At Large: The ‘Not Our Crowd’ approach to zoning against big houses

At Large: The ‘Not Our Crowd’ approach to zoning against big houses

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Chilmark voters will be asked this spring to amend the town’s zoning bylaws to extinguish or, at any rate, encumber the ambitions of landowners who want to build big houses on their big lots. Chilmark residential zoning, with few exceptions, requires a three-acre minimum building lot.

The premise for this move, long in the gestation and grotesque in the delivery, is “to ensure that future residential development does not overwhelm Chilmark’s rural atmosphere; detract from its geographic diversity — its seashore, ponds, stonewall boundaries, open agricultural space — or the vistas from its roadsides; and is built in scale with past development practices with regard to bulk and building coverage.”

There is no language, specified or quantified in any way, that defines “overwhelm” as a metric for house size decisions, or “rural atmosphere,” or “detract from,” or “in scale with.” Absent definitions for such anticipated depredations, one supposes that you’ll know it when you see it, or a zoning or planning board member, or site review committee member, or even a mile-away, across-the-pond Chilmark resident will. One also supposes that the Chilmarkers who will form the gantlet through which the aspiring big house builder must skitter will all see these things the same way.

Leaving aside the question of whether there is any real threat to any real and definable characteristic of Chilmark from the assault of the super rich (even just the pretty well off) — who may be assumed to have chosen to build in Chilmark because they like it, just as voters have chosen to live there because they do — there are some metrics that do bear upon such a decision as voters will be asked to make.

For instance, Chilmark is very rich. Of the Island towns, Chilmark had the highest median household income in 2010 — $72,917. Also the highest land value per resident. It’s expensive, getting more so, and the wealth is to a significant extent underpinned by transfer payments and unearned income of retirees and high income part-timers.

And there’s this, jobs in the service and construction sectors experienced dramatic increases in the last two decades. These are jobs that beloved sons and daughters of Chilmark and other Island towns, whose parents hope they will live their lives on the Vineyard, fill.

Services, which include professional, health care, education, food, entertainment, and accommodations among others, grew 224 percent, from 1,118 jobs to 3,626 jobs in 2010. Construction trade jobs increased 392 percent, from 368 to 1,810 jobs. Jobs in finance and manufacturing rose by more than 150 percent.

Jobs make it possible for people — and especially the people we identify as important contributors to our Island life — to live here. A lot of those jobs spring from the construction and maintenance of big houses. They include the Island folks who clear the lots, design the buildings, install the septic systems and the wiring, paint the walls, do the stonework, tile the bathrooms, bang the nails, install and maintain the pools and the lavish landscaping, cater the parties, plow the long drives, clean the houses, furnish the flowers daily or weekly that routinely decorate these big houses. All of which argues for more such houses, because in fact, there aren’t many. The Chilmark planning board arrived at the 3,500-square-foot threshold limit for a house on a three-acre lot after surveying all of the more than 1,200 existing houses in town and arriving at an average size of about 2,200 square feet on three acres. You do the math: the modest houses must significantly outnumber the bruisers to arrive at such a pedestrian average.

Of course, if you can manage to pay the freight to own three Chilmark acres, and if you want something more than a 3,500-square-foot house, the proposed bylaw allows for incremental increases, if you don’t mind enduring a whimsical colonoscopy conducted by the zoning board for every additional 250 square feet, up to a total of 6,000 square feet, or about 4.5 percent of the total area of that 131,000-square-foot lot. How enticing does that effort sound?

Why whimsical? Well, the special permit process will require the zoning board or its review committee members to consider if the proposed house “when complete, would be visible, including during the winter, from public ways, water bodies, cemeteries and neighboring properties.” If the answer is yes, then these untutored but devoted resident members of the review committee must measure, without metrics, the impact on the existing rural, scenic character of the site, whether the project retains natural buffer areas or, where that is impracticable, provides sufficient landscape screening; and the project “avoids altering the natural landscape, minimizes the size of lawns and recreational facilities, uses native species for landscaping, and retains natural vegetation on slopes.” Also, how the buildings are sited and whether “the project is designed to minimize fossil fuel use by incorporating energy efficiency and conservation techniques, by using renewable energy sources and by limiting off-season heating in seasonal homes.”

There is a lot of, well, discretion written into this proposed zoning change. It lacks a supportable premise. It lacks definition and metrics. It has no discipline or rules for decision making by permitting authorities. It offers no predictability for the abused applicants.

Of the choice of 3,500 square feet as the upper limit of “of right” residential construction permission, Janet Weidner, chairman of the planning board, said, “That gives people a pretty fair amount of building space without having to do anything different than they do today, in terms of permitting. And over and above that, they have the ability to go and receive a special permit to go all the way up to the 6,000 limit. To me, that’s a lot of building on a three-acre lot.”

To her.

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