Chilmark takes up $8.1 million budget, big house rules Monday

Moderator Everett Poole will be at the helm Monday night. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Chilmark voters will be asked to approve an $8.1 million FY2014 operating budget and 32 other articles when they convene in their annual town meeting in the Chilmark Community Center on Monday. A proposed zoning bylaw that would set limits on house size is expected to generate the most debate.

Money articles, including three Proposition 2.5 questions totaling $411,000, are expected to attract voter scrutiny.

The $8,183,926 operating budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1 represents an increase of seven percent, or $529,000. School, public safety, and library spending helped fuel the budget increase.

The meeting begins at 7:30 pm. Voters go to the polls on Tuesday, April 30, to elect town officers and decide three Proposition 2.5 questions.

How big

A proposed amendment to the zoning bylaws that would set limits in relation to lot size on the allowable total living area of any new house built in Chilmark and restrict the expansion of existing houses above a set threshold will almost certainly be the focus of what might otherwise be a routine annual town meeting.

The zoning board of appeals (ZBA) would be empowered to grant special permits to planned houses that exceed the thresholds, but only after considering a long list of criteria heavily weighted to consider visual and environmental impacts.

The proposed bylaw was drawn up by a special subcommittee made up of three planning board members and three private citizens. It has been the topic of several well-attended public meetings and the reaction overall has been mixed.

The proposed bylaw is the first of its kind on the Vineyard and represents a potential watershed moment, with potential impacts for the construction industry.

Rural quality

The stated purposes of the new bylaw includes “to ensure that future residential development does not overwhelm Chilmark’s rural atmosphere; detract from its geographic diversity — its seashore, ponds, stonewall boundaries, open agricultural space — or the vistas from its roadsides; and is built in scale with past development practices with regard to bulk and building coverage.”

The new regulations set a threshold of 3,500 square feet of total living area for new construction on three-acre lots. Beyond these limits, a special permit will be required, and the maximum size limit will be 6,000 square feet.

Owners of houses built on three-acre lots prior to the April 22 town meeting would be allowed to exceed the 3,500-square-foot threshold and the 6,000-square-foot maximum by five percent, but only for projects that the building inspector determines are additions.

Owners of larger lots are allowed to add 250 square feet to the threshold trigger for each additional contiguous acre. Smaller lot owners would subtract 250 square feet.

In issuing a special permit, the ZBA must consider whether the project would be visible from public ways, water bodies, cemeteries, and neighboring properties.

The board would also consider a long list of factors such as whether the project retains natural buffer areas, the impact of exterior lighting, the impacts on the natural landscape, and whether it preserves natural features.

The board may also require the applicant to incorporate measures to reduce excessive negative water quality impacts on ponds and wetland and also require the applicant to minimize fossil fuel use and use renewable energy sources.

Time for action

Janet Weidner, chairman of the planning board, said the idea of residential building size regulations has been discussed as far back as the early 1990s. “It’s been kicked around for almost 20 years now,” she said.

Ms. Weidner said the new regulations are not totally unprecedented, pointing out that other communities have attempted to rein in house size using a variety of tools. She noted the entire town of Aquinnah is part of a District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC) where development is strictly controlled.

The proposed changes have generated strong opinions on both sides of the issue, Ms. Weidner said. “Generally nobody has gone to these meetings and really hammered the approach we are taking,” she said.

Ms. Weidner said the planning board and subcommittee settled on the 3,500 square foot threshold because it was roughly 150 percent of the average home size in Chilmark.

“We didn’t want to make it so prohibitive that nobody in town could do anything, but we also didn’t want to make it so small it wouldn’t have an impact,” she said.

Ms. Weidner said that under current zoning around 90 percent of all the residential homes in town are legally allowed to build an addition or expand.

“We are trying to protect against those few cases where people go above and beyond the average house size. There is some concern that nobody is going to be able to do anything and that is not the case for most people,” she added.

Ms. Weidner said the new bylaw could be an effective tool to preserve the town’s unique character. “I think we’ve done this systematically and have looked at what Chilmark looks like and what it may look like years from now,” she said. “I think its good to ask people what they want their town to look like and what they want to hold on to.”

Threshold too low

Selectman Bill Rossi, a realtor with Sotheby’s International, said he appreciates all the hard work the planning board did on the regulations, but he worries the regulations may be too restrictive.

“I think it’s going to be extremely difficult for anyone to comply with all those guidelines,” he said. “I understand people want to preserve Chilmark. I’ve been here 40 years and I get that, [but] I just think as written it goes too far.”

Mr. Rossi said he might support placing restrictions on larger houses closer to 5,000 square feet. “I think big houses start closer to 5,000 square feet, and I think if we can control things after that — it’s a reasonable thing for the town,” he said.

He said the 3,500 square foot threshold will put pressure on the zoning board to consider a long list of largely subjective criteria when reviewing larger homes.

“I worry this will come down to someone’s interpretations of what character is — which can be a very different thing to different people,” he said.

Other business

Voters will also consider a trio of overrides of Proposition 2.5, the state law that limits a community’s ability to annually raise the tax levy by 2.5 percent. The first override questions would authorize an additional $300,000 in taxes to fund the operating budget of the Up-Island School District for fiscal year 2014.

Another override question asks for an additional $80,000 to fund repairs at the Chilmark School, the third asks for $31,000 to purchase and equip a new police vehicle.

Regional money requests will also fuel budget growth. Chilmark will pay a $154,661 Martha’s Vineyard Commission assessment, compared to $129,376 in FY13, an increase of $25,285.

In addition to the Dukes County assessment of $77,834, which does not appear on the budget, voters will be asked to appropriate $7,064 for the county pest management program, and $29,364 for the town’s share of the county-run Vineyard Health Care Access program.

Voters will also be asked to contribute $7,670 in CPA funds for the towns’ share of window repairs at the Dukes County courthouse in Edgartown.

Identical articles appear on all six town meeting warrants. Neighboring West Tisbury voters at annual town meeting on April 9 rejected spending on the court house or pest management, calling the formula into question. Tisbury and Oak Bluffs are also questioning whether or not to participate in the county pest management program.

Other spending requests include: $30,000 from the fire stabilization fund to replace fire apparatus over 25 years old; $50,000 for town employees post retirement benefits; $200,000 from the general stabilization fund to repair an approximately half-mile stretch of Tabor House Road; $103,000 to repair a section of North Road along Menemsha Hills; $18,000 to upgrade the self-contained breathing apparatus used by the fire department; $39,000 from general stabilization to fund the town’s share of the new ambulance for the Tri-Town Ambulance; $24,000 to re-shingle and repaint a section of town hall; and $8,610 in Community Preservation Act funds for the town’s share of a project to preserve historical documents and artifacts at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.