Lines Drawn in the Sand Over Low-Income Housing on Nantucket

Bojan Bokic/Getty Images
Bojan Bokic/Getty Images

Nantucket is sleepy in the winter. Billionaires like Google CEO Eric Schmidt and banking titan Charles Schwab have not decamped to their multimillion-dollar vacation homes. Weekenders aren’t wandering the picturesque lanes. Hollywood A-listers are not in town for the annual film festival.

But behind the scenes, things are anything but boring. A protracted fight over a housing development with units for low-income residents has entered a bitter new stage, with a slew of court challenges and allegations that the local government is too cozy with the developers.

The town’s Select Board is begging the developers and their local critics to play nice, pushing them to engage in mediation to find an “acceptable, economically advantageous” solution to the nearly six-year-long dispute around the 13-acre settlement.

Opponents, meanwhile, are demanding to know whether the Select Board has any financial interest in the development and calling the board’s request for mediation an “illogical puzzle.”

The developers responded by challenging a recent court decision that halted construction on the project and issuing a fiery statement accusing their opponents of making “unproductive, personal attacks.”

One of the project’s biggest critics, year-round resident Meghan Perry, called the developers’ appeal “another effort by these developers to try to silence the citizens of Nantucket.”

“Clearly the developers do not want anyone who cares for this island involved in this project,” she said.

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Affordable housing is a long-running issue on Nantucket, where—as in many trendy vacation towns across the U.S.—year-round residents struggle to subsist alongside the elite who occupy the island over the summer. A 2022 study found a family would need to earn $530,000 a year to afford the median price of a home on the island; the average house price as of this month is more than $4 million.

Developers Jamie Feeley and Josh Posner first proposed the idea of a 156-unit affordable housing development on the south side of the island in 2018. The developers promised at least a quarter of the units would go for under market value—a proposal that, under state law, would allow them to build under “flexible rules” meant to incentivize affordable housing construction—and that none would sell for more than $1 million. The original proposal featured 60 stand-alone homes and 96 condos.

The plan set off protests from seasonal and year-round residents, who argued the rustic island cannot support such a large, dense development. Hundreds of residents packed the high school auditorium for town hall meetings on the subject; others picketed the proposed construction site. At the time, Tucker Holland, the town’s municipal housing director, told The Daily Beast it was “the biggest controversy that I can recall in recent years.”

The most prominent source of resistance was Nantucket Tipping Point, a group of residents concerned about effects on the island’s environment, schools, sewer systems, and other resources. Along with the island’s Land & Water Council, the group filed a lawsuit in Nantucket Superior Court last year challenging the state Housing Appeals Committee’s approval of the project and its subsequent decision to let the developers change their plan to purely condominiums, with no single-family homes. (The Select Board was originally a co-plaintiff but dropped out of the suit after reaching a “collaborative agreement” with the developers.)

Superior Court Judge Mark Gildea sided with the activists earlier this month, ruling that the housing committee erred in allowing substantial changes to the project after it was approved and sending the proposal back to the Nantucket zoning board for review. The building commissioner revoked the developer’s permits two days later, bringing construction on the project to a standstill.

The Nantucket Select Board, an elected body in charge of long-term planning, responded by asking the developers, zoning board, Land and Water Council, and Nantucket Tipping Point to engage in mediation to find a way forward. Neither side responded well.

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An attorney for Nantucket Tipping Point’s attorney, Paul DeRensis, sent a fiery email to the Select Board demanding to know “why the Select Board is now suddenly inserting itself into these matters” and claiming its involvement “implies to us there is now in play a financial interest held by some town agency in this project.”

“Please disclose transparently what exactly is the Town’s real interests or role; what present or planned future monetary interest or role does the Town or any of its agencies, including the affordable housing trust, have in this project, or are being discussed by town agencies with the Developers,” he wrote, in an email first reported by the Inquirer and Mirror.

Nantucket Tipping Point would not consent to any mediation until it receives answers to their questions, he added.

The developers, meanwhile, responded to the board’s suggestion by appealing the Superior Court decision, arguing that Nantucket Tipping Point and the land council did not have standing to file their suit, according to the Nantucket Current.

In a statement after this story was published, Feeley and Posner suggested they would not engaged in mediation with Nantucket Tippping Point, saying they were “[not] inclined to engage with parties outside of the mandated permitting process who are not interested in affordable or attainable housing solutions at a meaningful scale and have advanced unproductive, personal attacks.”

“Equally important, after six years of permitting process, we are not looking to reimagine the project,” the developers wrote. “This project will come to fruition in one form or another and will aspire to be as inclusive as possible at that time.”

Select Board Chair Dawn Hill Holdgate said she had no idea where the allegations of financial entanglements between the developers and the town government came from. “The only financial stake would be to save the taxpayers town counsel fees” from more drawn-out litigation, she told The Daily Beast.

Holdgate said she wasn’t surprised the debate had dragged on for so long and attracted such heated commentary. The development encompasses some of the islands’ most hot-button issues, including affordable housing and overdevelopment. “There’s a number of reasons why this rises to the top [of local issues], and they’re different and they’re somewhat competing,” she said.

But she added that she had seen attitudes toward the project shift in recent years, as real estate prices continued to climb.

“Even some people who had been against this [have said], ‘One of these could really solve some of my problems if I need to downsize,’” she said. “I’ve just heard a number of people who are warming up to the idea of these condominiums who were vehemently against it before.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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