A small and largely unknown group of Oak Bluffs neighbors are circulating a petition calling for the abolishment of the Cottage City Historic District, claiming that the historic district commission routinely violates homeowners’ property rights and is driving down property values.
The petition, with a headline reading Restore Our Fifth Amendment Rights, has circulated throughout several town neighborhoods recently, although it is unclear who is leading the charge. The author of the three-page petition is unidentified, and the only claim of ownership is made by a group calling itself ROAR, the letters apparently corresponding to the petition’s headline.
The petition lists a web address where residents can go to sign online, which brings users to a site listing thousands of petitions calling for everything from the end to daylight saving time to the release of Shamu from Sea World in Florida. As of yesterday, nobody had signed the online petition.
The petition reads like a political manifesto and recommends no specific course of action. It claims the historic commission routinely denies homeowners their constitutional rights.
The Cottage City Historic District was unanimously approved by Oak Bluffs voters at the 2003 annual town meeting. At the time, proponents of the district were worried that low interest rates, a new sewer system and a surge in real estate values would lead to a renovation boom that could mar the town’s unique turn-of-the-century architectural legacy.
The district embraces 75 acres downtown, including the North Bluff and the corridor between Circuit and Sea View avenues. The district includes 386 houses and 12 parks. The area is commonly known as the Copeland District, named after Morris Copeland, the designer who laid out the system of curving streets and parks back in 1871.
The neighborhood is widely considered one of the first planned communities in the country. Its meandering streets and small parks bear the influence of Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park. Illustrious visitors who once walked this neighborhood included President Grant, Alexander Graham Bell and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
The historic commission established rules that allow for things like new houses to be set closer to the street, towers to be built that exceed height restriction and lower porch railings. The commission deals with exterior work that can be be viewed from a public way, and looks closely at design details such as roof pitches and extended eaves. In general, the commission tries to steer homeowners toward things like covered porches and anything that fits the neighborhood vernacular.
Historic district commission chairman S. David Wilson said the petition now circulating is inflammatory and filled with misinformation.
He said the commission has reviewed approximately 200 applications over the past four years and approved almost all of them with little contention. He said the commission encourages potential applicants to bring their plans in before filling out a formal application and works with homeowners to come up with a plan that preserves the neighborhood without creating hardships.
He said district regulations mirror many of the same rules established by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
“The suggestion that we approve or deny an application on a whim is ludicrous . . . we have very clear guidelines that we follow in a consistent manner. We aren’t out to give anyone a hard time . . . the standards we establish are the same for everyone,” Mr. Wilson said.
But Jane E. Lofgren, owner of the Narragansett House, located within the district, diagrees. She said many people in the neighborhood are tired of being told what materials they can use and what types of changes they are allowed to make to their homes.
“People arent being treated fairly and they are fed up with it. The commission tends to make the rules up as they go; they tell you to do one thing and then demand you do something else,” she said. Mrs. Lofgren, who is also a member of the town zoning board of appeals, had a dispute with the historic commission over repairs to a deck on the rear of her building.
She said she supports the petition but evaded questions about her involvement in it. She did concede that she has shared the document with her neighbors and tried to garner their support.
Renee Balter, a member of the historic commission, dismissed the petition as nonsense.
“People take so much pride and put so much time into preserving what is special about this neighborhood. I dont think we should throw that out because a few homeowners cant do exactly what they want to do,” she said, concluding:
“You do have to go the extra mile if you own a home in [the historic district], but its worth it to preserve something so special.”