The Chilmark planning board this week took up the thorny subject of large houses, their impact on the environment and how to regulate them.
At a special meeting Wednesday afternoon that drew a small crowd, the planning board announced the formation of a large house working group charged with determining whether existing zoning bylaws should be changed to limit house sizes.
Planning board chairman Janet Weidner said it would be the first of many discussions.
“The topic is large houses . . . is this something we need to deal with, do we go anywhere with it?” she said. “This meeting is not a public hearing, it’s a working group. It’s not a big kvetching session. It’s not intended to be a witch hunt. That’s not what we want. We’d like to hear ideas to work on and help from the audience working on some of those ideas.”
Ideas on the table for discussion include limiting the size of houses to a certain square footage or requiring special review for houses over a certain size, expanding one of the town’s districts of critical planning concern (DCPCs) to incorporate rules to regulate house size, requiring special energy saving designs and using a lot size ratio to determine the size of a house.
Made up of planning board members, the working group is expected to meet throughout the winter.
The immediate charge for the group is determine the legality of limiting house sizes in Chilmark — both interior and exterior – by contacting town counsel and the state attorney general. It was also suggested that the group investigate other towns that have taken steps to limit house size, including the town of Wellfleet on the Lower Cape, which recently adopted a bylaw limiting the exterior size of houses.
With help from the audience, the group drew up a list of areas that needed further investigation — among them water quality, permitting process, energy efficiency, definitions of size and community character – in order to answer the main question: What is the impact of large houses?
At the center of the swirl of discussion is a house under construction on Quitsa Pond owned by Adam Zoia, a longtime summer resident who recently purchased the Harrison property. Mr. Zoia attended the meeting. The 4,200-square-foot main house is situated at the head of the pond; the compound under construction includes two other buildings, a barn and a pool house. And while the main house is only 500 square feet larger than the original house on the property, it has been the subject of much discussion in town, due in part to large amounts of excavation work and a high retaining wall that was built. The planning board has been flooded with e-mails from town residents who are alarmed at the mass of the house in a highly visible location.
And it was a subject for discussion on Wednesday.
“When I think about this, I think about the impact on neighborhoods that are affected,” said Clarissa Allen, a member of the site review committee that vetted the Zoia house plans. “Now we have a situation where desirable properties in town are along the pond shores, in Quitsa, Greenhouse Lane, the old beautiful summer neighborhoods that evolved over 100 years . . . one of issues I’ve heard around town about the Zoia home is it seems to be out of keeping with other homes around it. I think that is a key concern, without trying to legislate extreme taste, because we have all kinds of houses in this town.” She continued: “It’s nebulous and hard to get our hands around the relation of some of these larger homes to what’s around them and how the people in those other homes feel . . . I’m saying there are critical areas and neighborhoods we should look at.”
Jonathan Mayhew, a Quitsa Pond resident and town selectman, agreed.
“It’s called a Quitsa Casino by the neighbors, it’s way too big from our perspective,” he said, referring to the Zoia house.
But Mr. Zoia defended the size and modern style of his home, saying taste is subjective and should not be regulated. He said he stayed within the rules set by the town boards.
“There have been a lot of negative reactions regarding our house, but we followed the rules,” he said, adding: “If I had a heads-up to the intensity of the opposition to some of our neighbors, we would have had different outcome perhaps. It’s hard to have clear rules, follow them and still be criticized. In our case there’s been a lot of hostility. I think having clarity in whatever the new rules will be is great. Whatever it is, we’d do.” He continued:
“I feel besieged. We’ve been attacked and slandered. If we were given guidance, we would have done differently.”
Reid Silva, a land surveyor who attended the meeting, agreed the rules are unclear and credited Mr. Zoia for attending the meeting.
“I think it shows a lot of character for Mr. Zoia to show up here,” Mr. Silva said. “There is no rule that said he couldn’t do what he did with the house size, it’s a very subjective thing. Everyone has different opinions. But until the town comes up with something, I don’t think it’s fair to scrutinize people who do what they’d like to do.”
Mr. Silva said site review committees used in Chilmark as well as other towns, can be difficult to navigate, and he urged the working group to find a better method.
“Who’s going to find out the legality of limiting house size?” he asked. “Nantucket has coverage laws [which regulate how much of a lot may be covered by a building], and that is an effective way to limit house size. There’s a legal question at hand, let’s get to the bottom of whether we can limit the size.”
Chilmark selectman Warren Doty said large houses are the issue of the day and the time has come for the town to address the problem.
“We’ve done a good job with zoning,” Mr. Doty said. “I think the concern is large houses; it isn’t density, it isn’t build-out, we feel the nature of our community changes when you have an 8,000-square-foot house when we’re used to a 2,500-square-foot house. To me a 10,000-square-foot house in Chilmark doesn’t fit in with the size of the community.” He said and others agreed, that to date the town has done a pretty good job of keeping a trend in check.
“The pressure of the money that could arrive in the town of Chilmark could have changed Chilmark overnight, we could have been Ocean City, Maryland,” Mr. Doty said.
Whether to regulate large houses has also been a recent subject for discussion before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which is reviewing its so-called checklist for developments of regional impact, projects that are referred to the commission for review. MVC executive director Mark London said Wednesday, the right solution would likely be a mix of subjective and objective rules.
“A lot of things are not quantifiable, especially design,” Mr. London said. “But you need to have a method for people exercising judgment.”