Clear rules, not whimsical subjectivity, ought to prevail


The oppressive nature of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s (MVC) enabling legislation derives from the broad discretion and broad license incorporated in it by the state legislature. Had the legislature and Republican Governor Frank Sargent been more restrained and careful, this quasi-judicial body — as its members style themselves — might have been endowed with some quasi-judicial restraints and a check on the free-swinging discretion the regulatory agency now exercises.

Chilmark is now off on a self-indulgent exercise in taste setting that promises a new, subjective regime whose victims will be property owners who would like a big — or bigger than their neighbors like — house. And the tools they will use will be site reviews and board of appeals inquiries.

The rules, as currently contemplated but in flux would require new houses of more than 3,500 square feet — an arbitrary size, selected merely because it seems about right to the supporters of such limits — to endure a site review by a town committee. Where the building site is, how high the building will be, visibility from public spaces, and energy efficiency will enter into the calculation.

Rules now limit building height. An architect can count on that number. Some locations in town are currently off-limits to construction altogether. An architect knows no building will be permitted in such an area. There are roadside districts, shore districts, overlay districts, all with rules enshrined in the town’s bylaws. There are building codes, setback requirements, septic system requirements, and on and on — all black letter rules for every property owner, buyer, or prospective buyer to read and obey.

It’s not a matter of how the plan strikes a site review committee or a zoning board.

On the other hand, the self-indulgent hunt to find mechanisms to hobble property owners will lead to subjective value judgments, not rules based in good sense and real measures of prospective impacts. The conclusions will sound more like this: It seems out of place. It seems too big. It seems like it takes up too much of the three-acre lot. It seems a shame that the chimney will be visible from the Hariph’s Creek Bridge. It seems un-Vineyardy. It seems as if it will use an awful lot of electricity. It seems they’ll have to cut down a lot of trees to put this house up. Couldn’t they do without the separate guesthouse? Why must they have a swimming pool?

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. Setbacks for houses of some certain size could be enlarged.

These are simple, practical, and expensive requirements that would make sense.