Chilmark asks, What shall we do with the Tea Lane farmhouse?


While the Menemsha fire and repairs to the boathouse and town dock have been news for months, the issue of repairing and restoring the house at Tea Lane Farm, to be considered Monday by Chilmark voters, has heated up in the past few weeks.

The town and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank jointly purchased the property in June of 2001, for a bit more than $3 million in a transaction that left Robert J. Silva with a life estate in the house. Located at the corner of Tea Lane and Middle Road, the property belonged to Mr. Silva, who died earlier this year.

As part of that deal, the town came to own the farmhouse and three acres around it. The Land Bank owns the 50 surrounding acres. After Mr. Silva died in February, selectmen appointed a seven-member Tea Lane Farm committee.

Members, along with Warren Doty, also the chairman of the selectmen, are Dick Smith, Rebecca Miller, Rodney Bunker, Brian Cioffi, Billy Meegan, and Mitchell Posin.

The appointment letter to each member cites an inter-municipal agreement between the town and Land Bank that sets three goals for the committee’s planning work — to divide the property into two separate areas, one for active agricultural use and the other for general conservation, and to recommend specific types of agriculture to be conducted on the property and to recommend a process for choosing a farmer to lease the land.

The farm committee then hired Donald Cronig of Beacon Home Improvements of Vineyard Haven to inspect the property. Mr. Cronig reported to the farm committee on June 8 that “this antique house represents an important piece of Island life and its rich past.” Then he catalogued a long list of problems with the building.

Mr. Cronig concluded that the house has problems with structural stabilization, moisture controls, interior wiring, lead paint, interior wiring, asbestos, insulation, inadequate bath and kitchen facilities and sagging floorboards in the kitchen and pantry. He said addressing the problems, including adding a second floor bathroom, could be done for $312,000-plus.

In July, the committee reviewed four options: the first called for the property to be cleaned and leased to a farmer, with an eye toward presenting a funding article to voters at a special town meeting in September to pay for improvements to the homestead.

The second option called for devoting two years to cleaning up the property, but delaying a vote on restoring the farmhouse. The third called for a private investor to make improvements to the farmhouse at his own expense. The fourth option called for the farmhouse to be razed, except for the timber frame, which would be salvaged and rebuilt over a new foundation.

The farm committee settled on a variation of the first option and allowed several seasonal town and Land Bank employees to live at the farmhouse this summer, in exchange for cleaning the property and removing debris.

At their regular meeting on August 18, the CPC voted unanimously to ask for $160,000 in CPA historic preservation funds for renovating the Tea Lane farmhouse, with the provision that the historic commission be included in the “planning, design and approval of the farmhouse renovation,” according to the minutes of the meeting.

At their regular meeting two weeks ago, selectmen approved the warrant for the special town meeting, including the Tea Lane Farm article, which would fund the repairs to the farmhouse using the $160,000 in CPA funding, $90,000 from available funds, and $50,000 from the stabilization fund.

But at last week’s meeting of the Community Preservation Committee (CPC), two members of the town historic commission, chairman Jane N. Slater and Lenny Jason, asked that committee members reconsider their previous decision to spend $160,000 to renovate the farmhouse.

Mr. Jason and Ms. Slater argued that the historic commission had not been thoroughly briefed or given the opportunity to comment on the planning of the Tea Lane farmhouse. They suggested a compromise, in the form of an amendment that will be introduced on the floor of town meeting.

Reached by phone on Monday, Mr. Jason said the article as written does not provide a clear plan for the renovation of the farmhouse. “We know they have some numbers, but where are the plans? I think a little more work is in order,” he said.

Mr. Doty said that the report from Beacon Home Improvements does contain plans to renovate and repair the farmhouse. He said the farm committee vetted the project thoroughly and researched all options. But he also stressed a need to take a collaborative approach.

“We want this to be something everyone can get behind,” Mr. Doty said. “This building is part of the town’s history.”

Tim Carroll, Chilmark executive secretary, agreed. “We’re trying not to create a fight here,” he said. “Everyone who has worked on this project so far has been intimately involved from the start, and the people coming forward now aren’t just NIMBY [not in my back yard] people, they want the best project possible.”

Farming legacy

Todd Christy, the administrative assistant to the historic commission, said that Tea Lane Farm has a rich farming history dating back some 270 years, before the farmhouse was even built. Over the years the property has been used as a dairy farm, fruit orchard, and cranberry bog, and the land has been used to grow just about everything; including corn, hay, apples, grapes and other vegetables.

While Mr. Christy said he would like the property to remain a working farm, he said the verdict is still out as to what to do with the farmhouse. “We all want the building to stay the way we remember it, the quaint little farmhouse with Bobby Silva standing in the front yard waving at people as they go by,” he said. “But we have to separate out the emotional side of the building, and ask ourselves ‘What do we do now?’ Do we renovate, do we sell, or do we tear it down and start over? Those are the questions we need to consider.”