Good Work, Well Done: The Grand Bargain

Is the formerly whispered-about conflict between conservation and housing a thing of the past?

Is good the enemy of good? Can the Vineyard protect open spaces and conserve fragile land and shorelines, and at the same time construct adequate affordable housing for a working community? There was a time when just asking the question could raise hackles in some corners, but it seems the Island has, over two decades, begun to find that sweet spot. There are now a handful of examples, including the eight single-family, energy-efficient homes that are clustered on Eliakim’s Way in West Tisbury, made possible by a joint purchase by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and the Island Housing Trust (IHT).

“It’s an attractive concept,” said Philippe Jordi, IHT’s executive director. “How do you marry conservation with housing when we have a well-endowed conservation community here? In other words, how do you preserve land but also sustain communities?”

“Both parties recognize that some pieces of these properties need to be conserved,” added his colleague Derrill Bazzy, IHT’s project manager. ”It’s helped make the financing possible for us, and it’s also saved endangered species, preserved land with a visual impact, or connected important conservation properties.”

Soon, a new collaboration will be underway off State Road in Vineyard Haven. There, on an elongated rectangular parcel of nearly fifteen acres a stone’s throw from the Scottish Bakehouse, the Land Bank purchased a conservation easement for 8.9 acres. For the Land Bank, the acquisition expands its existing Ripley’s Field Preserve. For the housing trust, the impact is even more dramatic. The $1.2 million purchase price for the property was effectively halved by the sale of the conservation easement. Furthermore, the creation of the easement, as opposed to outright sale to the Land Bank, allows for clustered housing on the remaining acres, minimizing the impact both to neighbors and to the land itself. Instead of the familiar development model of single-family house lots, there will be ten duplex buildings in clusters of five, creating twenty apartments of various sizes.

Susan Savory

Had the property been traditionally subdivided, eleven buildable acres would have permitted significant development, as much as eleven five-bedroom houses. But after two public meetings with neighbors, sight lines have been protected and the new, clustered neighborhood is contained in the center of the four-acre building envelope, with ample vegetation and buffering.

“What we’re trying to do overall is mitigate the impact to the neighbors while addressing the housing needs of Islanders,” said Jordi.

Named Kuehn’s Way in memory of the late IHT board member Bob Kuehn, who was an architect of the state’s Community Preservation Act, the site will hold twenty rental units managed by the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority. Why rentals? Jordi points to the 237 Islanders on the Housing Authority’s waiting list for year-round rentals. For the six efficiency one-bedroom apartments going up at Five Corners – apartments with no parking space, mind you – the housing trust received fifty applications by mid-June.

The dreams that come true don’t always come cheap, and the Land Bank isn’t IHT’s only partner on the Kuehn’s Way project. All six towns contributed a total of $500,000 through the Community Preservation Act toward the estimated $6.3 million full project cost, and a proposal before the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development could defray up to thirty percent of the funding. And of course there are the organization’s other donors and volunteers, large and small.

For the Land Bank, the project is the latest in a series of just under a dozen cooperative acquisitions, beginning with Sepiessa Point in 1991, where it worked with the county housing authority in the days before IHT. And it almost certainly won’t be the last: the Land Bank’s stated policy is to perform a housing analysis on every potential purchase to “determine if housing could be sited along the fringe of the property without detriment to the conservation purposes being served.”

But to James Lengyel, the Land Bank’s executive director, those opportunities are impossible to plot or predict. “When everything aligns and comes together, we look back and say, ‘Didn’t that work out beautifully?’” he said recently. The Keuhn property is one of those, adding almost one-tenth more conservation land to the Ripley’s Field Preserve, bringing the total to eighty-six acres of trails and protected habitat. 

“You can see on the map how it perfectly fits into the Land Bank’s property,” he said. “And how the housing portion works out perfectly because it’s right on a public road.” 

Islanders would call that a win-win.