Difficult Issues Confront MVC

Regional Land Use Commission Searches for Fresh Approach to Regulate Trophy Houses, Protect Neighborhoods


Following back-to-back Martha's Vineyard Commission meetings that centered on the impacts that out-of-scale homes can pose on their neighbors and the rest of the Island, leaders in the regional planning agency are now confronting the question of what to do.

Commission chairman Linda Sibley of West Tisbury said yesterday that the parallel discussions reflected a growing concern among Vineyard residents, who in recent years have watched traditional Island camps and bungalows morph into increasingly large trophy houses. And she said that although the big-house issue is entirely appropriate for the commission to consider, it must be addressed as part of a larger planning effort, rather than through individual requests that come before the commission.

The commission on Thursday opted against reviewing a proposed 15,575-square-foot house on the north shore in West Tisbury as a development of regional impact (DRI), and the week before chose not to designate a small residential neighborhood in Edgartown as a district of critical planning concern (DCPC).

"Both of the decisions we dealt with raised important planning issues that people are clearly talking about and concerned about on the Island," Mrs. Sibley said. "But in our discussions, it was very clear that the commission was uncomfortable singling out these particular instances.

"It didn't seem wise to take them on in that way. So we're just going to have to look at them again, through the perspective and context of comprehensive planning."

The DCPC nomination came from a group of Mullen Way residents who were concerned about a proposed subdivision at the end of their small road made up of mostly small bungalows from the first half of the 20th century. The DRI referral came from West Tisbury planning board, which cited potential impacts from the large construction project on the north shore area from the house that Steven Rattner and his wife Patricia (Maureen) White want to build on 30 acres.

Both attracted significant attention. About 70 people packed a public hearing on the Mullen Way DCPC nomination two weeks ago, and roughly two dozen people attended the public hearing last Thursday to see what course the commission would take on the Rattner house, including a broad segment of West Tisbury town officials, as well as Ms. White and her attorney. Both meetings featured emotional testimony and did not end until after 11 p.m.

West Tisbury planning board chairman Murray Frank concluded his presentation to the commission last Thursday by acknowledging the similarities between the two requests.

"I suggest that the discussion that goes on among all of us is no different than the one that went on last week over Mullen Way," Mr. Frank said.

In both cases, attorneys for the landowners challenged whether the concerns raised in either of their cases were truly regional in nature.

Commission members at both meetings struggled with the argument that one house or one small side street could be of regional importance to the Vineyard. But others said that, Islandwide, the scale of development - whether within an existing neighborhood or in a large open space - affects the character of the Island, something the commission is specifically charged with protecting.

Created by a special act of the state legislature in 1974, the commission was granted broad regulatory powers to protect the unique natural, ecological and cultural resources of the Vineyard. Through DRIs and DCPCs, the two principal tools in its enabling legislation, the commission is allowed to regulate certain aspects of development that would otherwise be untouchable under state law.

Members of both the West Tisbury and Edgartown planning boards told the commission this month that they could not address all of the concerns raised about the development projects in question, and they appealed to the extended powers of its enabling legislation.

The commission in both instances showed an initial willingness to take on the regulatory tasks. The board in July voted unanimously to accept the Mullen Way DCPC nomination, and a commission subcommittee last month voted unanimously to recommend that the full board designate the large West Tisbury house as a DRI.

In the end, however, the commission decided to leave the immediate responsibilities to the town boards, and to focus its attention on the comprehensive Island Plan - a three-year planning effort that will attempt to chart a course for the future of the Vineyard based on feedback from the community.

In response to the Mullen Way nomination, the commission voted to create a work group that will look for other special neighborhoods that might warrant special protection as critical districts.

As for the north shore referral, some commission members discussed possibly developing standards and criteria to review homes over a certain size as developments of regional impact. Such criteria would likely take into account factors such as the acreage of the property, proposed energy use and the visibility from Island roads or waters. Without such standards in place, commission members last Thursday spent more than hour debating whether they could justify characterizing the single-family home as a DRI.

Mrs. Sibley yesterday acknowledged the difficulty in tackling some of the intangible issues that the commission was created to protect.

"People talk about character, and [our enabling legislation] talks about character, but when you get into the nitty gritty about how you define character, and how you should protect it, then it becomes much more difficult, and very, very contentious," Mrs. Sibley said. "That's why we need the planning efforts."