It’s all up to the building inspector – and the rules


To the Editor:

On July 25, the zoning board of appeals of Chilmark held a most extraordinary hearing involving the application of town zoning laws. In a town dedicated to conservation, where changing the size of a shed or building an outdoor shower is assumed to require architects and hearings, those who attended learned that in fact zoning regulation in Chilmark has idiosyncrasies, flaws, and gaps of Orwellian proportions.

The hearing was called to handle the petition of an abutter to revoke a certificate of occupancy of one of three structures which had suddenly mushroomed on a neighbor’s 4.9-acre lot, located on a precious corner of Quitsa Pond. The new owner had in fact built more than 12,000 square feet of interior space in a district of critical planning concern.

The abutter, and most residents of Chilmark, knew that no guesthouse could be more than 800 square feet, that garages by right were restricted to several cars (three in fact), and that pools could only be sought by owners who had been in title for more than two years. The neighbor had built an 8,238-square-foot main house, a second building with a bedroom and pool of 2,320 square feet, and a barn/garage of 1,920 square feet. How was this possible?

Abutter’s lawyer presented her objections, particularly to the 2,320-foot bedroom and pool building. This had been approved solely on the discretion and review of the building inspector as an “accessory structure” and a “detached bedroom.” (Apparently this building was added to the plans after the site review and review by the conservation committee.) Many of us had, prior to the public discussion of this very project, never heard either of these terms as zoning categories. The lawyer acknowledged the categories but pointed out that under the zoning laws of Chilmark an “accessory structure” was a building providing a supporting system for another structure. The examples in the code were a tool house or pump house. The code, she argued, did not contemplate a 2,320-square-foot structure.

The building inspector, Lenny Jason, was present and was asked to explain the number of anomalies presented by these circumstances. Nothing was unusual about this, he assured the ZBA and attendant residents. The 800-square-foot guest-house limit applied to structures which have kitchens. There were no kitchens in the accessory structure, the detached bedroom, or in the garage/barn for that matter. (Apparently the “barn” category removes any limits on the size of garages that might be imposed and allows, as here, yet another detached bedroom. No one argues any more that barns require the presence of cows.)

The building inspector assured the board and audience that there are many, perhaps hundreds, of detached bedrooms and accessory structures in Chilmark. (Barn House, the membership community residence, alone, he conjectured, might have 14 detached bedrooms, leaving out that these may well have been built when the words Chilmark and zoning would not have appeared in the same sentence.

The board had few questions for either counsel or Mr. Jason. Questions coming from the audience as to similar approvals were discarded by the board as not something that could be addressed on the spot and from memory. Has a 2,300-square-foot “accessory structure” ever been authorized in Chilmark, and particularly in a district of critical planning concern? Perhaps we will never know. No planning or zoning board in Chilmark need review such applications. It’s all up to the building inspector.

Chris Murphy, the chairman of the ZBA, to his credit, ran a tight ship. Objections could be made, but argument was to be kept short. Principals, an owner representative, and abutter representatives were told that they should not feel any need to comment. Objections to the timeliness of the petition were duly noted and explained (the abutters and owners had been trusting friends before all 12,478 square feet of living space had risen on this exquisite, perhaps formerly exquisite, point of Quitsa Pond.)

The board adjourned the meeting to confer with counsel and to reconvene possibly in September. In the meantime, one would expect that there will be a sharp drop in applications for guesthouses in Chilmark, a jump in applications for accessory structures and detached bedrooms. By the way, please hold the kitchens, the only factor that seems to invoke a 800-square-foot limit. You can undoubtedly have the coffee machine, the toaster, and microwave, but the refrigerator, perhaps that has to wait until no one who has the authority or interest has occasion to enter your “accessory structure” to inspect.

Miles Jaffe