Commission Declines to Review House as Development of Regional Impact


After three and a half hours of debate, the Martha's Vineyard Commission late last night decided that a proposed 15,575-square-foot north shore home in West Tisbury does not warrant a full commission review.

The 10-3 decision was significant because it marked the first time in at least a decade that a single family dwelling was referred to the commission as a possible development of regional impact (DRI). But discussion for the most part last night avoided what seemed to be the true impetus behind the meeting - namely, the size of the home, which the West Tisbury planning board in its referral letter to the commission described as an oversized trophy house.

One of the three dissenting commission members, Andrew Woodruff of West Tisbury broached the size subject toward the end of the evening.

"I hear time and time again people talking about this issue around the Island. I hear from contractors who are disgusted with the work they have to do to make a living on this Island," Mr. Woodruff said. "I want to be on record in saying that I do not find the scale of this project consistent with the character of the Vineyard. Maybe in West Chop or parts of Edgartown, but I'm very saddened by the development that has occurred around our waterways. I consider [the north shore of the Vineyard] to be one of the most scenic and beautiful stretches of coastline in all of Massachusetts."

But Mr. Woodruff acknowledged that reviewing one particular home in West Tisbury was not the ideal way to tackle a trend that is spreading across the Island, and joined with other commission members in suggesting that the Vineyard community as a whole should decide whether it wants regulate the size of large homes. Commission members and the attorney for the north shore landowners noted last night that the commission currently does not have any guidelines or criteria to identify single family homes as DRIs.

"I don't argue that we won't take something like this in the future," said commission member Christina Brown of Edgartown. "But I think we might be jumping the gun in taking this house before we have some guidelines in place. I know that might sound like we're putting it off, but otherwise we're kind of shooting minnows in a pool here."

In a relatively unique move, the commission will issue findings of fact with its decision from last night that enumerate some of the reasons why it did not deem the project to be a DRI. The findings are based on mitigating offers provided by the landowners who agreed to, among other things: limit the impact of construction traffic on neighboring roads, minimize the view of the home from Vineyard Sound, and possibly undergo additional archeological review by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). The offers are to be considered binding so that, if the town finds that the landowners are not complying, it can send the project back to the commission for another DRI determination.

The north shore development actually consists of two separate projects. Landowners Patricia (Maureen) White and Steven Rattner want to move their existing 3,300-square-foot house from a nine-acre lot to an abutting 22-acre lot, and to build a new 15,575-square-foot house where the existing home stands today, on a north shore beachfront between Paul's Point and Cedar Tree Neck. To comply with height restrictions in the area, they plan to excavate approximately 3,500 cubic yards of earth from an existing knoll. The property also includes a protected Native American burial ground and significant wetlands, including a small pond.

Ironically, many commission members last night said they were satisfied that the larger home would not significantly alter the view of the shore from the water, but expressed some concern about the site of the relocated existing home - even though it is much smaller and set back farther from the coast - because the landowners had not yet prepared a landscaping plan that specified any potential clearing.

More than one commission member, as well as town residents on both sides of the issue, noted that two nearby north shore landowners recently built large homes which involved excavation, massive clearing, and multiple years of construction. The town boards did not refer either project to the commission as a possible DRI.

"Looking at the aerial photographs, I think the visual impact of that house to the north must be enormous," said commission member Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark.

"It is," replied his Chilmark colleague Christopher Murphy, a retired commercial fisherman.

The commission decision last night represented a marked change from only three weeks earlier, when a commission subcommittee voted 6-0 to recommend that the full board review the Rattner project as a DRI. But after listening to two hours of testimony, commission member Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs noted that, although the town planning board and conservation commission pleaded with the MVC to take the project on as a DRI, no one from either town board or any member of the public actually spoke in opposition to the development itself.

Patrick Phear, who is both a conservation commission member and representative of the Obed Daggett Road Association, said last night that the neighbors along the road were understanding and relatively supportive of the project. Mr. Rattner signed an agreement with his neighbors to limit the number of construction vehicles allowed on the narrow dirt road at any one time.

"There really is a pretty uniform sentiment that if the Rattner-White construction met the legal requirements of the town, we believe they have an absolute right to construct the house of their dreams, even if it is not the house we would choose for ourselves," Mr. Phear said. "The neighbors think that this is private property, and the private owners are currently allowed to do what they want."

Vineyard Haven resident Kirk Briggs, who works as a caretaker for the Rattners, spoke outwardly in favor of the project.

"This is going to be built by local tradespeople. The money spent is going to stay on Martha's Vineyard and have a true regional impact for us," Mr. Briggs said. "This in fact is the only regional impact this project is going to have."

Planning board chairman Murray Frank insisted that the size of the house was not the central issue before the commission, nor the reason for the referral. But he then promptly argued why the commission should start looking at large homes as developments of regional impact.

"By definition, in fact, big houses have an impact - on roads, on our water supply, and on all kinds of environmental and neighborhood concerns," Mr. Frank said. "But as important, it seems to me, is what all these large buildings will do to the souls of people who spent all their lives here and don't want to live anywhere else in the world, but hate what they're seeing happen to their Island.

"They need the commission - because no other entity can do it on the Island - to look at all this development, all these big houses, and protect them from it."

Voting no to review the project as a development of regional impact were James Athearn, John Best, John Breckenridge, Christina Brown, Chris Murphy, Katherine Newman, Megan Ottens-Sargent, Douglas Sederholm, Linda Sibley and Paul Strauss.

Voting yes were Andrew Woodruff, Mimi Davisson and Deborah Pigeon.