As the Chilmark planning board continues to work on crafting a bylaw to regulate large houses, the town zoning board of appeals sounded off this week about the proposed bylaw, saying among other things that the planning, not zoning board, is the proper committee to review large houses under any new rules that the town decides to adopt.
“Putting the board of appeals into development decisions is a bad plan,” said board of appeals chairman Chris Murphy. “You deal with development all day long . . . in the end it should stay with you. Somewhere far down the line, whatever you do will undoubtedly end up at the ZBA, but you should be the primarily place these discussions take place.”
The comments came at the planning board meeting on Monday night. The board of appeals was invited to attend to give comments on the draft bylaw that has been worked on by a planning board subcommittee for months. The latest draft calls for houses over 3,500 square feet to go through an extra site review process among town land use boards, with the board of appeals as a special permit-granting authority. The planning board wants to adopt a temporary bylaw that is in effect for two years and then reviewed. Town meeting approval is needed.
On Monday night Mr. Murphy called the concept sound, but said the planning board should have the courage of its convictions and then trust the will of the voters.
“If I could urge you to do one thing — don’t come in with something politically correct,” he said. “Come in with a proposal and defend it on town meeting floor, and if it gets adjusted, it gets adjusted. Don’t come in with a compromise already. Come in with what you think is the best answer, and let the chips fall where they fall.”
Planning board chairman Janet Weidner took the message to heart but said the details are still important. “We want to put together something you guys can enforce,” she said.
Mr. Murphy also took issue with the trial balloon approach. “I think rushing to put in an interim plan is unnecessary,” he said. “If it’s well thought-out, it will be worth waiting for.”
He also said the trigger for extra review should be less than 3,500 square feet.
“I would move the level down. I’m not saying that you should never have a house bigger than a certain level, but our experience all over the Island is . . . people immediately build four square feet less than the threshold,” said Mr. Murphy, who is also chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
Zoning board member Frank LoRusso had a different view, calling the bylaw “much too radical.”
“I’m just afraid that it’s going to get out of hand and 3,500 square feet as far as I’m concerned is much too low to start at,” Mr. LoRusso said. “My feeling is 5,000 square feet would be a kick in, or maybe 4,500, but certainly not 3,500 square feet.”
Ms. Weidner said the planning board has not settled on a number yet.
Zoning board member Russell Maloney said beyond the large house issue, the zoning bylaws need a general overhaul.
“I think we could solve a lot of problems if we took a look at the bylaws and got everyone involved and fixed them,” Mr. Maloney said. “Now we have a bunch of people fired up because someone built a detached bedroom,” he said, referring to the townwide controversy over the Zoia house on Nashaquitsa Pond. “How hard is it to write what a guest house is, what a barn is? It’s not that hard.”
In addition to sparking widespread discussion in town about the house size, character and impact to neighborhoods, the Zoia house is the subject of an appeal proceeding with the zoning board. Last month Ken and Jill Iscoll, who are abutters to the Zoias, filed an appeal over what they claim are zoning violations, including a claim that an accessory structure on the property needs a special permit and that it was built without one.
The town has retained special counsel on the matter. The zoning board is expected to make a decision in October.
Mr. Maloney said if the town had a clearly-written zoning bylaw, many such appeals would be unnecessary.
He said he would like to see the town “take the glaring problems that were pointed out to us by our attorney and all agree on what we want and how we want to correct these problems and do it by April and get it to the town [for a vote].”
But planning board subcommittee member Joan Malkin said the Zoia house was a catalyst for an important discussion in town about a critical issue.
“It is indicative of a problem and that is the large house problem,” Mrs. Malkin said. “It has to do with the impact of big houses. It is true that the most obvious impact is visual, but it isn’t the only impact. There are a lot of issues going on with large houses and we are trying to address those things . . . Chilmark’s character runs the risk of being altered irrevocably with large houses.”