MVC calls for review of Schifter house move

Biodegradable coir envelopes, mesh tubes filled with plant fiber, have been used to mitigate erosion on Wasque.
Photo by Robert Gilkes

Biodegradable coir envelopes, mesh tubes filled with plant fiber, have been used to mitigate erosion on Wasque.

On Wednesday, March 13, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) told Edgartown officials that a plan to move a 8,300-square-foot luxury house and adjacent buildings away from the quickly eroding coastal bank at Wasque Point is subject to commission review.

Also on Wednesday, Edgartown building inspector, town zoning officer, and longtime MVC member Lenny Jason said that he disagrees and thinks MVC review is not required.

The news comes as Rick Schifter, the house’s owner and his team of engineers are racing time and tide to save his family vacation house from the sea, which continues to eat away at the bank where it is perched. The latest regulatory twist is related to a recent change in the property line of a lot Mr. Schifter bought to be his house’s final destination.

The subdivision of the acreage known as the Leland property, which Mr. Schifter bought earlier this year, was the subject of a 1990 MVC review, which resulted in the lot being declared a Development of Regional Impact (DRI).

In a memo dated Wednesday, March 13, addressed to the Edgartown conservation commission, planning board and building inspector, MVC executive director Mark London said two changes in the original 1990 Leland subdivision plan trigger MVC review.

“The change in lot lines,” wrote Mr. London, “alters an external lot line of the DRI and results in a portion of a fifth lot within the area covered by the Leland DRI.”

In his letter, Mr. London also referenced a condition of the DRI that stated “no further division or subdivision shall be allowed than what is shown on the application.”

Mr. Schifter applied for and received a change in lot lines from the Edgartown planning board last week, to comply with zoning regulations.

Although an MVC committee reviewed the plans informally in February and did not call for commission review, new factors in the evolving plan now require a referral, Mr. London said.

“It is in everyone’s interest, including that of the landowner, to ensure that all required procedures are followed in order to avoid any unnecessary delays in the permitting of the proposal, any potential challenges to such permits, or any issues that may arise in the event of future resale,” Mr. London wrote.

Mr. London also noted that the plan calls for location of five buildings on the Leland property once the move is complete, while the original MVC decision allows only four.

There may be other checklist triggers.

“Additional provisions from the decision that may need to be modified involve stipulations of the elevations within which buildings may be erected and the no-cut zone along the aforementioned lot line,” Mr. London wrote.

The MVC is aware that the rapidly eroding coastal bank threatens the Schifter residence and guesthouse, and the letter includes carefully worded language offering a quick review.

“A DRI modification review by the commission does not necessarily require a public hearing,” Mr. London wrote. “The commission understands that the applicant and the town are anxious to deal with this proposal as rapidly as possible. If the project is referred in the next few days, we should be able to schedule the modification review for next Monday’s LUPC (land use planning committee) meeting and next Thursday’s commission meeting.”

Further review

The Edgartown conservation committee met Wednesday, March 13, in the evening to consider the Schifter application to move the buildings.

In comments prior to the meeting, Mr. Jason said that in his view the change in lot lines did not alter the subdivision and no MVC review is required. It is not clear what course the process would take if Edgartown boards do not refer the project to the MVC.

Another powerful ocean storm clipped four to 10 more feet of the Chappaquiddick coastline last week, leaving approximately 20 feet of land between the top of the bank and a pool enclosure, and about 40 feet between the top of the bank and a large guesthouse.

Mr. Schifter has asked the town to move a house on the Leland property, to make room for moving the guesthouse, garage, and main house to the new property, about 275 feet away from the coastal bank.

Mr. Schifter received permission last week from the town planning board to begin moving the Leland house, but the planning board and the conservation commission still have concerns about the impact of the move on the coastline, and the inconvenience to other residents.

Engineers plan to dig a trench 250 feet wide to move the main house, with the basement and foundation intact, to its new location. That will require removal of about 2,000 truckloads of material from the site, and then the return and compaction of that soil to fill in the trench.

Taking ground

Town officials faced criticism over their decisions to issue permits for the luxury house complex six years ago. At that time, there was about 700 feet of land between the house and the coastal bank.

In 2007, a northeast storm carved a breach through the barrier beach at Norton Point, west of the house, drastically changing the current pattern and rate of erosion on nearby Wasque Point.

The erosion has increased dramatically in the past six months, according to engineers, with an average of nearly one foot per day lost to the ocean.

The conservation commission approved an emergency application last fall to install biodegradable coir bags — large mesh tubes filled with coconut fiber — on the coastal bank. They have succeeded in mitigating erosion directly in front of the Schifter property.

The shifting sands on the ecologically sensitive southeast corner of Chappaquiddick are not a new phenomenon. Historical maps of Wasque show various configurations of the barrier beach, and document breaches of Norton Point in different locations over the centuries.

Historically, storm breaches have occurred with some regularity in the two-mile long barrier beach that separates relatively shallow and normally placid Katama Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.

In February 2001, erosion narrowed the barrier beach to a width of 100-200 feet near the eastern end, and many expected a breach. But the beach came through that winter and remained intact until the 2007 spring storm.

Norton Point has been breached during other storms, including the gale of January 1886, the 1938 hurricane, hurricane Edna in 1954, and hurricane Bob in 1991.

A breach can last a couple of days or a couple of decades, according to historical records.

This story was corrected to reflect the size of the Schifter house.