As the chainsaws roared and trees began falling last Saturday morning at the Surfside Crossing property off South Shore Road, opponents of the 156-unit condominium development cried foul..
And not just because it pained them to see the trees come down. The Surfside Crossing developers, opponents said, didn’t have the permits required to begin the clear-cutting. Specifically, they believed Surfside Crossing had not yet obtained a conservation and management permit from the state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. Opponents - including neighbors, members of the group Nantucket Tipping Point, and the Nantucket Land Council - called the police and Sheriff Jim Perelman, they called their attorneys and town officials, and they called the courthouse, all in an effort to stop the clear-cutting.
But, as it turned out, Surfside Crossing developers did have the necessary permit. In fact, they had had it in hand since Aug. 31, 2022. The 21-day appeal period to challenge the permit had long since come and gone. How was it possible, the opponents of the development asked, that no one knew the permit had been issued?
As they found in the days since the clear-cutting, the permit had been e-mailed to numerous people last August, including at least three different town departments: the Planning and Land Use Services Department, the Natural Resources Department, and the town administration. Despite the fact that the town is in litigation with Surfside Crossing, the permit issuance was apparently never disclosed to the members of the Select Board and other elected and appointed town officials, let alone the opponents who undoubtedly would have launched an effort to appeal.
“The community was deprived of our rights to appeal Surfside Crossing by three town departments and staff,” said Meghan Perry, a member of Nantucket Tipping Point and nearby property owner who has been among those leading the charge in opposing Surfside Crossing.
On Wednesday night, the Select Board got an earful from Perry and others about the situation, as they demanded to know how such an important permit could have languished in e-mail inboxes despite Surfside Crossing being one of the most hotly-debated local issues in recent memory.
Former Select Board member Rick Atherton went as far as calling for the appointment of a special counsel to independently investigate the entire episode.
“That’s an extremely significant and serious issue and I would like to recommend to the board, and I say this as someone who spent nine years on Select Board, I recommend you ask and appoint a special counsel to review the circumstances about the lack of information transfer and about the number of days the appeal was available,” Atherton said. “I don’t think the Select Board should rely on town administration or KP Law to be willing to take the necessary investigation into what happened. This is a community issue with wide significance.”
South Shore Road property owner Bruce Perry also called on the board to further explore the circumstances of what happened.
“Why did the department heads not think it was necessary to notify their boards the permit had come through?” Perry asked. “Next week, we hope you’ll address this question. This was an egregious mistake as Matt (Fee) said earlier and it can’t happen again.”
Fee, who is in his fifth term on the Select Board, emphasized that he did not believe town counsel had been notified of the permit being issued.
“This could be a pretty big mistake, and we want to make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing,” Fee said. “We were not informed that I know of, and there was a 21 day appeal that could have happened and the Land Council or someone could have appealed it potentially.”
Island resident Charity Benz told the Select Board that “this is a shocking development. When we have the resources we do have in this town, this suggests to me an order of ineptitude that should not exist in a community like Nantucket.”
Meghan Perry also called into the meeting to raise her objections to the situation.
“I’m curious as to why these dates were missed and nothing was brought up especially when the town is currently in litigation on this matter,” Perry said. “It doesn't make sense to me. Was it missed because staff is overburdened? I don’t know. Staff had a duty to be certain the appropriate people were aware of this. By not doing so, it’s inappropriate. By not notifying town counsel, by not making this public, it's inappropriate. We need to do better.”
Perry also shared an e-mail from Jesse Leddick, the chief of regulatory review for the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, in which he described the issuance of the conservation and management permit for Surfside Crossing, and listed the Nantucket town officials who it was sent to. That list included the town administration operations administrator Erika Mooney, Planning and Land Use Services’ deputy director of planning Leslie Snell, and Natural Resources Department director Jeff Carlson.
Nantucket Current reached out to those three town officials to ask what happened after they received the e-mail regarding the permit, and their perspective on the situation.
“I can only speak for myself, and I honestly didn’t remember receiving the email until I looked for it the other day,” Mooney said in a message to the Current. “My mother had just died suddenly, and I was on an extended leave at the time and I think I just missed it while I was going through the hundreds of emails in my inbox upon my return to work.”
Snell, the town’s deputy director of planning, told the Current: “I was among several copied recipients of the email, which I interpreted as informational.”
Carlson did not reply to a message seeking comment.
While the topic was not on the agenda for Wednesday night’s Select Board meeting, town manager Libby Gibson briefly touched on the controversy.
“We can address that next week, but I’m not sure there were any requirements for notification beyond what was given to the town by the state,” Gibson said. “This is not a town permit.”
Surfside Crossing - a 156-condominium unit 40B development - has been bitterly opposed by a group of neighbors and the group Nantucket Tipping Point, but last fall it received approval from the state Housing Appeals Committee. The plan to build the condos on 13 acres of undeveloped pine forest off South Shore Road is still facing a series of lawsuits.
“We have been protecting the environment on this unique Island for nearly 50 years, and we never see developers do this kind of thing,” Nantucket Land Council executive director Emily Molden said in a prepared statement. “The laudable goals of affordable housing and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive, although these interests sometimes need to be balanced. But that balance can only be achieved with proper community participation and review, not by unilateral action by parties interested only in their bottom line. Nantucket deserves better than what happened out at Surfside this weekend.”
Surfside Crossing would include 156 condominium homes contained within 18 three-story buildings (two stories above grade) off South Shore Road. Twenty-five percent of those units would be deed restricted for affordable housing to individuals and families making up to 80 percent of the area median income, or a total of 39 units within the development.
According to the Surfside Crossing web site, "the remaining 117 units are designed to target the $450,000 to $825,000 price point that is currently underserved, in order to meet the needs and interests of Nantucket’s middle-income community."
"We believe strongly that this project is the solution that Nantucket desperately needs and have begun pre-construction work," Surfside Crossing developers Josh Posner and Jamie Feeley said in a statement. "The preparation work follows the final approvals of the Housing Appeals Committee and the Conservation Permit from the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, which were both issued in 2022, after more than 5 years since the process has started. Preliminary work at the property is taking place this winter and spring in compliance with the permit approvals’ conditions to prepare the site for the eventual start of construction. We are eager to move this project forward and assure that the benefits of new affordable housing for a wide range of year-rounder Nantucketers will be available to our community."