Editors, Vineyard Gazette:
I congratulate the Gazette on its coverage in your July 27 issue of the large house issue and of the related zoning board of appeals hearing in Chilmark last Wednesday concerning the Zoia property on the shore of Nashaquitsa Pond. In fact, we are fortunate to have had this hearing which has highlighted the weaknesses of current regulation.
Chilmark, I believe, is fortunate to have officials and volunteers in the zoning process who are concerned, hard-working and honest. Despite their involvement, as demonstrated at that hearing, the system is broken. Nomenclature negates regulation: calling a building an “accessory structure” voids the limits on a guest house and invites abuse down the road. Calling a garage a barn voids the limits on the number of cars, even though the barn is clearly not intended to serve any agricultural use.
Moreover, officials are apparently endowed with unlimited discretion. While the code gives examples of “accessory structures “ as a tool shed or pump house, the building inspector can “in his discretion” permit a 2,320-square-foot accessory structure enclosing a swimming spa, workout room and detached bedroom, even in a town which limits swimming pools to owners who have owned property for two years or more, evidencing a town policy against swimming pools. There are no guidelines.
The planning board in Chilmark has already appointed a subcommittee to consider changes to its regulations directed at the issue of large houses. I believe a consensus is developing there. First, that consensus rejects a view that rich owners should be able to do whatever they want, even those with secluded properties where development does not cause immediate and obvious affront. Secondly, a majority believes that large houses are a threat to the character of the town and should be reviewed by a board, probably the zoning board of appeals. Third, the trigger for such review should be a square footage figure, perhaps 3,500 square feet. Fourth, other structures, by whatever name, also impact the environment and the character of the town and they should also trigger review. Perhaps a total of 5,000 square feet should trigger board review.
After establishing triggers, the next step is to provide guidelines for review and for discretionary and non-discretionary denials by the reviewing board. The subcommittee is on the threshold of addressing those questions. The community, in fact the entire Island, is now focused.
Let’s resolve to go forward and get regulations with teeth that limit the number of large houses and multiple building complexes being built. No one needs a vacation home — where the rich famously spend no more than four weeks a year — that is more than 5,000 square feet. Maybe we can save the rich a few bucks, and preserve for the rest of us the environment and character of this Island.