Shifting Hotel Plans Ignite Controversy


A flurry of phone calls, letters, accusations and denials shook Tisbury this week - tremors that followed public suspicions that construction plans for the Mansion House differ from architectural drawings the Martha's Vineyard Commission and the town zoning board of appeals approved in the spring of 2002.

Six months shy of the deadline to open the doors of the hotel destroyed by fire 13 months ago, local architect James Weisman alerted Tisbury building inspector Kenneth Barwick and the MVC of what he viewed as liberal deviations from the approved plan in the final days of 2002.

"The other day I was standing in front of EduComp on State Road in Vineyard Haven, looking at the pretty perspective drawing of the new Mansion House that is affixed to the growing steel frame of the building. I found myself noting variations between the perspective and what the built frame seemed to be implying," Mr. Weisman explained in his letter, one that made its way into Island newspapers in the following week.

Mr. Weisman's letter details variations from architectural plans on file in the commission's office and from construction drawings attached to the building permit. According to Mr. Weisman's calculations, Mansion House owners Sherman and Susan Goldstein added 19 balconies and over 900 square feet of interior space. A 12-foot by 12-foot cupola has been enlarged to a 20-foot by 20-foot structure, Mr. Weisman said. He also noted small increases in at least a dozen of the 32 guest rooms. All of these adaptations, Mr. Weisman said, were made without increasing the height or number of approved bedrooms.

The town of Tisbury acknowledged this week that building plans filed with the building inspector are different from those approved by the commission and the town zoning board of appeals.

"It is true that there are more balconies added to the building. It is not the same plan that was submitted for review by the commission," said town administrator Dennis Luttrell, noting that the town does not consider the changes to be egregious violations of the commission's authority. The Goldsteins simply turned in the altered plans to the building inspector.

The Goldsteins, who likened Mr. Weisman's letter to a "New Year's eve sucker punch," denied this week that current plans significantly stray from those approved by permitting authorities.

"There have been no changes to the overall footprint, height of the structure and scope of the project," Mrs. Goldstein said Wednesday.

The owners, who have invested a $6.5 million loan, the inn property equity and their private home mortgage into the rebuilding project, refused to comment on the specific allegations in Mr. Weisman's letter.

"There have been tiny alterations as the project matured, minuscule changes that occur when you build. It's analogous to a person building a 2,500-square-foot house and adding a new cabinet," Mrs. Goldstein said.

The towering steel skeleton has jarred many folks passing by the Main street intersection, Mrs. Goldstein admitted, but the project when complete will not prove to be as looming as it now appears.

"When you are building a boat in the boatyard, it looks like Noah's arc. When you put it in the water, it looks like a dinghy," she noted.

The construction drawings will find their way back to the commission's office next week, a courtesy that Tisbury officials said they are extending even though they do not concede the seriousness of these potential changes.

"As far as the commission is concerned, the number of rooms and the height have not been exceeded. Mr. Barwick and I saw no problems with it, but as a matter of courtesy, we will send the plans to the commission and the zoning board," Mr. Luttrell said.

The MVC, which approved the massive Mansion House project with record speed last March in a development of regional impact review colored by open sympathy for the Goldsteins' loss, will be asked to evaluate construction drawings in the weeks to come.

"In the real world, there are always things that come up that cause the project to differ from original drawings. The question is how much flexibility should they have in making adjustments. If [the changes] are as extensive as they seem to be in the letter, they appear to go beyond that scope," MVC executive director Mark London said yesterday.

Floor plans, elevation plans and oral testimony presented during the Tisbury Inn hearing are a part of the public record for the DRI, elements the approval mandates must be met.

"In some cases, design is not a significant criteria. In terms of this project, design is extremely important," Mr. London said, noting the Mansion House's visibility as the bookend to Main street.

In fact, any of the alleged adaptations noted in Mr. Weisman's letter, if proposed at a date following the initial approval of the project, could have constituted another development of regional impact review.

In the weeks to come, the commission must decide whether plan changes to the Mansion House design warrant another public hearing review. If the answer is yes, the Goldsteins will face another hearing and ask permission for changes that the blueprint already includes. If the commission denies a request to make these changes, the Goldsteins will be forced to tear down any unapproved pieces of the project and redraft construction drawings. Any major shift in construction patterns now could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction work and architectural fees.

And any delay in the Goldsteins' fast-track construction may also cause the innkeepers to miss their June opening deadline.

"We regret that in an already stressed-out period we are being called on to do this. But we respect that boards have a mandate from citizens to check compliance," Mrs. Goldstein said.