A sign of historic proportion in Oak Bluffs

An Oak Bluffs resident draws attention to his dispute with the Cottage City Historic District Commission. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Stanley Merry had all he could take. The Oak Bluffs carpenter, frustrated with historic district regulations that held up a porch renovation project at the house he rents at 66 Nashawena Avenue, decided to express his frustration in a way nobody could miss.

On Wednesday, March 21, Mr. Merry put up a sign that covered the entire porch, from ground to roof, corner to corner. In two-foot-high black capital letters, he wrote “THE COPELAND HIST. COMMISSION WILL NOT ALLOW THIS PROJECT TO BE COMPLETED.” The sign was clearly visible to motorists driving along upper Circuit Avenue.

Mr. Merry’s dispute is not with the Copeland Plan Review Committee, but with the Cottage City Historic District Commission.

The dispute centers on the casement style windows Mr. Merry installed as part of his porch makeover.

The Cottage City commission generally discourages closing in porches, and in three meetings with Mr. Merry and property owner Jack Coleman, the commission declined to approve the project.

“They want to see double-hung wood sash windows instead of the ones I have,” Mr. Merry said. “There is no way, in 2012, I was going to install a wood sash window on the north side of a house. Wasn’t going to happen.”

Mr. Merry was also indignant that the Cottage City commission wanted new windows installed, instead of the 35-year-old and 70-year-old windows he salvaged from construction jobs.

“That’s how little they know,” Mr. Merry said. “All of the rest of the windows are single-hung windows. The house beside me has four different style windows. The house on the other side has five different style windows. The Copeland committee, or whatever they call themselves, their bylaws, there’s nothing in it that says we cannot put a casement window in that house.”

Sign of the times

The Cottage City Historic District Commission wanted windows that matched area properties and reflected the Victorian style of the historic district, according to commission chairman Renee Balter.

She said the commission has made reasonable requests in this case, and she points out that the commission has strong backing from residents, including a 2003 unanimous town meeting vote that created the historic district.

“Without being reviewed, or putting in an application with the Cottage Citty Historic District Commission, they just went ahead and did it,” Ms. Balter said. “They are in violation of our bylaw. We didn’t think the casement windows were appropriate. If they were going to enclose the porch, it should at least match the existing style.”

Ms. Balter said the commission has streamlined its procedures and tries to work cooperatively with homeowners. “We’re not really hard to do business with,” she said. “We could easily fine him $100 a day. We could tell him to tear it down, we have that power. But we don’t like to do that.”

Oak Bluffs building inspector Jim Dunn said the big sign clearly violates the town’s sign bylaw. He said since the bylaw is difficult to enforce, it makes more sense for the two parties to work out their dispute, than for the town to initiate legal action.

Mr. Coleman, who owns the home, declined comment when reached in California, except to say that he asked his tenant to take down the sign on Tuesday, March 27.

The commission expects to meet with Mr. Coleman again on April 18. Ms. Balter said the homeowner, not the tenant, is legally responsible for complying with historic regulations.

Ms. Balter said in previous meetings that Mr. Merry seemed angry beyond reason. “It was really uncomfortable. This guy was quite belligerent. I’m going to request he not come to that meeting,” she said.