MVC Wrestles with Golf Plan

Testimony Presents Commission with Unanswered Questions and Confusion on Critical Issues Before Final Vote

Gazette Senior Writer

Amid a fresh spate of tactics aimed at pressuring the Martha's Vineyard Commission into a quick approval of the Down Island Golf Club, the developer told the commission last week that an offer to allow public play at the private golf course is off the table - unless the commission agrees to support the project.

"If we're assured of a quick, positive decision, I would give it some consideration but otherwise I can't," said Brian Lafferty, a Bolton housing developer who is the partner of Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith.

Mr. Lafferty's remarks came last Thursday night during a land use planning committee meeting to discuss the golf club project.

Mr. Lafferty and Mr. Kupersmith want to build a private 18-hole golf club and 30 houses in the southern woodlands, the last stretch of unbroken oak and pine forest in the town of Oak Bluffs. Mr. Kupersmith owns about 277 acres in the woodlands; twice in the last two years he has tried without success to win approval from the commission for a golf course project on the property.

The third plan for the property is now under review by the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI), but the process for the project has become increasingly muddled as the developers and their attorneys press the commission to bend the rules in their favor at nearly every turn.

The details of the plan are also changing at a rapid rate, and the plan is accompanied by a growing list of unanswered questions, especially around the housing portion of the project. Mr. Lafferty admitted that the conservation restriction planned for the property will not go into effect until the project is fully built, and an array of other details spilled out about a vague plan to develop more affordable housing on the property down the road.

Two public hearings were held on the project early last month; a third and final hearing is set for Oct. 10.

The developers are allied with four of the five Oak Bluffs selectmen.

At the outset of the meeting last week tempers flared briefly among some members of the commission over the unorthodox process that has surrounded the golf club project. Two weeks ago, after being pressured by the developer to expedite the public hearing process, the commission decided to begin its land use planning committee review of the project before the public hearing had closed. This is outside the boundaries of the commission's normal process, which calls for deliberation by the land use committee after the public hearing is closed.

On Thursday night the commission held a two-hour discussion, with Mr. Lafferty intervening to answer questions.

One central theme involves the prospect of public play on the golf course.

The issue first surfaced during the second public hearing last month, when Todd Rebello, who is chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, urged the commission to demand that the developers offer some kind of public play. Later Mr. Lafferty said he would agree to offer public play, but only if the commission would agree to immediately close the public hearing.

The demand left the commission somewhat flustered, and there were scattered expressions of outrage among members of the public who were still waiting to speak.

In the end the hearing was left open, and at the meeting last week the question was put directly to Mr. Lafferty. "The public play component - are you still offering that?" said commission chairman James Vercruysse.

"I thought it was off the table," Mr. Lafferty replied.

Some discussion followed about whether the commission could require public play as a condition of approval. Acting executive director Bill Veno said conditioning public play could be problematic if it strayed into the area of financial impact on the development project.

Heads turned again to Mr. Lafferty. The developer aimed his remarks directly at commission members James Athearn and John Best, who voted to deny the golf club project last time around.

"If the two of you tell me you're going to change your vote, then I'll go out to my car and pull out an agreement I brought with me in case this came up," he said.

"The benefits and detriments of a project are not singular or simple, and you never know which is the straw that tips the balance," Mr. Athearn replied.

Mr. Lafferty also said allowing public play could affect the financial viability of the golf course project, which is based in part on the sale of equity memberships at an estimated price tag of $200,000 or more.

This sparked a wider discussion about the financial structure of the project

At the last public hearing, one member of the commission asked Mr. Lafferty to produce an analysis showing the marketability of the golf club, but last week Mr. Lafferty dismissed the suggestion as impossible.

"You can produce all the models you want, but you'll never know the answer until you go out there and market the thing," he said.

In the end, the question of public play was left largely unresolved.

Also last week Mr. Lafferty finally responded to repeated questions from commission member Christina Brown about the plan for the conservation restriction (CR) in the golf course development. Mrs. Brown began asking about the CR during an earlier public hearing, and last week she raised the questions again.

"What land does it cover? Who will hold the CR? What uses will be allowed? When will it go into effect?" Mrs. Brown asked.

Mr. Lafferty said the CR will not take effect until after the entire project is built. He said the developers plan to use a common scheme, a little known tool under state law ordinarily used for covenant enforcement in subdivisions. Mr. Lafferty said the common scheme will act as an "interim CR" until the project is built. He said the housing component of the project makes the CR somewhat difficult to carry out. "We need some flexibility in the CR in case we need to make changes in the golf course," he said.

Mr. Lafferty said the current plan calls for the CR to be held by the Vineyard Open Land Foundation (VOLF). Mrs. Brown suggested that the developer consider having VOLF and the town conservation commission hold the CR.

"It's not a new idea," she said.

"It's new to me," Mr. Lafferty replied. "As I understand it, we went to all the other conservation groups and asked them if they wanted to hold the CR, and VOLF was the most interested," he added.

There were some questions about the housing portion of the plan, which is accompanied by only scant details. The developers are planning to build 14 rental affordable housing units and 16 market-rate homes on the property, but all the housing units are planned as condominiums with no subdivision of the land. The affordable housing portion of the project is reportedly planned as a comprehensive permit under Chapter 40B of the state laws, but the remainder of the housing may in fact violate local zoning rules. The minimum zoning requirement in the southern woodlands is three acres.

It is also unclear whether the project is consistent with the regulations for a number of districts of critical planning concern (DCPC) that affect the property, including the Southern Woodlands DCPC, the Island Roads DCPC, the Lagoon Pond DCPC and the Sengekontacket Pond DCPC.

"Do you need variances for any of the houses?" Mr. Vercruysse asked Mr. Lafferty last week.

"No," Mr. Lafferty replied.

The commission's enabling legislation requires that DRI projects be consistent with local zoning rules and with DCPC regulations; if the project is not consistent, the applicant is required to show that contravening the rules serves a wider public purpose.

There was also discussion about a complicated plan to eventually structure a land swap between the town and the developers. The town owns a 24-acre landlocked piece of property in the middle of Mr. Kupersmith's property, originally planned for affordable housing by the town resident homesite committee. At one point the developers were offering town access to the property, but in the newest plan access is restricted to open space use and any access for residential housing is barred.

Mr. Best questioned Mr. Lafferty about the restriction. Mr. Lafferty described a complicated long-range plan that calls for the town to sell the landlocked land and then assist the developer in building more affordable housing on a portion of the property located near the Martha's Vineyard Ice Arena.

Mr. Best said it appeared that the plan heavily favored the developer. "You are asking us to approve a plan where the ownership [of the property in the middle] could change, and the configuration of the golf course could change," he said.

"So what's your problem?" Mr. Lafferty shot back.

The review of the golf club project was expected to continue last night and again on Thursday night this week.