The question of whether so called “trophy” houses should be subject to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s (MVC) review because of their size generated impassioned comments from among 30 members of the building trades, town planning boards, and the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) at a meeting Monday.
The MVC’s land use planning committee (LUPC) hosted the discussion on April 4, as part of a review of the commission’s development of regional impact (DRI) checklist. The MVC began its formal review in January.
“I want to make it abundantly clear that the Martha’s Vineyard Commission is not advocating putting large houses on the DRI checklist,” LUPC chairman Doug Sederholm of Chilmark said at the meeting’s start.
He explained the LUPC held the discussion in response to requests from people and organizations, particularly the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS). Historically, the commission has not reviewed large houses, Mr. Sederholm pointed out, except in rare instances where towns made discretionary referrals.
VCS has mounted a campaign to add “trophy house” size to the DRI checklist. The private nonprofit conservation organization recently sent out an email to its membership encouraging VCS members to take part in the discussion.
Island town boards use the DRI checklist to determine whether a project should be referred to the MVC. In general, the commission reviews applications for developments that have regional impacts on the environment, traffic, municipal services, and other factors.
“We wouldn’t put something on the checklist just because people don’t like it,” Mr. Sederholm, a lawyer, said. “There may be a lot of people who don’t like large houses, there may be some people who love large houses, but that alone is not a reason to put it on the checklist, just because it’s aesthetically displeasing to some of us. We have to look at what some of the regional impacts would be from large houses to decide whether or not they should be reviewed, and what level should trigger it.”
The first comment came from VCS director Brendan O’Neill. “However it’s actually implemented, our view is that it’s a good idea to give the commission some kind of enhanced authority to look at big house impacts within your regulatory mandate, when they have a regional impact,” Mr. O’Neill said.
Mr. Sederholm recalled that a few months ago, VCS suggested a house size threshold of 4,000 square feet as a trigger for MVC review.
Mr. O’Neill agreed that number was “rather provocative” and said it was put out as a talking point.
The question of regional impacts from large houses spurred several comments, particularly about visual impact and disruption for abutters caused by the construction process.
West Tisbury conservation commission board member Nora Nevin suggested that relative footprint is something to consider in any discussion about thresholds for square footage.
“If you have 100 acres, and you put a 10-bedroom house in the middle of it, your impact is going to be far less in certain aspects than if you put the same house on the corner of downtown Edgartown or any town where it is close, cheek by jowl, to existing three-bedroom houses,” she said.
“What if every house was 11,000 square feet and someone like me couldn’t afford to live here,” VCS staff member Kaysea Hart asked. “With the dichotomy of trophy homes and affordable houses, there would be no middle class, and to me, that’s a regional impact.”
West Tisbury Planning Board co-chairman Virginia Jones and board member Leah Smith said the ongoing construction process associated with big houses for the addition of guesthouses, tennis courts, swimming pools, and other out-buildings, also constitute a regional impact on abutters.
Robert Smith of West Tisbury said he disagreed. “When we’re talking about these larger houses that require service vehicles going in and out, I wouldn’t consider that a detriment to this community; it’s people making a living and doing what they need to do to survive here,” Mr. Smith said.
VCS board member Bruce Rosinoff said he liked the idea of a threshold based on square footage, because he thinks people would be willing to work with the MVC.
“We’re not trying to be social engineers and start a class warfare here; we’re just saying that these things are outrageously ostentatious in some cases, and we tried to make that case by sending you some examples of that,” Mr. Rosinoff said, in reference to some photos of large houses he sent to the MVC.
A matter of economy
“I think the real class warfare is against the young people on the Island, whose only prospect for making a reasonable living on the Island is in the construction trades, and it’s actually a very remarkable industry we have here,” Gary Maynard, owner of Holmes Hole Builders, said in response. “It’s very rare and it’s a collection of exceptional craftspeople and tradesmen that do incredible high-end work, and unfortunately, we don’t get to dictate the designs, but the work that we get to do here is special. And it would be a shame to shoot that in the foot in this process.”
Mr. Maynard and several other prominent builders and contractors who attended the meeting reminded the audience of the importance of the construction industry, and also the people who pay them to build big houses, to the Island’s economy.
“From the standpoint of all of the work that comes from these homes, or is necessitated by all homes built above that [4,000 sq. ft.] range, I can tell you with utmost certainty that what we’ve watched in the last two to three years with the economy, if those homes weren’t there, we would have seen an utter collapse,” Ted Rosbeck of Rosbeck Builders, said. “Without those homes, there would have been dozens of companies, hundreds of employees, all kinds of families just done in.”
Both he and Mr. Maynard reminded the audience of the ripple effect large home construction has on the Island economy.
“You might be taking a boat trip and taking pictures of big homes, but I guarantee that when you go to the hospital, and you walk around in the radiology department or the maternity ward, all those whose homes you’re taking pictures of, are all on the plaques right on the side of the wall,” Mr. Rosbeck said. “So that’s something to consider in the true financial impact.”
Mr. Maynard shared similar thoughts. “And unfortunately, from a boat ride, you’re never going to be able to avoid seeing the biggest, most prominent, most glass-covered, side of that house, because that’s what people buy the land for,” he said. “That’s what they pay 8 and 10 million dollars for, that’s why they pay huge sums into the Land Bank, that’s why they donate money to the Vineyard Conservation Society, the fire house, the hospital — everything else. It’s these people that are building these houses that are making the community that we live in the way it is, right now.”
The discussion also touched on whether review should continue to be left to the towns. MVC Camille Rose of Aquinnah discussed how the designation of the whole town as a district of critical planning concern has been successful. The threshold for MVC review for projects in Aquinnah is 2,000 square feet.
“It’s been very expensive for us, because we do not have the tax revenues that a lot of the towns do that have trophy houses,” Ms. Rose said. “But we knew that would be the price and we’ve been willing to pay it. So we kind of scrape the bone for the budget, but it’s worth it.”
The commissioners assured everyone that they would continue to seek and listen to comments from the Island community over the next several months.
The LUPC meets the first Monday of every month to discuss the DRI checklist. Comments may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org