Big houses back on the agenda


Thinking about the human environment and comparing influences on the experience of that environment, one might conclude that the convenience and safety of reliable cell phone service would enhance the experience significantly. It is an unalloyed good, and it would it would be reasonable to expect the universe of Islanders to demand it. They don’t, they haven’t, and consequently that particular avenue of satisfaction eludes us.

One might also conclude that the size of one’s neighbor’s house is far less significant. But alas, house size — not yours, but your wealthier neighbor’s — is the preoccupation of many, cell service the frustration of far fewer. Why?

Cell service and the towers that effectuate that helpful and soon indispensable service offend some of us, because they add to the landscape something we don’t like to look at. Wind turbines, much larger and dynamic and more disfiguring, have enrolled an enthusiastic constituency. Go figure.

The attitude toward big houses on Martha’s Vineyard, a preoccupation of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission on several occasions, including during the three-year development of its preposterous effort to make a 50-year plan for our lives and the lives of our children, derives from an algorithm that models and weights envy, resentment, hostility to change, emissions, electricity use, water use, destruction of scrub oak trees, waste disposal, policing and fire costs. The result is a justification for doing something about big, rich houses.

The Chilmark planning board has taken the plunge and begun to dream about the rules we could make to subdue them. But, that’s starting at the end, not the beginning.

Nevertheless, when one examines 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. That is, unless one considers the impact on the town’s total real estate value — it rises — and upon the real estate tax rate — it falls or steadies. The foundation for folding such buildings into 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.

Perhaps there is discretion allowed regulators under state law 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 for the conventional Island design vocabulary will be subjective, even whimsical. How genuine 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, and 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.