Editorial: The big house witch hunt starts with rule dreaming

One way to begin to think about big houses is to dream about the rules we could make to subdue them. But, that’s starting at the end, not the beginning.

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) is reviewing the checklist triggers that send development projects in the towns to the regional land use regulatory agency for review. This page has welcomed the MVC effort. That’s largely because the use of the current checklist has seemed to leave some development proposals out that ought to have been subject to review and included others that — because of their locations in areas already designated as having regional planning concern, because they are reasonably within the ability of town regulators to process, or because critics just want a chance to belabor an applicant — did not deserve DRI consideration.

This review is timely. Indeed, as we have written here, 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, before new rule-making can be considered.

A while back, Douglas Sederholm, a lawyer and Chilmark commission member said, “We wouldn’t put something on the checklist just because people don’t like it. 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.”

Very sensible. But, when one reads the expressions of support for regulating large, single family houses, the presumption appears to be that the need for such fresh, intrusive rule-making has been established and is incontestable. It is not. In fact, there is no data that quantifies what big house critics call the impacts of such structures. The foundation for folding such buildings in the regulatory embrace is always expressed as a subjective, aesthetic worry — meaningful to the proposed house’s critics, perhaps, but not a basis for intensified regulatory scrutiny.

It will certainly be argued that the MVC 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 it’s too architecturally unsuitable for 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. But, it is critical to fairness in this debate, which cannot be prudently undertaken without a careful, objective, balanced study of the good and ill of big houses, in all their private and public dimensions. That’s where the debate must start.

The subjectivity of opinion-driven regulation reminds 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.