MVC Launches Golf Hearings

Third Round of Deliberations on Controversial Development Proposal Begins Tomorrow; Voters Urged to Attend

Gazette Senior Writer

The high-stakes crusade to convert the last unbroken stretch of woodland in the town of Oak Bluffs to a luxury golf course and housing development will come out from behind closed doors and into the public spotlight this week when the Martha's Vineyard Commission opens a pair of back-to-back hearings on the controversial development plan.

The first hearing opens tomorrow night at 6:30 p.m. in the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School cafeteria; a second hearing begins at the same time in the same place Thursday night. A third hearing is planned for Oct. 10.

The development plan is under review by the MVC as a development of regional impact (DRI).

Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith wants to build an 18-hole private luxury golf club, 14 market-priced homes and 16 affordable units on 273 acres he owns in the southern woodlands. Mr. Kupersmith and his partner, Bolton housing developer Brian Lafferty, hope to include a state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and land bank conservation package in the development, but the state and the land bank have not agreed yet to participate in the deal.

Other components of the plan include an offer to buy the Windfarm Golf driving range and convert it to conservation land. The driving range is not contiguous to the southern woodlands.

The developers have pledged to limit nine of the 14 market-priced homes to seasonal dwellings, although they have not said how they plan to accomplish this. The affordable housing units are planned as condominium-type housing.

The developers also want to sell 350 full-priced golf club memberships and another 175 low-priced Island memberships. In one footnote in the plan, the developers say that they need to sell 250 memberships in order for the club to be viable.

The project includes a complicated nitrogen mitigation plan designed to protect Lagoon and Sengekontacket ponds. Mr. Kupersmith's property is in the watershed for both ponds; the property also lies within four districts of critical planning concern (DCPC).

This marks the third try by Mr. Kupersmith to win approval for his golf course plan in the last two years. The commission turned down the first plan in June 2000 and rejected a second plan last February. Both votes were close.

The new plan has the support of a large number of town officials, including four of the five Oak Bluffs selectmen. These selectmen are working closely with the developer, although all of their negotiations have taken place behind closed doors, and to date there has been little other public discussion of the matter.

The developers tried without success to win approval from the MVC without submitting to a public process.

The latest plan for the golf course is framed in a "settlement agreement" signed by town officials and the developers last month. The agreement reads like a legal document and is difficult to decipher.

"We're disappointed that this applicant's current submission is not particularly user-friendly," said Brendan O'Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, yesterday.

The conservation society, a land use advocacy and watchdog group, has challenged private golf course developments at four locations over the last five years on the Vineyard. To date, only one golf course project has won approval, at a site formerly targeted for 245 houses in the rural perimeters of Edgartown.

The conservation society is expected to testify against the project, and yesterday Mr. O'Neill said there are now questions about whether the settlement agreement is legitimate.

"This so-called settlement agreement that has been made part of the record appears to be premised on a number of illegal assumptions," Mr. O'Neill said.

The agreement was crafted by attorneys for the developer and a special attorney hired by the town. Selectmen have pointedly avoided any consultation on the agreement with their veteran town counsel, Ronald H. Rappaport.

"From a public-policy perspective, this agreement violates some basic precepts about having an open process without having preordained conclusions," Mr. O'Neill said.

Among other things, he singled out for criticism the portions of the agreement that give to town selectmen the power to make an array of decisions in the development plan, ranging from the turf management program to special discounted Island memberships.

"Is it really appropriate that the selectmen should be the ones who get to pick who gets an Island membership? Any agreement that puts a public body in charge of dispensing a valuable public commodity raises serious concerns," Mr. O'Neill said.

He also criticized language in the agreement which appears to paint the state and the land bank as partners in the project, and language which points to possible town withdrawal from the MVC if the project is not approved.

"This settlement agreement makes a statement of intent on behalf of DEM and the land bank, which are not signatories to the agreement. The last time I checked, Martha's Vineyard Commission review is the law, and yet the selectmen have committed themselves to an agreement which is conditioned on removal of the so-called MVC impediment, either through MVC approval or withdrawal from the MVC. Is that sort of objective really an appropriate thing to sign on to?" Mr. O'Neill said.

A pre-public hearing review of the plan got under way at the commission last week, and consistent with the events of the last two years, the review was marked by some peculiar moments.

Among other things, the developers have asked the commission to fast-track the review process, claiming that they need a decision from the commission before the middle of September in order to win approval at the state level for the portion of the plan that calls for the DEM to buy part of the former Webb's Camping Area.

But at their meeting last Thursday night, the full commission decided to slow down the fast-track review, choosing to set Oct. 10, instead of Sept. 12, as the date for a third public hearing on the project.

"That's tight scheduling - three meetings in eight days," said commission member John Best. "My concerns are for the public. Give us a gap."

Commission member Tristan Israel agreed. "I think we're being very accommodating already. I mean, we're going through this for the third damn time," he said.

Commission member Robert Zeltzer had another view. "After a certain period of time, it becomes redundant. Fifty per cent of what I heard in the second golf hearing, I heard in the first two hours of the first one. It seems like we always gravitate toward taking the longest time," he said.

"I like to let the public be redundant," Mr. Israel said.

In the end, the commission decided to schedule the third hearing for Oct. 10, with no firm commitment to close the hearing on that date.

After some discussion, the commission also decided not to reduce the application fee paid by the developer. The fee reduction issue had come up earlier in the week during a land use planning subcommittee meeting.

But on Thursday night the full commission balked at any fee reduction, after learning that the applicant had not asked for the reduction.

"Has the applicant asked for a waiver? Why are we having this conversation?" said commission member Christina Brown.

The origin of the request for the fee waiver remained unclear. The commission has operated on a shoestring for 25 years, and during the discussion about fees there was a small moment of strained humor when rainwater began to leak through the ceiling of the meeting room above the place where commission chairman James Vercruysse was seated.

The commission did agree to waive a requirement for a formal traffic study from the applicant, and a proposal to set strict time limits for testimony during the public hearings was also scrapped.

"We can't arbitrarily limit the amount of time someone is speaking. That's why we're here," concluded Mrs. Brown.

Gazette reporter Mandy Locke contributed to this story.