Up in West Tisbury, the request for permission to tear down the Old Parsonage has gotten a lot of Island press — and rightly so, because it plays out against the backdrop of our concern for preserving the character of Martha’s Vineyard. Suddenly, on a drive up-Island, we look out at each historic house that appears along the roadside, and we realize that we’ve been taking for granted a defining aspect of the Vineyard’s character — but without taking steps to protect it.
Our up-Island landscape is defined by the stone walls, the agricultural vistas with occasional views to water, the old barns, the historic homesteads. It’s easy to think of these elements of the landscape as part of our common wealth. A case like that of the Parsonage reminds us that this isn’t so. Unlike that sunset over Vineyard Sound, owned by no one and there to be enjoyed by us all, these houses are small pieces of private property, and the onus of maintaining and preserving them falls not to the community but to a collection of individual owners.
Here is an instance where zoning is the problem for which it needs to be the cure.
Zoning regulations set a maximum number of buildings on a piece of property. What we’re seeing now is that for property owners at both ends of the economic spectrum, zoning is putting these historic homesteads in the path of the bulldozer rather than on a path to preservation.
For most wealthy purchasers of multi-million-dollar properties up-Island, that 250-year-old house along the road is not the house they want. It’s charming, but not what they envisioned that their Martha’s Vineyard home would be. At the other end of the spectrum, for an Islander who has an ordinary working income and happens to be the steward of one of these historic houses, it often represents an unaffordable money pit.
If either owner wants to build a new house, zoning in many cases dictates that the historic home must come down. Zoning, for many of these historic houses outside our town-center historic districts, is effectively working against preservation.
And while we have the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust for such major landmarks as the Old Whaling Church, and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank working to preserve the Island’s open spaces, there’s no agency ready to step up and save these historic houses that dot the up-Island landscape.
Fortunately, it’s possible to imagine ways that our up-Island towns might tweak zoning so it encourages, rather than discourages, historic preservation. A town could begin by preparing an inventory of its historic homes, perhaps ranking them in terms of historic significance — because it will be important to understand that we cannot, and should not, save everything. Then, for the properties deemed significant and worth preserving, some relief could be offered.
For the owners, it could be as if that historic house didn’t count against the number of structures allowable on the land. The owners would have the ability to build the modern home they want on their property, without first being required to tear down the historic structure.
Together with this, we’d need to provide some sort of tax relief, as we do for agricultural viewsheds, to the owners who preserve these historic houses along our rural roads. This wouldn’t cost the towns in terms of tax dollars, because the assessed value of the new home in almost every case would be more than the old one.
A note here: Massachusetts law does not provide for “spot-zoning” of historic districts. This is an instance where the Martha’s Vineyard Commission can help the Island towns, using the power its state charter gives it to designate Districts of Critical Planning Concern.
Finally, especially for Islanders who find themselves the stewards of these historic residences, the towns could consider making CPA money available to help with their stabilization.
A longtime real estate broker I spoke with this week shared his memories of taking buyers around to see one of these properties, a quintessential 18th-century cape, back in the 1970s. “They’d ooh and aah,” he recalled, “and they’d end up saying, ‘This is just the cutest place we’ve ever seen. We absolutely love it. But we couldn’t live in it, and we wouldn’t have the heart to tear it down. So let’s go on to something else.'”
Eventually, someone is going to have the heart to tear these historic residences down. The story of the Parsonage reminds us that it’s time for a serious conversation about how we might recraft our regulations to reflect the stake we actually have in these properties.