MVC Begins Review of Housing Plan

Ecumenical Group Proposes 32 Units on Tisbury Land


Calling it a new vision for the Vineyard, a novice Island nonprofit last week unveiled a plan to build 32 units of affordable housing in 16 duplex-style buildings on the Norton family land off State Road in Vineyard Haven.

"We want to act to resolve what we feel to be the most pressing problem facing the Island - community atrophy," declared Brad Austin in front of a packed house at the Olde Stone Building in Oak Bluffs last Thursday night. Mr. Austin is an Oak Bluffs resident and a partner in the Bridge Housing project.

The project is under review by the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI). A public hearing on the project opened last week and was continued last night.

Planned as a comprehensive permit application under Chapter 40B, a state law that enables certain kinds of affordable housing projects to skirt most local zoning rules, the Bridge Housing project envisions a cluster development on land owned by the four grown children of James H.K. and Sonya Norton of Vineyard Haven. The Bridge group has an option to buy the 24-acre Norton property, and plans to sell 16 of the 24 acres to the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank for $960,000, leaving eight acres for the housing project.

A nonprofit corporation formed by five Vineyard churches two and a half years ago, the Bridge Group is made up entirely of unpaid volunteers.

"We are not typical 40B developers looking for increased density with only 25 per cent of our units affordable. All of these homes are affordable," Mr. Austin said. "We will not add to the traffic problems or the school populations, because our homeowners, their cars and their children are already here," he added.

Named Bridge Commons, the project calls for building 32 homes in 16 modular duplex buildings with four architectural styles: farmhouse, colonial, Cape Cod and ranch. Mr. Austin said 32 homes are necessary to make the project economically viable. "We don't want to pare down the number of units because then we can't afford the real estate - so you can see the rut we are in," he said.

Mr. Austin said parking space is planned for one and a half cars per home, and Bridge spokesman Isaac Russell said an in-house traffic analysis concluded that the traffic impacts from the project will be insignificant.

Mr. Austin said the Vineyard Transit Authority has agreed to place a bus stop on State Road near the entrance to the project. Home ownership in the project is planned as a cooperative and Mr. Austin said families will be selected using a list of criteria that includes urgency of need, length of residence on the Vineyard, number of children in the family, occupation (teachers, health care workers and the like will be given priority) and involvement in the community.

He said time is a critical factor. "We're desperate to have these homes in place and occupied by May of 2004 - we need approval from this body sometime in March," Mr. Austin told the commission. "If we miss the window of 2004 we miss another year and lose lose another 20 families," he said.

During public testimony a number of Vineyard residents told personal stories about housing hardships, including an Oak Bluffs senior manager and a Tisbury businesswoman who said she had to move 10 times in the last four years.

"If we don't solve this we are going to have to build a bridge," declared Oak Bluffs town administrator Casey Sharpe.

The project has the support of the Tisbury planning board. "The need for these units is indisputable in our town - this is a real windfall gain," said planning board member Dennis Lopez.

"I am very much concerned about affordable housing - in Edgartown the thing that concerns us is that young people are leaving the Island," said Edgartown resident and former town selectman Fred B. Morgan Jr. He said in Edgartown, where a brand new $16 million school was just completed, school enrollment is down by 100 students. "We know people are leaving," Mr. Morgan said.

But there was also testimony from neighbors - and their attorneys - who expressed an array of concerns about the density and the character of the project.

"This density is going to take a rural area and make it urban overnight - it almost seems like we are being made to make up for years of neglect by the town," said neighbor Janet Woodcock.

"I urge the commission to think carefully about the unintended consequences of a building project that is so intense," said neighbor Barbara Babcock.

"It's just very, very overwhelming for us because it's so huge," said neighbor Phyllis Vecchia.

"I feel like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs," said Edgartown attorney Martin V. Tomassian Jr., who represents neighbor Ken Bilzerian. Mr. Tomassian listed a number of concerns about the project, including sharp concern about protecting Red Coat Hill Road, an ancient way that dates to Revolutionary times and runs through the middle of the planned housing development.

"Red Coat Hill Road - that's how it got its name, these were the folks who used that road. There are rocks along that road with cuts in them made by wagon wheels," Mr. Tomassian said.

The Tisbury byways committee has also raised concerns about the impact of the housing project on Red Coat Hill Road. The Bridge plan calls for giving two trail easements to the land bank, including one across Red Coat Hill Road.

The plan calls for six individual wells to serve the houses and individual onsite septic systems. It also calls for using the 16 acres owned by the land bank for "nitrogen credit" in calculating septic discharge from the housing development.

An engineer from Horsely and Witten who represents another neighbor said the nitrogen credit plan is not sound because part of the Norton property lies in the recharge area for a public water supply. Engineer Tom Noble also said the six wells for the housing project would be considered a public water supply and each well would need to be surrounded by a protective zone. "These zones virtually render the project impossible to build as proposed," Mr. Noble wrote in a letter to MVC executive director Mark London.

"The Bridge housing proposal is the best alternative we have come across in the two-plus years the land has been on the market," wrote Jamie Norton in a letter to the commission. "We see it as a compromise between thoughtful development that meets the needs of Island inhabitants and land conservation," he also wrote. Mr. Norton owns the property along with his sisters Heather, Sarah and Laura.

In other business last week, the commission voted unanimously to approve a plan to rebuild the Scottish Bakehouse on State Road in Vineyard Haven. Tapestry Holdings, a company owned by Steven Galante of Wellesley and Chilmark, plans to raze the old bakehouse building and rebuild a new retail bakery, with two attached affordable year-round apartments. The project was approved with a list of conditions, including limits on water use, lighting restrictions and a requirement that the landscaping be done with native plants.