Editorial : Do you like my house? I'm not sure I like yours.
The Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) is conducting a review of the checklist triggers that send development projects in the towns to the regional land use regulatory agency for review. This page welcomes the MVC effort and the clarity with which MVC land-use planning committee chairman Doug Sederholm of Chilmark described the commission's review.
"We wouldn't put something on the checklist just because people don't like it," Mr. Sederholm, a lawyer, said. "There may be a lot of people who don't like large houses, there may be some people who love large houses, but that alone is not a reason to put it on the checklist, just because it's aesthetically displeasing to some of us. We have to look at what some of the regional impacts would be from large houses to decide whether or not they should be reviewed, and what level should trigger it."
This review is timely. Indeed, a broader review of the MVC's 1970s-era enabling legislation is in order also, with an eye to reshaping the agency to better match 21st Century Vineyard life. The MVC-enabling legislation, whose concept matched the fearsome tumult of 1970s development, grants broad discretion over budgets, planning, districts of critical planning concern, and developments of regional impact, but the extent and historic use of that discretion deserve to be reconsidered. For instance, it may be that quashing large lot subdivisions is no longer the call to arms, but sensible economic development ought to be.
Should the MVC declare pizza restaurants in the heart of a downtown business district developments of regional impact, beyond the scope of town planning boards? Or Girl Scout camp renovations in Chilmark, because some unhappy neighbors plead for a public hearing? Or large single-family houses, especially those that are geographically remote and set on very large pieces of land?
Islanders and MVC members will answer such questions, and others, differently. The argument here is that those questions and others must be asked in a considered way, as Mr. Sederholm suggests.
The MVC has not, except in rare instances, reviewed large single-family houses. It will certainly be argued that the commission possesses, in its legislative mandate, discretion to encumber the plans of property owners who want big houses, and there will certainly be arguments that regional impacts from such structures will be immense. But, what's also certain is that the measures by which one commissioner or one neighbor judges a proposed house to be too big — 4,000 square feet, or 10,000, too obtrusive — it impinges on a view or a familiar landscape, or too architecturally unsuitable to the conventional Island design vocabulary, these measures will be subjective, even whimsical. How genuine regional impact is measured is hardly a science, and it's not an art either.
The subjectivity of such opinion-driven regulation remind us of the impossible discretion allowed historic district committees to say, no, those dormers have the wrong pitch, that paint color ought to be whiter, the windows must be 12-over-12, or simply, I don't think your design works the way it should; I don't like it.
There are sensible rules that could be applied to very large houses, but they could be imposed by planning boards and town building officials, and for health and safety reasons. For instance, large houses with no handy access to a water supply — say, a pond — could be required to install large underground tanks for firefighters. The builders of such houses could be required to have sprinkler systems, alarm systems, and enhanced surveillance systems, to assist law enforcement and emergency service personnel. The size and maintenance of access roads could be prescribed.
These are simple, practical — oh, and expensive — requirements that make sense.
What does not make sense is the impulse to add large houses to the MVC development of regional impact review trigger list, because such structures abuse the eye of this beholder or that one.
In a comment that reflects what is beyond question at the heart of this push to add large houses to the checklist, Bruce Rosinoff, a board member of the private, nonprofit Vineyard Conservation Society, which is very busy trying to get large houses added to the checklist, told MVC committee members, "We're not trying to be social engineers and start a class warfare here. We're just saying that these things are outrageously ostentatious in some cases, and we tried to make that case by sending you some examples of that." Mr. Rosinoff referred to some photos of large houses that he sent to the MVC.
One man's castle is another's eyesore.