After speculation and rumors bubbled through the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association in Oak Bluffs all summer about renovation work on the historic cottage at 5 Pease avenue, the facts surrounding the construction project began to surface this week.
What began as minor renovations to the cottage in the Camp Ground grew this spring, and a large portion of the building was demolished while the footprint was partially expanded, possibly in violation of a town bylaw that strictly regulates demolition.
Officials from the Camp Meeting Association confirmed this week they have issued a cease and desist order for all construction at the cottage owned by seasonal resident Deborah Harmon, who is listed with an address in Ashburnham in the town assessor’s office. Ms. Harmon is the only owner listed in town records.
The cottage was built in 1870, and along with the rest of the Camp Ground is federally protected. In April of 2005, the grounds and buildings in the Camp Ground were designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior.
According to a number of longtime residents and historians, there has not been a complete demolition in the Camp Ground in at least 50 years — if ever.
Bob Clermont, general manager and executive director of the association, said work on the Harmon cottage was stopped earlier this summer while two Camp Ground committees — the architectural review committee and building and grounds committee — review the situation.
Oak Bluffs has a demolition bylaw which requires a property owner to request a demolition permit from the building department contingent on approval from the historical commission. If the building inspector determines the structure is an imminent threat to public health or safety, he can authorize an emergency demolition and later provide a detailed written explanation about why the building needed to be torn down.
No written explanation was sent to the historical commission, town records show.
Town administrator Michael Dutton said yesterday he spoken with building inspector Jerry Wiener who told him that a “progressive demolition” had taken place at the Harmon cottage after workers discovered that part of the building’s frame was rotted and needed to be removed.
Mr. Dutton said the owner never applied for full demolition of the building, which would be subject to approval by the town historical commission under the demolition delay bylaw. Mr. Dutton said he aware the work on the cottage has been “somewhat controversial,” but he said the building inspector is working with both the Harmon family and Camp Ground officials to find an amicable solution.
“Jerry [Wiener] met with all the appropriate committees and is helping to facilitate a workable solution. Right now, as I have heard, everyone is happy with how things are progressing,” Mr. Dutton said.
Renee Balter, chairman of the historical commission, said she has also spoken with Mr. Wiener, who told her a progressive demolition had taken place at the Harmon cottage.
“Initially [the owners] were planning on tearing down the house, but it became apparent as they started working there was a need for demolition. I rely on [Mr. Wiener’s] expertise and judgment. If there is any further need for the historical commission, I am sure we will take the appropriate steps,” she said.
Ms. Balter said the situation is complicated because the cottage is in the Camp Ground, which is on the national historic registry and has its own set of regulations. There are no individual lots within the association; technically the entire Camp Ground is one large lot, she said.
But all construction within the Camp Ground must meet town building codes and zoning bylaws, she said.
Ms. Balter said the historical commission will next meet on Sept. 17. As of yesterday, a discussion of the work on the cottage had not been placed on the agenda.
One property owner in the Camp Ground who lives near the Harmon cottage and asked to remain anonymous, said this week he believes it was an illegal demolition.
“They wanted to take it down and put in a new kitchen and upstairs bedroom. But when my wife and I got there in late June we noticed they were doing a lot more work than [they had planned] . . . we could tell just by looking at the house they were going to tear the whole thing down,” he said.
The neighbor said he contacted Camp Ground officials on June 26. Mr. Clermont showed up the next day and told the contractor to halt all work on the cottage.
“So they stopped for a while, but as soon as [Mr. Clermont] left they were at it again; they started throwing beds and furniture out the window and started cutting at the roofing with their saws . . . it was clear they just wanted the whole thing to come down as quickly as possible,” the neighbor said.
A visit to the scene this week revealed a large portion of the middle of the cottage completely gone. Much of the structure is covered with plastic tarps.
Peter Ferguson, chairman of the association’s architectural review committee, confirmed that the Harmon cottage has been a topic of discussion this summer.
“Work has stopped, and the situation is being reviewed by the appropriate committees. We felt some things were going on that were not in concert with our standards,” Mr. Ferguson said. “There have been numerous rumors flying around, and most of them have a degree of inaccuracy . . . we have met with [the owners] and we are talking about the best solution.”