Custodians of a very special place


To the Editor:

Next Monday night, voters in Chilmark will have the opportunity to decide whether the town should better protect the community’s character by regulating the size of new residential construction.

Many people are increasingly concerned that Chilmark is in danger of being transformed from a unique, rural community into a town of McMansions, a Vineyard version of the Hamptons, with disproportionately large, poorly sited new houses that mar the landscape and make excessive demands on the environment. In fact, in response to the 2008 Chilmark Master Plan survey, 82 percent of respondents stated that they wanted the town to consider a bylaw to limit the size of new homes. The planning board’s challenge, then, was to address this concern without creating either unreasonable size limitations (either too high or too low) or a process which would unnecessarily burden most property owners wanting to build or renovate.

A team of volunteers (including the signatories to this letter) worked intensively over the past 18 months to draft a bylaw that carefully balances these concerns. They consulted widely with town boards, architects, builders, and concerned citizens. They considered alternative approaches adopted in other Island towns and across the country and came up with the current proposal. The proposal, based on lot size, sets an upper limit for residential living area and a project review process for large construction proposals below that limit but above a specified threshold.

The upper limit for a three-acre lot is 6,000 square feet of living area. This 6,000 sq. ft. cap is more than two and a half times the existing average size house and almost twice as large as the average size house built in Chilmark in the last 12 years.

If the proposed project on a three-acre lot exceeds a 3,500 sq. ft. threshold, it must be reviewed by the zoning board of appeals, considering such issues as visual impact, energy conservation measures, and impact on water quality.

Both the cap and the review threshold increase by 250 sq. ft./acre, so a much larger lot could accommodate a much larger house. On smaller lots, the limits decrease by 250 sq. ft./acre. The cap on a typical one-acre lot in Menemsha would be 5,500 sq. ft., with a review triggered at 3,000 sq. ft.

The bylaw only applies when someone is seeking a building permit. There is even a “wiggle room” provision allowing small additions that exceed the review threshold or cap by five percent or less.

Most construction projects will not be affected at all. Only 19 existing houses are bigger than the cap for their lot size under the new bylaw, and the majority of those could have been made to fit with a small reduction in size. The main aim of the bylaw is to deal with large outliers. Today, Chilmark has six houses over 8,000 sq. ft. and one is nearly 14,000 sq. ft.

Based on the past decade’s experience, only two or three projects per year would need review and only one project every two years would have to be downsized to fit within the cap. This should have little if any impact on construction jobs, property values, tax revenues, or the administrative burden on the ZBA and staff.

The proposal being put to the town’s voters is a balanced approach and a reasonable solution to a thorny issue. While no one wants to be told what they can do with their property, the proposed bylaw recognizes that we — as a community of Chilmark-loving citizens — are the custodians of something very special that needs protecting. In our view, a yes vote on the proposal will benefit the entire community of Chilmark.

Joan Malkin and Andy Goldman