There are few things as enduring in American politics as the tension between individual freedom and community values. In Washington this week, the defeat of an amendment on background checks for gun owners marked a startling victory for those who don’t want government infringing on their personal rights.
The stakes are somewhat lower, but the core issue isn’t all that different in Chilmark, a town of about fifteen hundred year-round residents, where voters will decide on Monday whether to adopt a bylaw regulating the size of houses.
Hopefully this vote will go the other way.
The bylaw, the result of sixteen months of thoughtful research, public hearings and discussion by the Chilmark planning board and a subcommittee of volunteers, is not perfect. The central tool the board used in writing the bylaw is what is known as the floor-area ratio concept, in other words the size of a building as it relates to land area. Critics have argued, among other things, that it could have the unintended consequence of encouraging subdivision of land, as a property owner could actually get more square footage by building two houses on two three-acre parcels than on one six-acre plot.
Some are concerned that the bylaw could affect the tax rate, famously low in Chilmark, by driving down property values and leading to a need to raise taxes to pay for town services. Others suggest it is too draconian, noting that only nineteen existing houses in Chilmark exceed the proposed six thousand-square-foot cap, and most of those only modestly.
But that simply means Chilmark still has a chance to avoid the fate of the Hamptons and other resort communities, where super-sized houses have eclipsed the very rural landscape that attracted people to it in the first place.
That the trend might spread here is a justifiable cause for concern on the Vineyard, where in the last four decades much work has gone into protecting the significant natural resources that contribute so much to the Island’s character. Discussion of the impact of big houses often stops at their appearance, but there are other potential negative effects that are not as immediately visible.
Requiring houses over a certain size to undergo greater scrutiny is one way to ensure that we aren’t compromising our clean drinking water and our network of saltwater ponds full of fish and shellfish, or creating new problems on our eroding shorelines.
This would not be the first bylaw on the Vineyard to regulate large houses. Aquinnah has had rules in place under its townwide district of critical planning concern (DCPC) for more than a decade that require stringent review for large houses. By sticking with a town bylaw, the Chilmark planning board missed a good opportunity to take advantage of this solid tool of creating a DCPC through the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. A DCPC has legal strength and it’s worth noting that there are no trophy houses in Aquinnah, Chilmark’s small-town neighbor. But that’s water under the bridge, at least for now.
Vigorous debate is expected on the town meeting floor on Monday night, and longtime moderator Everettt Poole told the Gazette this week that he intends to allow plenty of time for wide-ranging discussion.
The group of citizens that helped research and develop the bylaw worked long and hard to balance private property rights with the goal of maintaining the kind of environment that attracts people to Chilmark today.
In the end, the big house bylaw, however imperfect, deserves the backing of voters.