Leonard Jason Jr. sits behind a cluttered desk heaped with requests for permits to build houses, revise houses, create a curb, redo a kitchen and put up a tent, along with notes from contractors, letters from lawyers and fellow town officials. Lenny, who recently became vegan and started working out after a “silent heart attack,” looks vibrant. He pulls out a pile of post-its, his self-styled rolodex, and begins his work day by returning calls. When people don’t pick up, he leaves the same message, “This is Lenny Jason, the building inspector, returning your call.”
When he does get a person, more often than not it is about someone wanting to, as Lenny puts it, “Have it their way.” For example, one of the morning’s calls involves a person who wants to know if they can build a 402-square-foot detached bedroom in Edgartown. Lenny’s answer: “If it’s 402 square feet, I’m not going to give you a permit. The zoning bylaw says it can only be 400 square feet.” He listens patiently as the person states his case on the other end of the line. “Well that’s like being a little bit pregnant. No such thing.”
Or someone wants the building code explained: How does the town of Chilmark measure square feet for a guest house — by the inside or the outside of the guest house? “Guest houses in Chilmark are measured by the inside,” is the reply. In nearly all the calls, Lenny refers to a red binder which holds the current set of bylaws for the town on his desk. “I try not to memorize anything. So every time someone has a question, I have to look it up. This way nothing gets confused,” he explains.
He is referring to the fact that he is the building inspector for two towns — Chilmark and Edgartown — with two different sets of bylaws. But considering that he has been building inspector for as many as three towns (he also inspected for West Tisbury) for 26 years and could probably cite each zoning bylaw by heart, this practice of checking in with the written law reveals his deep respect for his responsibility.
“It’s a lot easier now,” he says on this gray September morning in Chilmark. “In 1986, 236 houses got built in Edgartown. I’d come in to a stack of building permits every day. I worked from six in the morning to 9:30 at night. This year we’ll only have about 14 new houses in Chilmark. Speaking of building, how is your sister’s house doing?” (Full disclosure: this reporter’s sister is building an 800-square-foot guest house in Chilmark.) I tell him the foundation has been poured. “Well, I wish they’d [the contractor] have called me. We’ll have to look at that on my way home.”
Pam Bunker, the town assistant assessor, comes into Lenny’s office to ask about a few pleas from people to amend their property values. Lenny switches hats (he is also on the board of assessors) and talks through the issues and cases. Clarissa Allen, another member of the board of assessors, arrives for a morning meeting. Pam asks if he’s coming. “I want to sit in on the planning board subcommittee meeting. I can’t be in two places at once,” he replies.
In 1952, Lenny’s father, Leonard Jason Sr., bought land, built a barn and then a house in Chilmark. From the time he was eight, Lenny grew up in two places. The family — his mother Hilda, father, and brother Dennis (now the Menemsha harbor master) would spend their winters in Dartmouth and summers here on the Island. His dad, a commercial fisherman, would fish and his mother would watch Lenny and his brother who spent their time “playing in the sand dunes and around the harbor.” In 1962, at the age of 18, Lenny moved to the Island and went to work for the builder Otis Burt. “My first winter here I lived in one of those shacks in Menemsha by the old Coast Guard station. No heat. No water. I used to flush the toilets with salt water. Slept with an electric blanket and quilted underwear. I couldn’t wait to go home to Dartmouth on the weekends.” Then in 1969, after serving in the Army in the U.S. and in Viet Nam and as a National Guardsman, Lenny made the Island his permanent home and began “banging nails” for Herbert Hancock. In 1986, he had another career change. “Building houses ceased to be rewarding and Steve Bryant, the building inspector in Edgartown at the time, suggested that I apply for the job. So I did and I got it. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”
He continues: “The worst thing about this job is stopping neighbors from killing each other. In the old days, if you had a problem or were going to do something to your property, you’d go over to your neighbor’s house and have a conversation. You’d talk it through. Everyone would do their best to accommodate the other. There was consideration. Now it’s lawyers — strangers talking.” As if on cue, an attorney arrives. He’s there to discuss a disagreement between two neighbors. The attorney represents one of the neighbors. The dispute is over the location of a fence. Lenny heads to the planning board subcommittee meeting. The subcommittee is exploring how to regulate large houses, the hot topic of the day in Chilmark and on the Island. For a little more than an hour, Lenny listens to committee members debate options for new zoning bylaws. Finally they open the discussion. Lenny raises his hand and asks, “What does the farmer do?” He continues: “We have to remember that we are not just regulating second homes, we are also trying to support a fishing and farming community.” After a little back and forth, he leaves the meeting.
It is noontime. “Time to go to Edgartown,” Lenny declares. On Wednesdays he divides his day between Chilmark in the morning and Edgartown in the afternoon. He arrives in Edgartown at around 12:30 p.m. “Sometimes I eat lunch with the ladies upstairs [in the Edgartown town hall], but today I’m running a little late. I shouldn’t have stayed at that meeting,” he says.
He introduces his assistant Akeyah Nunes. “She’s a neat freak,” he announces and the contradiction is evident. In his cramped office here his desk is even messier than in Chilmark. A computer screen peeks out between towering stacks of paper. “I could probably throw all this paper out,” he muses. “Most of it I don’t need because I’m in the meetings that these memos recount. But if I did [throw it all out] then there’d be the one piece of paper with one critical piece of information that I need.”
The phone rings. “Building inspector.”
Derek Avakian arrives. Lenny has recently hand-picked him to be the new assistant building inspector for Edgartown. “I chose him because he is young, has a good work ethic, knows the building codes. I like the idea of a local kid working in the community,” he says.
Akeyah hands Lenny a list of job sites to visit. “Ah, let’s see we have a frame, a foundation and a fireplace. Not bad.” He heads out for an afternoon of site visits in a red Jeep with plastic covering one of the passenger windows in the back seat [he broke it accidentally after locking himself out]. Like his desks, the inside of his car is a jumble of debris. He shrugs, “I’m not much on maintenance. It drives my wife nuts.”
While he may not be mindful of his desks or car upkeep, the houses he inspects are another story. He carefully goes through a new garage’s frame, asking the builder for an engineer report, spends time walking around a new foundation (leaving a rock on its wall to indicate to the contractor that he was there) and works through a building strategy and calculations for a fireplace with a mason. Although he has a mounting pile of work waiting for him back at the office, he doesn’t rush.
Driving back to town hall, Lenny confides that of all the things he does, he is proudest of his work with the Vineyard Transit Authority, “I just love seeing those white buses on the road. Do you know how many more cars we’d have if we didn’t have those buses? More than a million people used those buses last year,” he enthuses.
After he arrives in his Edgartown office, he notes, “The only thing I asked for were no doors on my offices. I wanted everyone to know that anyone can come and sit and listen to and watch what I do.”
At around six he heads back up to Chilmark for dinner. He used to stop on the way home to pick up his mom and take her “for a drive around the Island before dinner, but last week I had to put her in Windemere. She can’t walk. It sucks.”
On the way, we stop to inspect the new foundation for my sister. Dirt crunches under his feet as he walks around checking the job site. He shakes his head when he finds that the contractor has used the wrong-sized washers. “They’ll have to fix that.” My husband and daughter walk over to say hello. After a little small talk, Lenny says: “You hear that? The stillness, that’s why we live here.”
Lenny Jason Jr. by the Numbers
Born: New Bedford.
Occupation: Building inspector for Chilmark and Edgartown.
Civic duties: Sits on the board of assessors in Chilmark; is treasurer, board member and Chilmark representative for the Vineyard Transit Authority; and is a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission
Family: Son of Hilda Jason and the late Leonard Jason Sr.; wife, Sheila, daughters Andria and Alexia; two step-children, Henry and Heather; brother Dennis; three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. All live on the Island.
Diet: Vegan since January 12, 2012.
Wakes up: 3:45-4 a.m. most days.
Pets: Cat named Simon who is 14.
Boats: “My father [Leonard Jason Sr., who was a fisherman and shellfish constable] told me to never own a boat that you can’t make money on.”
Most he’s spent building a house per square foot: $100.
Served: Army in Viet Nam, National Guard in Falmouth.
Collects: Baseball cards.
Favorite house on Island: Meinelt House on South Road. “I love all federal-style architecture.”