I’m a lifelong Chilmarker. Growing up, Nashaquitsa Pond and its surroundings were my world. I consider myself both fortunate and extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to play amongst those hills as a child. This is where I was raised. This is where my father grew up, where my grandfather and great grandfather grew up . . . all the way back to the home of the first Benjamin Mayhew, whose father, John, was Chilmark’s first English settler. My Island roots reach back 370 years.
Over the generations my family has lived, loved, worked and helped contribute to what these days many like to call “the character of Chilmark.” We were fishermen, sheepherders, hunters and farmers. We’ve witnessed huge waves of change, as up-Island actually became a desirable place for “mainlanders” to vacation in the summer (it wasn’t always so) and then to buy property for second, third, or fourth homes and now a few not-so-humble palaces.
My Grandpa Mayhew (Benjamin Carleton Jr.) and Grandmother Mayhew (Eileen Sullivan Mayhew) raised their children in “old Chilmark,” near the Quitsa overlook. The surrounding pond was largely undeveloped. Across the way were some close friends of the family, including the Pooles. Grandpa was a local swordfisherman, lobsterman, caretaker and our state representative for a period of time. I always wonder what his view on today’s Chilmark would be. Unfortunately, he died seven years before I was born.
When I was young, Grandmother lived at the top of our dirt road in the Big House where dad grew up. Uncle Skip, Aunt Eileen and Uncle Jonathan all had homes along our dirt road from subdivisions of the property they grew up on. As a boy, it was a wonderful feeling having so much family around. My cousins and I used to run around, exploring the natural world and exhausting ourselves until the sun set or our moms called us back for supper.
As a kid I remember noticing some changes on the other side of Clam Point on up to the Quitsa Bridge. The landscape appeared to be sprouting some other buildings. I would later earn summer money mowing lawns and cleaning houses over there, the Iscol house included. Trespassing on summer properties became an enjoyable off-season pastime. It fascinated me to hike around and see what these “strangers” did with their landscaping and house design. It astonished me how much some people had, even if they were only around a few weeks a year, but it seemed like this was the natural state of things somehow. Everything is always changing. And some folks just have more than others (myself included).
I remember learning that all the undeveloped land on the other side of the pond became James Taylor’s and then that Aunt Ernestine would be selling her property. Then Uncle Skip needed to sell his home at the top of our road. Grandmother was getting older and her house soon became a rental house. Many around here now refer to it as the Wedding House. Aunt Eileen died and her home was sold, torn down, replaced.
Trouble with my father’s health, combined with exceedingly complicated commercial fishing regulations and expensive boat maintenance, made selling our home an eventual necessity, too.
I mourn some of these losses but am grateful for the many good times we all had there. I’m saddened not at its sale so much as for the strife such difficult decisions can cause within one’s consciousness or within the family and community. The place where one was raised can feel like an old friend or family member.
Looking back, I believe my parents held on as long as they could in what Joel Harrison calls “a kind of no-man’s land between loving and leaving.”
Joel wrote a piece for the Gazette last summer titled, “Taking Stock in a Village, Razing a Home.” I appreciated hearing his perspective and was touched with its honesty. He is the former owner of what is now the infamous Zoia property overlooking Quitsa Pond.
“Many Island families have dealt with this scenario,” wrote Joel. “And more will soon enough.”
For me, this scenario is compounded by the fact that as this process occurs — as families can no longer make sense of holding a family property or can even afford to hang on to the lands they’ve been stewards of for generations — they and the year-round community here are beginning to realize a type of loss of self. It’s more than a material exchange when someone buys a property, tears down a home and builds a new one. I believe members of the community here (and elsewhere) are beginning to really reevaluate our connection to things, to the history of a place, to the living things around us, to those who came before us and those who will follow. For many of us, these things are sacred.
The new Zoia development appears to be the opposite of all these values, an enormous compound that was seemingly constructed by slickly navigating the limits of current regulations and throwing aside any consideration for the unique history of stewardship of the land or its neighbors. Now it sits, like a boil in the side of these ancient hills, and the family doesn’t understand why anyone is upset. Their lawyers have repeatedly reassured the community that they abided by all applicable zoning laws at the time. It’s true. The place is completely legal.
This has become the tipping point for a groundswell of agitation. There’s a general feeling that these oversized houses are somehow sneering at the working class who helped build them, yet others argue that they are good for the local economy. Then there’s the fact that they are environmentally greedy. But at this point you can be environmentally greedy if you can afford it, right?
It starts to become a classic debate over supporting a culture of material wealth and “freedom to do what I want no matter your opinion or the cost” versus a culture of environmentalism, justice and equality that says “let’s create an ever-expanding labyrinth of rules and regulations to protect each other from all possible exploits.” Angers have escalated, and all sorts of rhetoric is being thoughtlessly thrown around: “class prejudice,” “witch hunt,” etc. There is surely some of that here but all of this is just inflammatory and misses the point. The Zoia fortress is a sign of disconnect. And if that is a sign of things to come, the better part of the community is scared.
So now we have a very dedicated group of forward-thinking Chilmarkers who have been working hard to process what seems wrong with this and to come up with some kind of protections to keep this from continuing in the future. Currently they are proposing a zoning bylaw that would limit the square footage of “livable space” one could build based upon a formula they’ve devised from the size of your lot. I find this a valiant effort and applaud them all for finally shining a spotlight on this thing.
For me, the issue has less to do with square footage, though. You could build a 3,500-square-foot structure in the wrong place with no regard for its history, your neighbors, other people’s views or the environment and it would still just be another fresh wound helping to bleed out the very soul of this place. Why is 3,555 square feet not okay when 3,500 square feet is? I can respect that this is intended to slow things down so there is less likelihood the community will somehow feel hoodwinked later, but then what would the review process for special consideration look like? Wouldn’t people who can afford large properties simply be able to subdivide or use some other method to skirt around these bylaws? Why do those with lots under three acres get a decrease of 250 square feet of permissible living space per acre? Surely those with youth lots and resident homesites aren’t going to build Hampton-style megamansions?
I personally cringe at excessive regulation yet understand why so many get created for the sake of protecting ideals. This is good, but tricky because we have to agree about our ideals for this to work. I believe the newly-proposed zoning bylaw has most of our ideals at heart, though I’m not so certain I like its gray areas. Even if it passes, it only lightly touches the steering wheel in Chilmark’s pilothouse. The Chilmark of our ancestors is no more. We’re all onboard, many of us throughout the year. The ship seems to be drifting. Do we trust these currents or want to wrestle control? If we wrestle control, how are we setting our compass?