Architect critical of MVC effort on house size regulation

To the Editor:

I attach a letter below that I intended to present to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission members and their executive director, Mark London, at their 5:30 pm hearing on Monday, November 28, concerning whether they should add large houses to their DRI checklist. I hope that you will publish my letter in your next edition.

I am deeply concerned that our MVC, a planning body guided and directed by a professional staff — and who should have intimate knowledge of the laws and procedures available to our Island towns — appears painfully or intentionally naive when it comes to matters of local zoning control, which is where house size matters properly belong. The checklist document referred to was prepared by the MVC and distributed to the commissioners on November 23, by director Mark London. The commission’s pursuit of this matter can only weaken local town government, a criterion clearly inconsistent with the MVC charter and certainly a cynical objective for the commission to pursue.

While expressing my personal opinions, I hope my letter may shed some light on this topic, for both the MVC and my fellow Islanders who serve on their local town boards. Although my architectural practice includes work in many other locales, my Vineyard projects began in 1973, and I have been fortunate to work in each of our Island towns.

For the second time in six months, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) plans to revisit the question of whether the size of single family residences should be added to their Development of Regional Impact (DRI) checklist. I strongly oppose this proposition. As I cannot attend the meeting, I request this letter be read into the record at the meeting.

The size of single family residences is not a regional planning issue that requires redress by a supra-commission like the MVC. All necessary tools are locally available to Island towns to address this matter as they may best choose. Any actions by the MVC in this arena can only serve to weaken local town control — a criterion clearly inconsistent with the MVC charter and certainly a cynical objective for the commission to pursue.

I offer a few thoughts and observations for the Commission’s consideration:

1. Please note that MGL Chap. 40A, which addresses zoning, includes in section 3 the following prohibition:

“No zoning ordinance or by-law shall regulate or restrict the interior area of a single family residential building…; provided, however, that such land or structures may be subject to reasonable regulations concerning the bulk and height of structures and determining yard sizes, lot area, setbacks, open space, parking and building coverage requirements.”

To me this points directly to the fact that MVC could not regulate the referrals, or promulgate rules, based solely upon the interior area of a single family residence. As size cannot be a trigger-point, it would appear to invalidate all of the Option 3 approach in the MVC memo, which is based on floor space.

2. Size control can be indirectly achieved through other methods identified in the 40A statute. Please note that limitations on height, lot area, and setbacks already exist in the zoning by-laws of every Island town, and some use other listed criteria as well.

3. In my view, the proposed MVC referral concept both usurps and undermines our towns’ autonomy and discretion in their zoning authority through their planning and zoning boards of appeal. For what purpose? The MVC memo’s possible options one and two (to provide “Technical Assistance” or “Discretionary Referrals to the Towns”) appears a poorly considered and largely political effort by the MVC to garner the support of a few individuals in some Island towns by jumping on the populist “size” bandwagon. I wish to hold the MVC to a distinctly higher and more professional standard.

4. If any individuals in any town are truly concerned about single family residence size, they simply need to propose changes to their own zoning by-laws through their town meeting. There is little evidence that towns are concerned about this. However, if they are, they may choose to adopt a simple concept, widely used and accepted by the courts, which is a floor area ratio (FAR).

A FAR sets a relationship between lot area and building area. A simple example would be to say that if the legal building lot is 40,000 SF, the floor area of the proposed residence could be limited to some fraction of that amount, for example, .25, which would allow 10,000 SF for building size.

5. The MVC memo, under Option 2, also mentions a possible referral criteria of “…Being highly visible from a public place, especially from major roads or the coast…”

Unlike already existing Roadside Districts (e.g., Chilmark requires a lower building height within certain distances of the roadway), the vague language of “highly visible” would have a major negative implication on real estate values by creating a new, and highly subjective distinction between “highly visible” and not-visible lots and their respective controls on building. Further, such a change would appear to have the character of a “regulatory taking” because it would change the value, and so the taxes, on existing adjoining properties. Such takings customarily require owner compensation — likely a cost to be borne by the towns.

6. Another possible referral criteria, “Located in historic or traditional neighborhoods” is redundant. If a town has voted an historic district into its zoning by-law, projects within that district are already subject to additional review by the local historic commission and conformity to whatever rules it may have chosen to promulgate. Governed by MGL Chap 40C, historic commissions are already empowered to:

Section 7…. In the case of new construction or additions to existing buildings or structures, the commission shall consider the appropriateness of the size and shape of the building or structure both in relation to the land area upon which the building or structure is situated and to buildings and structures in the vicinity, and the commission may in appropriate cases impose dimensional and set-back requirements in addition to those required by applicable ordinance or by-law. (Emphasis added).

Again, the key point is, towns already have the tools to govern their own concerns about size in such neighborhoods.

7. Another suggested referral criteria, “…Exceeding the nitrogen-loading limit for the watershed…”, is not relevant as a control on size. Nitrogen-loading criteria may have use as a population density control — and thus may translate into land area per bedroom (e.g., Edgartown uses 15,000 SF of land area per bedroom to address adequate recharge to the aquifer). However, this measure has no relationship to the size of that bedroom — it might be 100 SF or 500 SF. Nor does it address a size limit for any other type of room in the residence.

8. Lastly, the proposed MVC involvement in size issues, and the referral requirements thereto, implies a “one-size-fits-all” approach. To me, it is self-evident that each town faces different issues in consideration of size, density, and limits to growth. What may be of legitimate concern on the smaller lots and close-knit neighborhoods of Oak Bluffs may have little relevance to Chilmark. Since zoning is individual to each town, and each town has access to zoning tools, there is no gain in centralizing size issues at the MVC, but there is significant loss.

In summary, the MVC has played, and can continue to play, an important role in helping the Island control matters individual Towns cannot address. I urge the commissioners to maintain that focus.

Sergio Modigliani, AIA

Chilmark and Brookline