The Martha’s Vineyard Commission exceeded its authority when it conditioned the approval of a proposed affordable housing project for Island seniors on a complete but unspecified redesign of the building, a Superior Court judge has ruled.

In a decision issued last week, the Hon. Douglas Wilkins remanded the Island Elderly Housing project back to the MVC and ordered it to reconsider the project and issue a new decision consistent with his ruling.

The nonprofit sought approval from the MVC to construct a five-unit building for low-income residents at the Aidylberg complex off Wing Road in Oak Bluffs. The building would replace a home that was demolished without the approval of the MVC.

The commission reviewed the housing project as a development of regional impact (DRI). During hearings, commissioners criticized the style and energy efficiency of the proposed new building. When Island Elderly Housing leaders declined to make suggested architectural changes, the MVC voted 7-5 last July to approve the project on the condition they reduce the size of the building and come up with a design that was more faithful to the demolished building, then return to the MVC with a new plan. Island Elderly Housing sued a month later.

In a 12-page April 19 ruling, Judge Wilkins said that such an open-ended condition exceeds the powers granted to the commission under state law, and essentially acts as a denial for the project.

“In all but wording, the decision is effectively a denial,” he wrote. “[Island Elderly Housing] cannot move on to obtain any local permit.”

The judge said that Island Elderly Housing was within its rights to decline suggested alterations to their plan, and the commission should have either issued an up or down vote on the plan that was presented or specified exactly what design changes needed to be made in order for the project to be eligible for a building permit.

“No statutory criterion allows MVC to punish [Island Elderly Housing] for insisting on its right to an up-or-down vote on its chosen proposal, as opposed to a proposal advocated by some commenters or Commission members,” he wrote.

Mr. Wilkins called an approval that includes such drastic and unspecified changes a “new species of decision” that evades the consequences of actually denying the application.

“If the MVC is unwilling to decide to approve the project, or approve it after ‘specifying conditions,’ then it must be accountable for whatever consequences flow from the denial, instead of side-stepping issues as the decision tries to do,” he  wrote. 

“The court fully appreciates the difficulty of achieving consensus among citizens elected or appointed to a multi-member board to represent various communities. However, each member has a duty to follow the law by voting to approve, approve with specified conditions or deny an application within 60 days of the hearing and accept the consequences,” he concluded.

Dorothy Young, the Island Elderly Housing executive director, said Friday that the nonprofit's board instructed its attorney to reach out to the commission's counsel to discuss the court decision and look for a way to come to a reasonable conclusion.

Adam Turner, the executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, acknowledged that the court has required the commission to be more specific going forward.

“The condition needs to say what we want,” he said. 

No date has been set for the project to come back before the commission.