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Nantucket Roiled With Surfside Crossing Affordable Housing Plan

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The average home in Nantucket, the flamboyant summer getaway of the rich and famous, sells for $4.43 million, and the hotels are some of the most expensive in the country. While wealthy summer residents like former Secretary of State John Kerry and Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman spend the summer tanning by the pools or on the beaches, year-round residents and workers increasingly struggle to pay their rent.

On this paradise island, the solution seems to cause more conflict than the problem itself. A proposal for a 13-acre affordable housing project near a popular beach has sparked protests and lawsuits, with record numbers of townspeople appearing to attend the hearings. Angry residents claim that the 156-unit housing project will harm the environment and strain resources, and developers are using zoning restrictions to skirt the subsidized housing angle. Meanwhile, contractors claim residents are uncomfortable with having a low-income housing project in their own — very large — backyard.

Tucker Holland, the town’s municipal housing manager, told The Daily Beast that it was “the biggest controversy I can remember in recent years.”

Meghan Perry, another resident during the year and a verbal opponent of the project, put it differently.

“I think the developers are underestimating our community,” he said. “They didn’t read the room.”

Almost everyone on the island agrees that Nantucket suffers from a major year-round housing shortage. Its popularity as a vacation spot for the luxury class, where a 5,075-square-foot home recently sold for $33 million, has led to what the Massachusetts General Court describes as a “housing crisis.” According to a study by Holland last year, when prices were even lower, a family had to make $530,000 a year to afford an average home. “There are people who make what would otherwise be considered very good money but still have trouble finding a home here,” he explained.

The shortage of shelter also strains the island’s workers, from waiters to shopkeepers, from police officers to firefighters. Fire Chief Stephen Murphy told state lawmakers in February there were six vacancies in the police department and three officers were preparing to leave because they could not afford to live there. Brooke Moore, an employee of the island’s affordable housing trust, said her food pantry had received requests from three families sharing a three-bedroom house. At the time of the trial, there were no houses for sale on the island worth less than $1 million.

Legislators have proposed solutions ranging from taxing all real estate transactions over $2 million to increasing the town budget by $6.5 million to finance public housing. The lawsuit even attracted big names and big wallets, including Wendy Schmidt, the wife of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who started an economic stimulus project on the island. But progress is slow and the stock of subsidized housing remains below 10 percent of the island’s total real estate.

In 2018, developers in Nantucket and Cambridge, Massachusetts evaluated their own solution: a 156-unit affordable residential development near popular Surfside Beach, a few kilometers from the main town centre. The duo, Jamie Feeley and Josh Posner, had previously built an award-winning, 40-home affordable housing project on the island called Beach Plum Village. But the new proposal – Surf’s Edge Crossing – will be significantly larger, with 60 single-family homes and 96 apartments on a 13-acre site.

They promised that 15 of the homes and 24 of the apartments would sell for between $261,000 and $373,000 and all properties would be under $1 million. They also proposed using a decades-old Massachusetts law called Section 40B, which allows developers to build under “flexible rules” if 20 to 25 percent of units meet the definition of affordable housing. The law also allowed Feeley and Posner to appeal to the state if the Nantucket Zoning Board rejected their plan.

Feeley, who lives on the island year-round, and Posner, who has spent summers there since childhood, had just come out of their construction in Plum Beach, and knew they would encounter some resistance. When Feeley told the civil engineer at Plum Beach that he was considering starting another 40B project on the island, he said he was told to prepare for “a 200-seat auditorium with pitchforks.” (“It really stuck with me,” admitted Feeley.)

Meanwhile, Posner is a 30-year veteran in affordable housing and knew that such projects were rarely popular with neighbors—even in liberal communities like Nantucket.

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Courtesy of Joshua Posner

“Most people on the island think that the #1 problem they face is affordable housing,” he said. “However, these attempts to do something about it often have a tragic flaw: They are someone’s next-door neighbor.”

Apparently that person was Perry, one of nine residents whose property was adjacent to the proposed site and ultimately sued to block it. When the islanders first became aware of the plans, Perry and a group of concerned residents formed a group called Tipping Point Nantucket to oppose construction and “teach for responsible development to preserve the long-term sustainability of Nantucket’s limited resources,” according to its website. The group’s board of directors is largely made up of year-round residents, but Perry said membership has ranged from waiters and teachers to the “billionaire who just arrived with his plane.”

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Responding to a 1,700-word email when asked to explain his zoning concerns, Perry denies that this is a case of NIMBY-ism and points to more than five affordable housing developments that have been built recently. Instead, he says, the problem is to protect Nantucket’s infrastructure and natural resources.

Courtesy of Joshua Posner and Jamie Feeley

Perry cited statements by the fire chief, who said the development poses “a serious public safety concern” and concerns about the impact on nearby schools, traffic patterns and the impact on rare species in the area. It also noted that only 25 percent of residential development will meet state affordability guidelines.

The contractors say the project is about affordable housing, he said, “but it’s not really—making a profit for the contractors won’t benefit us.”

“It will weaken our infrastructure, it will put our first responders at risk, it will put society at risk.”

The other islanders agreed. Less than a month after the proposal surfaced, the island’s Electoral College penned a letter to the state housing authority describing the project as “totally inappropriate”. (According to local sources, the board had to rewrite the letter several times, as residents found the language too weak. The Interrogator and the Mirror.).). In July 2018, the Zoning Appeals Board was forced to stop a public hearing on the proposal after 150 residents filled the boardroom. In August, more than 700 people gathered in the high school auditorium for the rescheduled hearing. “I would be surprised if there were a dozen or so people supporting the project out of 700 or 800 people,” Holland said.

A community hearing on the Surfside Crossing development, where a lawyer asked those who opposed the project to raise their hands.

Courtesy of Susan Carey

In response, the contractors have proposed downsizing the project to 40 homes and 60 apartments, with more open space between buildings and larger, landscaped buffer zones along the property lines. When that didn’t work, they proposed limiting occupancy to year-round residents and employees of local nonprofits, then reducing the number of apartments to 40. None of them worked. In April 2019, the zoning board received more than 100 letters against the project, many of which reflect the language suggested by the Nantucket Tipping Point. The Interrogator and the Mirror.

That summer, developers turned to the government after the local zoning board approved a project half the size of the original proposal. When members of the State Housing Appeals Committee arrived to inspect the proposed development, they were greeted by nearly 100 angry Nantucketers carrying signs that read “Unsafe” and “A Threat to Nantucket’s Aquifer.” According to an article in Nantucket Magazineone of the protesters squeezed Feeley, pointed to a smaller development nearby and said, “Jamie, that’s a nice improvement. Why don’t you do that and then we can all go home?

“[This] It’s not a neighborhood issue, it’s a Nantucket issue,” another, Mary Beth Splaine, told the magazine. “We’ve reached a tipping point where our island can’t afford the infrastructure to go with it.”

“I live next door, which I hope will be my permanent home, but I don’t know,” he added. “The neighborhood is changing.”

The Housing Appeals Committee awarded Surfside Crossing its final seal of approval in September 2022, but the fight did not end there. Less than a month later, the contractors faced three lawsuits opposing the decision, including an application by the nonprofit Nantucket Land Council alleging that construction would threaten their work on behalf of public lands. The group of nine neighbors, including Perry, was a member of the Housing Appeals Committee.[ed] While the Nantucket Zoning Board claims that the appeals committee “inadvertently overturned the Board’s approval,” they were denied any opportunity to challenge the massive project to be built next to their home.

“Nantucket, not a Boston government agency, must decide for itself how to balance its resources and priorities,” the land council’s complaint wrote.

Courtesy of Joshua Posner and Jamie Feeley

Although both sides seem to have struggled for a long fight, Holland said he thinks a middle ground can be found. The developers have voiced the idea of ​​reserving 25 percent of the development for year-round residents, which Holland said in the discussion “could bring the temperature down significantly”. Even Perry said he thought it was an “acceptable result,” but added about the developers: “I don’t think they’ve seen that yet.”

Feely and Posner seem confident that their vision will prevail. Posner said they faced similar legal issues when removing Beach Plum from the ground, but were allowed to build. They are already pre-authorizing Surfside Crossing, with plans to start construction in the spring or early summer.

“As we understand the reality of this and the overwhelmingly positive impact it will have on the island, we hope we won’t have to go through the entire legal process,” Posner said. “But if we have to go the whole route, we’ll go the whole route.”