member Nora Nevin said.

But those bits and snatches earned Vineyard Haven recognition as the most densely populated town on the Island with 572 people per square mile.

If development continues, and all signs indicate it will, future growth could squeeze more residents into the town's 4,253 acres.

Reaching maximum capacity in the town of Tisbury is more tangible than its 3,755 year-round residents might like to admit.

"They are not making any more seacoast property. That's a limited commodity," Tisbury planning board member Dennis Lopez said.

And the pace at which buildout nears is rapid enough to raise the prospect that Tisbury might reach capacity before the town's teenagers grow old enough to be homeowners.

"All of a sudden, you see a new foundation going up. You realize that you assumed it wouldn't ever be built on," Tisbury planning board chairman Tony Peak said.

The state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs - in a buildout analysis delivered to every town in the commonwealth this past spring - predicts another 1,001 dwellings could spring up on the town's 1,214 acres of available land. Over 2,200 new residents, with 40 per cent being seasonal, will make homes in those new dwellings, according to these state estimates.

But town officials predict the actual number of potential homes and available land are but a fraction of the predicted 1,001 houses.

The state's snapshot of Tisbury assumes all large parcels will be subdivided into the smallest parcels allowable under zoning - ranging from a quarter-acre to nearly three acres in the town's five residential districts. Tisbury officials combed through town assessors' maps a few years ago and found 350 buildable lots remaining. If the town continues issuing permits at a rate of about 32 each year, residents could witness a new home on each of those lots within the next 11 years.

"I feel we've been overbuilt, and I've felt that for a while. We've allowed economic forces alone to dictate our future," Mr. Lopez said.

That same feeling led Vineyard Haven residents to push the town for a building moratorium in 1972, a time when Tisbury claimed but 1,400 homes or 60 per cent of what the town now holds.

The stakes are even higher now. Land is so scarce that buyers and developers have been relegated to marginal properties.

"Marginal lots - that's all that's left in Tisbury, more so than ever before," said John Best, conservation commission member and member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

It's a place where land values have far outpaced the cost of building a home, a trend that has forced year-round citizens out of Tisbury for the last decade.

"The cheapest lot listed in Tisbury right now is 10,000 square feet, with a septic permit for two bedrooms. It's listed for $239,000," said Mr. Best, who is also a real estate agent. And with a year-round base of 3,755 residents, turnover is low.

Tisbury planning board members admit a sense of helplessness when assessing the town's future. While they are in the initial stages of developing a master plan, some admit the long-range planning may be negated by immediate pressures.

"It's certainly not a cure for immediate problems. It takes a certain amount of time to implement," Mr. Peak said, noting that any changes in zoning would create a rush of building before any new restrictive regulations could go into effect. "It may rush the problem it's trying to alleviate," Mr. Peak said.

Mr. Lopez blames the current land scarcity on subdivision control laws that fail to apply to towns with finite space.

"Our current laws seem to be written for the farmland of Ohio, where you simply stretch out in any direction until you hit the next town 60 miles away. It's written as if we have an inexhaustible supply of land. But you can only put so many people on a boat before it sinks," Mr. Lopez said.

"Nowhere in that document is there a component mentioning buildout. No technique to stall development," Mr. Lopez added.

The Tisbury planning board constantly faces requests to carve out more and more lots, and they sign off because they have no tools to reject the plans.

"Every time an applicant leaves, we say, ‘We did it again.' But we couldn't not do it, because they had a right to," Mrs. Nevin said.

The looming fear of Chapter 40B "affordable housing" developments - two of which have surfaced in Tisbury within the last year - adds to town planners' current anxiety about the landscape of Vineyard Haven.

With only three per cent of their 2,200 homes identified as affordable, Tisbury needs 154 more before it reaches the 10 per cent threshold the state set to be immune from Chapter 40B developments. For 40B developments to supply those 154 affordable homes - if the projects offer the minimum 25 per cent as affordable - Vineyard Haven could see 600 more homes before it reaches the 10 per cent goal. This scenario, of course, assumes the town comes by affordable housing only through 40B developments and that the developers offer the absolute minimum housing for residents earning no more than 80 per cent of the county's median income.

"People are asking themselves, ‘Is this the price we have to pay to allow four more people access to the market?' " Mr. Best said, referring to the 20-unit, 40B project proposed for 4.9 acres of land just west of the town's center.

But the planning board is attempting to merge several interests in project approvals, Mr. Peak said, such as asking business developers to build second-story affordable apartments above commercial space.

"We are trying to find forces that drive the local economy and find ways to consolidate these interests," Mr. Peak explained.

While many town officials sense that Vineyard Haven may be on the home stretch of development, they understand how the rules can change as they enter the final years before potential buildout.

"This is but a snapshot of a point in time. Anything can change. There is resistance as you get down to the end of the game," Mr. Best said.

Mr. Peak agreed: "If all lots are full, you start changing the way you fill them. The human race is not going to get to the point where they see no more.

"Things can change. Things will change, but it takes a broad spectrum effort to put the same amount of pressure on the situation as applied by other specialized groups," Mr. Peak said.