It’s a question that vexes local planning agencies and inflames passions from homeowners builders, and residents on both sides of the issue.
When it comes to houses, how big is too big?
This issue has special resonance on the Vineyard, where land is limited and residents have a history of fiercely protecting — and debating — the Island’s character.
There seems to be consensus about one thing: there’s no easy answer. Some question where the threshold for large houses would be, and say people should be allowed to make their own decisions about their property. Others say large home developments are visual eyesores that are harmful to the environment and are slowly eroding the quality of the Island.
At the center of the debate are town planning boards, many of whom have grappled with the issue, and architects and contractors who make their living designing and building homes of all sizes on the Island.
The large house dispute has come to the forefront this year in Chilmark, where neighbor concerns about a large house compound fronting Nashaquitsa Pond has led to a series of workshops and a decision by the planning board to consider a trial bylaw regulating house size.
The question, long debated through the last decade, also came close to regulation last year when the Martha’s Vineyard Commission held meetings to discuss the issue.
Still under discussion at the MVC is the question of whether to add large houses to the so-called development of regional impact (DRI) checklist, a list of criteria that trigger commission review of projects.
The Vineyard Conservation Society proposed that homes of more than 4,000 square feet, or properties with a built environment footprint of more than 7,500 square feet, should require DRI review.
The issue was hotly-debated before the commission by people on both sides, and remains unsettled.
The conservation society has been an advocate for “smarter, smaller and more efficient” houses for some time, executive director Brendan O’Neill said this week. “Our view is that the scale of the built environment, the relationship between structures and the natural landscape is an important and defining component of Vineyard character worthy of more attention than currently exists,” Mr. O’Neill said.
“High-impact development should have enhanced regulatory review where it is clearly a matter of regional importance. Any particular land use, especially very large houses that may impact the natural and ecological and cultural values of the Vineyard that are regional, the commission as a regional planning agency should have authority to do a comprehensive review and that review is currently not happening.”
Mr. O’Neill characterized the big house issue as a spirited community conversation.
“We’re encouraged that something positive is emerging,” he said of the work by the Chilmark planning board, and encouraged the commission to take a similar approach.
Large houses are not new to the Vineyard. In the 1980s, car magnate Ernest Boch built a 15,000-square-foot house on the Edgartown harbor with three kitchens and 62 skylights, and residents at the time contested the size and scope of the addition. In 2006, the MVC declined to review a 15,575-square-foot West Tisbury home being built by Steven Rattner, saying they were uncomfortable with the idea of reviewing single-family homes, however large.
Other communities have also grappled with the issue. On Nantucket, regulations dictate building footprint size in relation to lot size, said John Brescher, Nantucket planning board administrator. The historic district commission can regulate aesthetics and the structure itself. “Those are two bites of the apple,” he said.
On Nantucket, every zoning district has a permitted ground-cover ratio, which dictates the enclosed space of the building. An open porch would not count toward the ground cover, but an enclosed porch would, for example. “It’s a percentage of the lot area,” Mr. Brescher said. Smaller lots in the historic district are treated differently than rural lots with three-acre zoning, he said. “Zoning just sets forth a limit of what’s allowable, the historic district commission regulates to a certain extent size — but really aesthetics.”
Trial Bylaw in Chilmark
The Chilmark planning board has met regularly this year to discuss the large house issue and has written a trial bylaw to regulate house size that is expected eventually to come before voters at a town meeting. The draft bylaw would require houses over 3,500 square feet to be reviewed by the site review committee, made up of one selectman, health board, zoning board, planning board and one at-large member. The bylaw also sets up a series of so-called checks for location, size in relation to neighboring properties, visibility, drainage, environmental impact and energy efficiency. Enough checks with impacts can lead to the need for a special permit from the zoning board of appeals.
Planning board chairman Janet Weidner called the bylaw a starting point.
“We need more research done before we decide what the right number [of checks] is,” she said. Once the subcommittee that drafted the bylaw “feels like we have our arms around what recommendation we want to make” they’ll present it to the full planning board, the board of selectmen and zoning board of appeals.
“When we and the zoning board of appeals are pretty happy with the concept we’ll go through a formal public hearing process and take it to town meeting floor,” Ms. Weidner added.
The subcommittee is also researching the Nantucket model.
“People have good ideas and we’re happy to hear them,” Ms. Weider said.
In Aquinnah, Rules and Compliance
Perhaps ironically, the smallest town on the Vineyard has been the most agressive when it comes to zoning regulations. In 1999 Aquinnah voters agreed to designate the entire town as a district of critical planning concern, a special overlay planning tool that carries extra legal strength in the courts because it is created under the enabling legislation for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The townwide DCPC includes rules relating to house size. Anything over 2,000 square feet must go through a special review process, but is not prohibited, planning board chairman Peter Temple said.
“If they want to add a shed and they’re already over 2,000 square feet we have the ability to say, maybe not so big or try to put it in a place that’s not so visible,” he said. “We have cut people way back. One applicant wanted to build a 6,000-square-foot footprint and a 2,000 square-foot guesthouse. We said no to the guesthouse and told him to cut back the main house to 4,000 square feet.”
Mr. Temple said the board focuses heavily on siting issues.
“If a house is in the middle of the woods and no one sees it, we look at it differently than if it’s in a visible area,” he said.
Impacts on resources are also taken into account.
“If there are massive earthworks and wetland filling . . . we don’t like that at all,” Mr. Temple said. “We like to minimize the impact on land and wetlands. It’s the magnitude of the project, not just the size of the house.”
He said after more than a decade of living with the town’s tight regulatory process, “architects and engineers now understand what we want. They come in with something that’s going to fly from the beginning.”
He continued: “People who are experienced in town know and they won’t even ask, or they’ll ask and view it as a negotiation,” he said.
While the planning board encourages homeowners not to use white trim because “it makes it stick out,” Mr. Temple said individuality is still valued.
“We did this because we wanted to preserve the character of the town . . . I’m for anything that helps preserve the traditional character of the Island,” he said. “People here like to build eclectic houses, and we try to let people be as individualistic as possible. It’s less about architecture and more about impact.”
The West Tisbury Way: Site Review
In West Tisbury, a site review board automatically reviews houses over 3,000 square feet. The planning board acts as the site review board. All recommendations are discretionary.
“We cannot impose, we can only request certain things,” planning board chairman Virginia Jones said, including exterior lighting, minimizing glass areas, low-maintenance building materials, low-energy use and alternative energy sources.
Mrs. Jones said the board’s biggest challenge is receiving consistent and detailed plans among the land use boards, including the conservation commission and the board of health.
“I think this illustrated the necessity of having a very detailed plan for every project that you have to review,” she said. “We have to as boards all over the Island, including the MVC, we have to insist that [applicants] come in with a fully-fledged plan and that the plan be professionally stamped and include all the elements that are planned.”
New to Neighborhood on West Chop
In Vineyard Haven, a recent project created some controversy in town: Jim Ferraro’s 21,000-square-foot compound off Upper Main street in West Chop.
Planning board co-chairman Henry Stephenson said the home, which sits in a highly-visible location on the Chop, was controversial, but fell within existing zoning laws that regulate things like building height and setbacks from the street. The project did not come before the planning board.
But “it does totally disrupt the visual character of that area,” Mr. Stephenson said, noting the rest of the homes in the neighborhood are tucked behind hedges, and the Ferraro compound is visible across a swath of preserved open space. ”It’s quite different than the character of the rest of the neighborhood.”
“Some things are hard to define,” he said, noting that the Ferraro house is no taller than other buildings at the tip of West Chop.
The home was recently the subject of a story in The Wall Street Journal.
The Ferraro compound brings up the issue of neighborhood character, Mr. Stephenson said, which may be something to regulate. A planning board might look at “how each of these neighborhoods actually looks and have zoning laws designed to reflect that,” he said. “I think the issue of large houses would be better handled that way.”
Rooftops, height and setbacks from the street vary by neighborhood, and zoning laws could reflect the differences, Mr. Stephenson said. He said the town could work with the commission to do neighborhood-by-neighborhood surveys, going up and down every street. “I don’t think it’s very hard, but it is tedious,” he said.
The town’s designation as a green community, recently approved by the governor, is “not about big houses explicitly, but it does have to do with conserving resources,” Mr. Stephenson said. “If a big house is built, I think people would like to make sure it’s not wasting a lot of energy,” he said. “We might be coming at it that way.”
That said, he added, there are always “questions about the impact large homes have on the town in terms of visual impact and environmental concerns and demand made on surrounding roadways . . . that’s an open question.”
David Handlin, a Cambridge architect who has designed several projects on the Vineyard, including Mr. Ferraro’s home and the Zoia home in Chilmark, opposes the idea of regulating house size. “I think people have the right to build as much as they want provided they obey all the regulations,” said Mr. Handlin, the only critic of size regulation who could be reached by the Gazette.
Craig Whitaker, a New York city architect and longtime Vineyard Haven resident, had another view and said simply setting a square footage threshold is a good place to begin.
“It’s saying if it’s over a certain size we’d like to take a look at it . . . I think that’s a very subtle and effective way to regulate context by using the size as the first benchmark,” he said.
“When you say large houses you think of something in Southhampton that’s a 25,000 square-foot house . . . and Southhampton, in order for it to have a sense of self, is welcoming to this kind of display of wealth. It doesn’t seem right on the Vineyard.”
Mr. Whitaker concluded: “I don’t think there is a magic number. How big a house should be depends on its location, its visibility to neighbors and its visibility to the road . . . it isn’t necessarily a question of size; it’s a question of context and how buildings relate to their neighbors.
“If you can see the extravaganza Mr. Big Bucks built, then it isn’t in the community’s interest, it really is destructive. If he wants a house like that he should pack up his belongings and go to the Hamptons. Maybe Palm Beach would be better.”