Contractors object to MVC big house checklist’s ‘character test’


The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) resumed on Thursday a public hearing on proposed changes to its checklist for projects referred to it for review as developments of regional impact (DRI).

Members of the Island’s construction industry, notably absent on November 8, when wind and rain from a northeaster lashed the Island and only three members of the public attended, appeared in greater strength November 15 to criticize the MVC’s draft.

The MVC is required by statute to review the DRI checklist every two years. The checklist sets the thresholds that identify development applications that towns must refer to the MVC for possible review, before acting on the applications.

Of particular concern to the builders, as a review of the MVTV recording of the evening reveals, was the MVC’s proposal that in some circumstances, large houses might constitute a development of regional impact for no reason other than a failure to meet something called a “character test.”

Proponents of MVC review of large houses have argued that they are often beyond the reach of town boards to control and could have significant regional impacts on issues such as community character, habitat, and resources.

So far, the MVC has resisted mandatory triggers, opting instead to rely on the commission’s enabling legislation that includes a provision for discretionary referrals of projects, which the MVC may or may not decide to review, by any municipal agency of a town in which a project is located, a board of selectmen from any other town, or the Dukes County Commission.

The draft checklist does include a new section (Section 8.9) on community character as a possible criterion for either a mandatory or a discretionary referral threshold.

It suggests, “Any development that has a density more than 50 percent greater than the median for its surrounding neighborhood” as a possible trigger for referral.

Although the public hearing was to have closed with the November 8 meeting, commissioner Doug Sederholm, chairman of the MVC’s land use planning committee (LUPC), at the request of Mark Wallace, an Oak Bluffs businessman and member of the town’s planning board, continued the hearing to November 15, so that members of town planning boards would have another opportunity to comment on the proposed checklist revisions.

At last week’s session, Mr. Sederholm opened the floor to public comment. The large house debate dominated discussion.

Builder Ted Rosbeck of Edgartown asked why the MVC needed to step into issues of community character, which he believes is best handled by local boards.

Mr. Rosbeck said Island towns were able to change their local zoning bylaws to reflect town character. “When a lot of us show up, it’s because we don’t feel like we’re going to get the right to vote, because that’s what the commission has the ability to override,” Mr. Rosbeck said. “So when it’s related to zoning items, clearly changing them, why can’t the towns just do that themselves, I guess is the question.”

Builder Joseph Chapman of Chilmark said builders are concerned. “I think a lot of the reason people are here, we’re a little afraid of some of the restrictions that might be put on the sizes of houses throughout the Island, and we think that the towns do have the capability of deciding on their own, because they are individually different,” he said.

Mr. Chapman said he was concerned that the MVC wanted to regulate house size.

“I would point out to you sir, that we didn’t put that in,” Mr. Sederholm said. “I know we did not put in a trigger for large houses, we absolutely did not.”

Mr. Chapman was not comforted. “Not specifically,” he said, “but when you say community character, I’m a little concerned with that.”

Offering her own definition, commissioner Linda Sibley of West Tisbury said community character was not actually about large houses specifically, but about neighborhood projects, for example a project on Mullen Way in Edgartown, where a subdivision of large houses was proposed for a neighborhood with small houses.

Builder Norman Rankow of Edgartown, a member of the Edgartown planning board for 10 years, said the issue is change and how to manage change.

“The cottage on the beach, the cottage of summer of ’42, does not remain forever,” he said. “Either God takes it away, or the person who comes along and pays $10 million bucks for that property wants a little bit bigger parcel.

“Now, the state says we can’t regulate the size of houses. If a man has a ten-acre parcel and it’s over three times the underlying zoning, will we not ever give him credit for having spent X amount of dollars of his hard-earned money, and I say God bless him because he has it and wants to build something a little larger, but we never give him credit for building one house on a lot three, four, five times underlying zoning, which we create and say this is okay.”

Builder Neal Sullivan of West Tisbury said some of the problem rests with the definition. “When you say character, it’s so subjective,” he said. “What I think is a beautiful home, someone says it doesn’t fit, someone else says it does. It would take time to figure out what is the character.”

Mr. Sederholm said that although the title of Section 8.9 is community character, there is no definition but a formula.

Oak Bluffs businessman Mark Wallace asked the MVC how they would judge character. Commissioner Christina Brown said they would have to think about it.

Amplifying his point, Mr. Wallace noted that commissioner John Breckenridge asked an applicant that night about what kind of shingles he planned to use on his building. “How is that regional impact?” he asked.

Peter Rosbeck asked what other elements would be used to determine character, other than what everyone was trying to avoid putting in the checklist, which is size.

Mr. Sederholm moved to close the hearing. Several of those in attendance objected.

Peter Rosbeck asked why there was a rush to close the hearing. Mr. Sederholm said there was no rush. Mr. Rosbeck asked why the commission would not keep it open for more discussion.

“We could do that virtually with every public hearing,” Mr. Sederholm said. “If you have anything further to say, say it now or put it in writing. We’ll keep the public record open for at least a week.”

The commission will deliberate on the checklist at a meeting on December 6.