Conservation group has agenda for big Martha’s Vineyard houses

To the Editor:

This is a copy of a letter sent to the land use planning committee (LUPC) of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC):

Thank you for considering regulation of very large houses through the DRI checklist, a priority land-use concern of both the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) and MVC for some years.

Because the VCS position has been mischaracterized in recent public comment, we state it again here for the record:

• This is a regional issue, and the regional planning agency should regulate it. In the absence of development guidelines, very large houses are proliferating all over the Island at an alarming rate. Now is the time to get a handle on it. Only the MVC, with its special trans-zoning powers, can provide the necessary consistency, structure, and guidelines to do justice to this problem. The towns’ limited authority to regulate in the area of single family houses makes them understandably anxious to take it on.

• VCS is not saying that very large houses cannot be built. We are simply saying that, where owners have a right to build on their land, the visual and natural resource impacts should not overwhelm the site. In our limited Island context, we must find ways to consider factors like energy use, seasonal use, habitat destruction, and over-fertilization of large manicured lawns that pose risks to our ponds.

• This can be a win-win proposition. At the first LUPC meeting on this issue, the comment was made that many applicants obliged to go through the DRI process report that their projects are the better for it. We’re persuaded that this will be the case with large house review. We can report our own experience with property owners who built very large houses and later stated that, had they “understood the Vineyard better,” they would have adjusted their projects to be smaller and smarter.

With guidelines in place, landowners and their agents will achieve that understanding, and be spared unnecessary time and expense. While we acknowledge the importance of public vetting of an issue like this, we feel that the format for discussion has thus far not been productive in focusing on the issues involved and the strategies for addressing them. In future sessions, we hope that a more tightly developed agenda could speak to these issues.

The issues and strategies we are interested in include, for example:

• Resource use — Every new house could be entitled to a certain allocation of energy use, and perhaps wastewater and materials use as well. Exceeding it would trigger an offset/mitigating requirement.

• Visual impacts — Visibility standards could be weighed based on criteria like angle of view. In our recent verbal testimony, we cited the idea that no house seen from a public road or public water body should present more than a certain angle-wide visual impact.

• Existing condition analysis — Existing patterns of building height, size, setbacks in the DRI applicant’s particular neighborhood could be quantified in order to define what is “out of place with the context.”

• MVC/town regulatory relationship — A sliding scale could identify regulatory categories, e.g. (1) okay to proceed “as-of-right”; (2) project requires special review at town level through ZBA special permit process; (3) referral to MVC.

• Size triggers — Size thresholds for regulatory review developed in coordination with the town could also use sliding scales, e.g: any development bigger than a certain number of square feet requires a town ZBA special permit; anything bigger than a certain square footage must go to MVC, unless ZBA reviews and confirms that “quantifiable criteria” have been met in the areas of energy use, wastewater nitrogen mitigation, visual and habitat impacts; anything bigger than a set square footage will always go to MVC.

We do feel that this periodic DRI checklist revision process offers a great opportunity to bring necessary regional guidance to the large house development issue. We see it as just one subset of the broader themes articulated in the Island Plan that can and should be pursued using the DRI power. For example, regulatory review could encompass not just large-house impacts, but other open-space-impacts triggers: scenic values — regardless of house size, there should be automatic DRI referral within 100 feet of major roads and an identified scenic vistas trigger unless mitigating criteria are met, like 50-foot no-cut zones, split rail fencing only, roof heights 35 feet for gabled, 25 feet for flat roofs; “Super-core” habitat areas — any development within the most critical natural habitat areas should trigger review, with mitigating criteria outlined; agricultural potential — any development impacting prime farm soils, existing open fields, and permanently protected agricultural preservation restriction lands should trigger review, with mitigating criteria outlined.

Thank you for your time, and we look forward to a thorough discussion of these and other issues in the near future.

Brendan O’Neill

Executive DirectorBruce Rosinoff

ChairmanAdvocacy and Education CommitteeVineyard Conservation Society