Ruling that the dire need for low-cost rental housing trumps traffic concerns, the Martha's Vineyard Commission voted unanimously last night to approve the Pennywise Path affordable housing project in Edgartown.
The action, which includes numerous conditions placed on the project developers, clears the way for construction of a 60-unit, government-subsidized rental housing complex on 12 acres in a section of town called Ocean Heights.
The sole access road to the development - and a major sticking point in the deliberation among commissioners - will go over 12th street South, off the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.
"We feel the traffic from this project overburdens 12th street," said commissioner Linda Sibley. "We just have to say this is a detriment, and we can't fix it."
With signs of some reluctance, commissioners decided to accept the traffic impact and to set aside worries about whether the magnitude of a 60-unit rental complex fits with Vineyard character while shifting their attention to the upside - the creation of low and moderate income rental apartments.
Preference for the rental units will be given to residents of Edgartown with a goal of 70 per cent of the total apartments going to townspeople and the remaining 30 per cent set aside for Islanders.
Edgartown leaders were major players in the effort to create the project, having taken the 118-acre Pennywise Path Preserve by eminent domain from the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank five years ago and then setting aside 57 acres for future municipal use.
The town then teamed up with the Boston-based Community Builders Inc. - the country's largest nonprofit urban housing developer - to build and manage the affordable housing project.
Filed under Chapter 40B, a state law that governs low and moderate income housing projects, the project was under review by the Martha's Vineyard Commission as a development of regional impact (DRI).
In the end, after hours of debate over ways to protect an environmentally sensitive frost pocket on the land, for example, commissioners agreed they could not pass up the chance to make a dent in the affordable housing problem.
"It's a reasonably well-designed and executed project that meets the single most overwhelming need of the community of Martha's Vineyard," said commissioner Doug Sederholm.
But in those same breaths, commissioners could not conceal some regrets and misgivings.
"Certain aspects of this project are out of character with the Vineyard," said Mrs. Sibley."For a lot of people on the Vineyard, this isn't the solution they'd like to see, but the wildly irrational price of land has forced solutions that aren't typical."
"My innate feeling is that a 12-acre subdivision in the middle of the woods is a bad thing," said commission chairman James Athearn.
And displeasure over the effect of traffic on the residents of 12th street was a cloud hanging over commissioners they wished they could blow away.
"The major detriment is one we all struggled with - a horrible impact on 12th street," said Mr. Sederholm.
Commissioners adopted language in their approval requiring the town and Community Builders to conduct a traffic study within two years of the earliest occupany of the apartments. They had already forecasted as many as 500 trips a day up and down 12th street once the development is fully occupied.
Developers had originally planned to build a second access road, this one coming through Metcalf Drive from the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road alongside the upscale Vineyard Golf Club.
But a critical stumbling block foiled that plan since the access from Metcalf Drive would have required removing a conservation restriction from a portion of the golf club land - a complicated process possible only through an act of the state legislature.
Still, commissioners last night tried to hammer out language in conditioning their approval that would try to alleviate the traffic burden on 12th street and exert pressure on developers to pursue some kind of second access road from the West Tisbury Road.
Commissioner John Breckenridge argued for pedestrian walkways. "The safety of the residents is paramount," he said. Edgartown selectman Michael Donaroma said there was no guarantee the town could earmark highway funds for a sidewalk on 12th street, but they would try.
Mr. Athearn also pushed hard for a condition mandating that the rental apartment be for Islanders only. "If this project can't be built without being distinctly for Island residents, it should not be built," he said.
Charles Eisenberg, the chief spokesman for The Community Builders, could be heard saying to himself, "That's a deal-killer."
Other commissioners convinced Mr. Athearn that such a restriction was probably illegal and would jeopardize government funding for the project. Again, commissioners opted for beefing up the language, urging developers to give preference to Islanders "to the extent allowable by law."
Other conditions placed on the project aimed at protecting the frost pocket with a 100-foot buffer zone and designating a 2.4-acre no-cut and no-build area between the housing and the Vineyard Golf Club. Another condition ordered that no synthetic pesticides be used in the maintenance of landscaping.
The Pennywise Path project has not been without detractors. Last month, affordable housing advocate Juleann VanBelle questioned whether the project would really create desirable housing. "We live in a community with people wealthy enough and creative enough to make a project better than this," she told commissioners.
And Ocean Heights resident Steve Ewing wrote to commissioners saying the project was too big: "Don't put it in a place that destroys an established neighborhood and pits the same working families you're trying to assist against each other."
But some commissioners argued last night that low-cost rental housing is an urgent need. Former Edgartown selectman Fred B. Morgan said, "Some people will never be able to afford to buy. I've seen the numbers of young people who have left."