Fairwinds Housing Development Narrowly Wins MVC Approval


Minutes shy of 11 o'clock last night, the Martha's Vineyard Commission narrowly approved the Fairwinds affordable housing development slotted for 4.9 acres of sloping land west of Tisbury's center.

Final approval of the Chapter 40B project - with six members in favor, four against and one abstention - was in question for most of two hours of deliberation.

"Many of us are sitting on the fence," commission member Robert Zeltzer said after a motion to deny failed, six votes to five. "I've been listening to a developer who is trying really hard to make this work. And I'm listening to the neighbors talk about impact on their neighborhood. I kind of feel like Solomon. It makes you want to cut the baby in half."

Fairwinds has been before the commission since January - developers tweaking the plan repeatedly to address criticisms from neighbors, affordable housing activists and even some commission members.

"We kept redeveloping what we had. It shows the commission process really works. It goes to show how a willingness to come together, a real meeting of the minds, can work," said developer Ed Herczeg after the approval vote.

The public's first glance at Fairwinds in February, proposed by Mr. Herczeg, Tom Richardson and Jim Stevenson, revealed 24 modular homes on 4.9 acres lining a dirt path which slopes from a height of 76 feet above sea level at the eastern edge of the property to 42 feet in the middle.

Fairwinds is the first Chapter 40B plan voted by the Martha's Vineyard Commission since the state land court affirmed the agency's power this spring to review the affordable housing projects as developments of regional impact. Throughout this review, both Fairwinds and the commission have been under a microscope. Chapter 40B - legislation that allows projects reserving a quarter of the homes as affordable to be exempt from certain local zoning - has been a hotly debated piece of legislation across Massachusetts.

Debates proved equally lively on the Island. The relentless public protest - criticisms often aimed broadly at 40B developments - persisted through the half-dozen public hearings.

"The town of Vineyard Haven already has [quarter] acre zoning and affordable zoning. 40B was not meant for the town of Tisbury. It was meant for towns with three-acre zoning. Passing this proposal would give credibility to 40B which it does not deserve," said neighbor Carol Jann in a letter to the commission, referring to 40B's common nickname of "anti-snob zoning."

At every turn, developer JE&T Construction diluted the plan, attempting to make it more digestible for commission members and neighbors.

Twenty-four homes shrank to 20. Twenty slimmed to 16 homes. The last version of Fairwinds revealed 11 dwellings, four of them with two units.

The commission knocked one of the homes off the map last night - finally approving 10 structures with a total of 14 household units. Four homes will be sold to families earning less than 80 per cent of the county's median income, being priced below $168,000. Three units will be sold to Islanders earning no more than 140 per cent of the median income, priced between $275,000 and $325,000. The remaining seven units will be sold at market rate.

The trimmed Fairwinds did little to make the Chapter 40B development palatable for at least a dozen neighbors - who pleaded with commission members to reject a proposal they claimed would unduly burden a quiet, blue-collar neighborhood just east of Lake Tashmoo.

"Approval of this project without these restrictions would be tantamount to saying the citizens of this neighborhood and Camp Jabberwocky are less important than others, requiring less stringent safety requirements and a lower quality of life because this is a 40B project," said abutter Brian Nunes-Vais, earning a round of applause.

Leaders of Camp Jabberwocky, located on Greenwood avenue which will be the through-way for Fairwinds from Franklin street, also opposed the project due to safety concerns posed by increased traffic.

Commission members labored over the decision, constantly referring to their chartering legislation and memories from site visits to the property.

"The whole [project] has more impact because it's dependent on ancient ways instead of town-owned roads. It puts the impact through peoples' backyards. If this were a normal course of events, this would force a lot less density than would normally be allowed," said Linda Sibley, who voted to against the project.

Legal access over a small strip of land connecting Greenwood avenue to Herring Creek Road, and the condition of the eight-foot-wide Herring Creek Road, which must be used for 20 feet before turning into Fairwinds, nearly became deal-breakers last night. In the end, the commission stipulated that access issues must be resolved to the town's satisfaction before JE&T begins construction.

Jim Athearn, last night's lone abstention, said he couldn't quite answer the question of whether or not the project matched the fabric of the existing neighborhood.

"I'm pretty appalled at what passes out there - it's not really planning. It's random. If [this project] is to fit the character of the neighborhood, well ... I can't sign my name very proudly to that," Mr. Athearn said.

Commission members expressed their sympathy with neighborhood concerns even as they voted approval for the project.

"It's too bad you didn't get together and buy the piece of land," said commissioner Richard Toole. "You have beautiful houses on quarter acres, but it doesn't give you much control. They have gone beyond what any applicant has ever done to satisfy our concerns and yours. It's unfortunate that it wasn't preserved. It's going to be tight, but that's the way it is in Tisbury."

The exhaustive deliberations reminded commission members of the need to develop guidelines for reviewing Chapter 40B applications in the future.

"This is the first 40B we've dealt with. We're learning. I apologize to the applicant and to the public for that," Ms. Sibley said.

Voting to approve Fairwinds with conditions were John Best, Christina Brown, Richard Toole, James Vercruysse and Robert Zeltzer. Voting against the project were Tristan Israel, Megan Ottens-Sargent, Linda Sibley and Roger Wey. James Athearn abstained.