Perhaps more than any other Island town, Aquinnah changes with each new house built there.
Because of the town’s unique topography — there are relatively few woodlands, and the views are wide and uninterrupted — large new houses are easy to spot. And increasingly, new property owners want big houses, often siting them on the tops of hills for the best possible ocean views. From the Gay Head Cliffs, it’s easy for old-timers to spot the new structures, which are far larger than the houses that historically characterize Aquinnah, some residents say, and which are changing the rural character of this town, the smallest on the Island.
In response, the town’s planning board recently voted to nominate the entire town — 6.02 square miles — as a district of critical planning concern. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission last week accepted the nomination and, in doing so, placed a moratorium on any development in the town until the matter is resolved.
Camille Rose, chairman of the planning board, explained that some areas of the town already enjoy special protection as districts of critical planning concern, or through other designations. But planning board members feel that those districts are inadequate to protect the visual beauty of the whole town.
“People are concerned about having equal protection,” Miss Rose said. “Every part of the town is just as important. . . . It’s time everyone stopped and looked and decided where they wanted to go.”
Commission officials said they can’t recall another request to designate an entire town as a DCPC.
Still, Richard Toole, chairman of the commission, said there is nothing in the regulations to prevent such a designation.
In addition, although he said it’s too early to pass judgment on the merit of the nomination, he agreed that the town of Aquinnah is vulnerable to visual affronts to its landscape: “You can almost see the whole town if you’re standing in the right spot,” Mr. Toole said. “It’s all pretty exposed.”
A district of critical planning concern is a designation that allows a town to develop strict guidelines for development.
In order to establish a DCPC, residents must submit a nomination and it must be accepted for consideration by the commission — as the MVC did last week for the Aquinnah planning board. The board’s written nomination of Aquinnah is printed in its entirety on today’s Commentary Page.
Once the commission agrees to consider a nomination, a temporary building moratorium goes into effect. Then the commission conducts a hearing on the issue, and votes on whether or not to create the proposed DCPC. If it is established, the next step is the creation of guidelines for the new district. That task falls to the town, where a committee of residents usually develops a set of rules. If those rules include changes to the zoning bylaws, they must be approved by a two-thirds vote at a town meeting.
The town of Aquinnah already has two DCPCs. One of them surrounds Moshup Trail, a road that winds along the south edge of the town, a low sandy area with few trees and broad ocean views. In order to protect the visual landscape, the guidelines for this area state that a house cannot be built atop a hill or in a valley. Rather, houses are to be built within a tree line or in the side of a hill.
Houses cannot be taller than 18 feet, compared with 28 feet outside the district. Stone walls cannot be removed without permission, and trees with a diameter greater than 12 inches generally cannot be removed. The guidelines also suggest appropriate building materials and design concepts, including natural or neutral colors. The guidelines are not absolute; but a review committee uses them when considering every building application in the area. No house can be built here without the permission of this committee.
This district, however, is bordered by large unprotected areas. Consequently, big and tall houses are immediately visible from the protected moors of Moshup Trail and can be visually “jarring,” said Miss Rose, who describes the boundary of the district as somewhat erratic.
Similarly, the edge of Menemsha Pond enjoys special protection because it is part of the so-called coastal district, but the hills overlooking Menemsha Pond are not protected. “When you look up the hill from Menemsha Pond you get an area where structures can be 28 feet tall and they’re looming above Menemsha Pond,” Miss Rose said.
At the same time, the pressure on the town to allow grandiose houses is increasing. The town boards are overwhelmed with building applications, Miss Rose said, and the proposed structures are big. Some new houses are as large as 4,000 square feet and as tall as the maximum allowable height of 28 feet, which is visually unappealing when the houses sit on the highest hills in the town, Miss Rose said.
“We have been finding out gradually that demands are being made on the land that we didn’t expect, and to be honest, the size of some of these structures is what opened our eyes to it,” she said. “We never imagined that anybody would want to build anything that big in Gay Head. We thought people came here for the rural atmosphere.” She added: “Everybody who buys a piece of land wants to be tall enough to get an ocean view and therein lies the problem.”
A similar trend is the drive to convert small beach houses into large homes. Aquinnah beach houses are in high demand because they were built decades ago near water’s edge, before such construction was prohibited. Now, these cottages sell for as much as $500,000, and people who pay such sums expect to be able to enlarge and enhance them, she said, adding, “Nobody wants to buy a little Gay Head cottage and keep it that way, because the prices are so high.”
If Aquinnah is designated as a DCPC, Miss Rose said, she hopes the town will consider changes to the zoning bylaws, such as square footage and height restrictions for all houses. Another possibility is to extend protection of stone walls and trees throughout the entire town.
The planning board will be meeting with other boards in the town to develop ideas in the coming weeks, she said.
In addition, the public will be invited to a hearing before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission at a date that has not yet been set.
As the process moves forward, Miss Rose hopes that the town of Aquinnah — which is the smallest on the Island both in square miles and population — will emerge with greater protections.
“I hope it works,” she said, noting that the town’s rural character is significant culturally as well as economically. “We have no economic base at all in the town except for the scenery,” she said.