At Large: Saying why and saying it clearly

Chris Murphy and I have known one another since the 1970s, and during that long time we have enjoyed some spirited discussions, in which on one or two occasions we’ve agreed. His letter, which appears nearby this morning, does not reflect such a heartening occasion, although I have to say I am grateful for every obliquely complimentary observation that he makes, bless his soul.

Leave aside for the moment whether the variegated town population, seasonal and year-round today, is able to form a consensus view of what makes Chilmark Chilmark, and leaving aside also whether they are entitled, if they were to do so in 2013, to reasonably encumber new residents and voters into perpetuity with their declared predispositions, there remains the question of how to do so.

The proposed bylaw governing houses larger than 3,500 square feet is not how. It is instead a grotesque departure from simple fairness, it is arbitrary at its very heart, and it operates with all the complication, uncertainty, and gross discomfort of a colonoscopy. Here’s why.

There needs to be a whereas clause that enumerates and defines what is threatened by the behaviors that the proposed bylaw is intended to extinguish – and how that may be so. Why are big, gracefully designed, handsomely constructed, and immensely valuable, high-tax houses unwelcome? How is the small-house-ness of Chilmark, such as it is, related to the health and wellbeing and residential pleasure of its residents, endowed as they are with every brand of economic, aesthetic, and cultural attributes, and how will the relatively uncommon big-house-ness of some dwellings threaten those community-wide interests?

And the threat, the mitigations, and the qualification process for building a house of whatever size need to be objectively and explicitly measurable. This makes it possible for a prospective housebuilder to know what he might and what he must not do. For instance, one might write into law a rule that houses may only be 25 feet tall, because if they are taller they will alter the treeline, which is an alteration Chilmarkers are unwilling to tolerate. So, design the house at 25 feet, pull the permit, and get busy. Or, houses may have only one bedroom if they are to be built on the border of a water body, because the on-site sewage system will affect the pond’s water quality if more than one bedroom is permitted. Design a one-bedroom house, pull the permit, and get busy. Still there needs to be an explicit finding that explains why a 3,500 square foot house is okay, by right, and a 3,550 square foot house is not and instead requires a higher, stricter, time-consuming scrutiny.

The goal ought to be to enhance clarity and diminish subjectivity, to amplify predictability and reduce uncertainty. The proposed Chilmark bylaw does precisely the reverse. As an example, the first square foot above the 3,500 square foot per three-acre lot requires a special permit process heavily larded with unspecific and subjective tests. Neither the applicant nor the zoning or site review testers come to the matter equipped with a yardstick or metric with which to judge the plan proposed by the wretch who wants to add a, for instance, 150-square-foot mud room, or clear a larger space for a yard, never mind a pool house or a bowling alley.

There are sensible rules that could be applied to very large houses, but they could be imposed by planning boards and town building, health and safety officials, for all sorts of sensible, explainable 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. Specially designed packaged sewage treatment facilities might be required of houses greater than 6,000 square feet. Setbacks for bigger houses could be increased to guard against interference with the neighbors’ enjoyment of their properties. Solar energy systems might be obligatory on larger houses. All of these and more might be applied to big house development plans, but the contemplated big-house bylaw does none of this, although in site review such requirements might or might not be imposed, should the reviewing authorities see fit.

One does not need to be an enthusiast for lavish residential spreads to crave a bylaw that at least attempts to explain in comprehensible ways why big houses are deemed harmful to the town and its residents and that defines, in clear and explicit terms, what will suit town zoning regulators and what will not.