The developer behind a proposed 8-unit workforce housing project in Oak Bluffs has scrapped the idea just days after it was initially reviewed by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

Robert Sawyer on April 4 pitched demolishing a dilapidated historic home at 3 Uncas avenue to make way for a housing complex, which would have been developed under the state’s 40B affordable housing regulations. But Mr. Sawyer’s application was missing some basic information, such as linear measurements of the proposed building, and commissioners called for more details.

Less than a week later, the property was listed for $799,000 on real estate websites and Mr. Sawyer’s attorney Wednesday wrote to the commission to say they were pulling the plug.

“I am chagrin to provide notice, however, that based upon the Commission’s reaction to the project, my client has elected not to move forward and is withdrawing its application,” attorney Jason Talerman wrote in a letter. 

The withdrawal ends a winding road for the project and leaves the 1874 home, once owned by a whaling captain who played a prominent role in Oak Bluffs breaking away from Edgartown, with an uncertain future. 

The commission was reviewing the project because of the proposed demolition of the 150-year-old historic home and the number of units in the proposed apartment building. 

The withdrawal of the application isn’t necessarily a surprise. Mr. Sawyer purchased the home in 2018 and said he had spent “good money after bad” trying to make it through red tape for the last five years.

At the commission’s April 4 meeting, Mr. Sawyer put his position bluntly.

“We’ve been at this project for five and a half years, we have expended a huge amount of money for all kinds of myriad costs,” he said. “And as I mentioned earlier, we’re just not going to spend any more money. My associates and I have made a decision, has nothing to do with anything except sometimes you gotta know when to take the loss and walk away. So if the commission in its wisdom does not approve our project tonight, we’re going to kill the project.” 

But commissioners said the numerous gaps in Mr. Sawyer’s application left them with no choice but to request further information.

The commission sought more details on sewage plans, nitrogen, and the restrictions on the workforce housing units, but Mr. Sawyer didn’t seem to want to go too far down the road on plans if the commission was going to deny the demolition plans.

“I feel as though the applicants are saying to us, they’re not going to provide all this information until we first determine that they can demolish the existing house,”  commissioner Brian Smith said at the meeting. “That’s not the way we operate.”

In an interview with the Gazette, commissioner Doug Sederholm said that developers need to come with a full application. 

“They wanted us to tell them what we thought would fly. That’s not the way it works,” he said. “You make a detailed proposal and we evaluate it. It’s not our job and it’s not appropriate for us to design the project for them.”

The project in question has been contentious for several years and the historic house is now in a decrepit state. Requests to the town to demolish the home have been denied by local boards, resulting in a lawsuit between the town and Mr. Sawyer that has since been dismissed. 

Commission members have said people summered in the home until about 2016, and in just two years it became uninhabitable. 

Neighbors claim the owners were using the “demolition by neglect” strategy, leaving the building uncared for until it can no longer be saved. Asbestos remediation that left the property without some walls only furthered the home’s decline. 

Mr. Sawyer asserts it became evident after purchasing the property that it would be too costly to save. Mr. Talerman wrote that his client was frustrated with the commission’s focus on the home demolition at the meeting, instead of the potential affordable housing project on an island starved for more housing. 

“It is disappointing that the regulatory hurdles have caused my client to withdraw this project but we look forward to working with you in the future on other projects,” Mr. Talerman wrote. 

Mr. Sederholm said the MVC has approved several affordable housing projects in the past and the regional planning body was only doing its due diligence on the application.

“We were just doing our job,” he said. “We were supposed to look at the demolition first.”