Chilmark voters approve limits on house size

Chilmark voters filled the Chilmark Community Center to overflowing Monday night. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Updated at Noon, April 29

Chilmark voters easily approved a proposed change to the town’s zoning bylaws to set limits on house size, on Monday at their annual town meeting. The vote by written ballot was 162-51. It followed emotional testimony both for and against the landmark zoning changes.

A total of 213 voters, or roughly 23 percent of the town’s 913 registered voters [911 of whom were eligible to vote at the meeting], packed the Chilmark Community Center. It was one of the larger annual town meeting turnouts in recent memory. Voters continued to shuffle in, finding places to sit on the floor or in the back room of the community center. The official count was 220.

Moderator Everett Poole guided voters briskly through the first 30 articles on the 32-article warrant in less than 45 minutes. All but article 9, a request to fund post employment benefits that was postponed indefinately, passed by unanimous or nearly unanimous votes with no discussion or debate.

Voters easily approved an $8,183,926 operating budget for fiscal 2014, which begins on July 1. The spending plan represents an increase of seven percent, or $529,000. School, public safety, and library spending helped fuel the budget increase.

The fast pace and lack of debate did not continue. Not unexpectedly, the big house bylaw, which came at the end of the warrant, generated considerable debate and a request for an Australian ballot, rarely used on town meeting floor, to let voters cast a paper ballot.

A group of residents successfully petitioned for the Australian ballot before the meeting. The meeting was stopped for nearly 45 minutes as the voting took place and the ballots were counted.

House limits set

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 on three acres will be 6,000 square feet.

Owners of houses built on three-acre lots prior to Monday’s 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 per acre.

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 must 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.

Groundhog Day

Planning board chairman Janet Weidman told voters the question of whether to limit home size has been discussed for a long time but gained momentum five years ago when a survey sent out as part of an update of the town master plan revealed overwhelming support for limits on larger houses. That led the planning board to appoint a six-member subcommittee to study the issue.

She said the subcommittee’s task was daunting and the work sometimes frustrating. “We used to call it Groundhog Day because we would talk about the same things over and over. But as time went on we built a consensus and the thing that came out of it was the impact of large houses,” she said.

Ms. Weidman said that owners of 85 percent of existing lots would still be able to build or expand on their property under the bylaw without additional review, and only 19 of 1,250 properties in town would fall outside the cap of 6,000 square feet.

“We wanted to come up with a way that most people could still do something with their property but on the other side of the coin reel in these extra large projects that do not reflect what Chilmark really is,” she said.

Pull up the drawbridge

Jay Lagemann said he appreciated all the work by the planning board and subcommittee, but he said the 3,500 square foot threshold was too low and there needed to be better definition.

“When people get off the boat and buy their houses they want to pull up the drawbridge, and they want that to be the end, and they don’t want more…but what makes this town is that we are dynamic and we have changed.”

Former selectman Frank Fenner also questioned the threshold. “When you have a threshold like 3,500 square feet that means you will have a number of these coming before the zoning board. To me that’s a liability in my mind, because all those decisions are ones that can be disputed,” he said.

Step forward

Many residents supported the limits on home size. Thomas Bena said the new bylaw was not perfect but a huge step forward.

“That stillness we all love, that’s gone now. When you walk down a winter road you hear generators blaring from big, empty homes… This is not something I am proud to teach my daughter, that we keep 20,000 square foot empty homes.”

Rodney Bunker said large homes threatened the character of Chilmark. “Do you want to see these large seasonal homes…or do we want to take a stand right here, right now to stop this or at least slow it down so our children grow up appreciating all the things we love about this town,” he said.

Steve Bernier, owner of Cronig’s Markets, said voters should consider what’s best for the town.

“To walk out of here tonight wrapped in our Yankee individualism, trying to get everything we want, that part of our history is behind us…. Can we please rally and let go of all our individualism and think about the community we love,” he said.

Billy Meegan also urged voters to support the new bylaw. “We have taken such good care of this desirable place that we’re feeling put upon and priced out of our own town…. It’s up to us to decide what we want, and not for the vanity of mega-millionaires and immoderate architects,” he said.

Unintended consequences

Robert Kenney said the gap between the 3,500 square-foot review threshold and 6,000-square-foot hard cap was too wide, and argued the average new home size over the last 15 years was over 3,000 square feet.

Debbie Hancock said she worried the new bylaw would lead to more subdivisions. “People will be able to do more on three acres then on one ten-acre lot,” she said.

Bob Seltzer said he was worried about the law of unintended consequences and proposed an amendment to require the planning board and zoning board to meet once every two years to discuss the house limit bylaw.

The amendment required the two boards to determine if the bylaw was causing unexpected hardships or problems and report to voters at the next town meeting. The amendment passed by a wide margin.

Another amendment to increase the review threshold from 3,500 to 4,000 square feet was briefly debated but defeated in a standing vote. Mr. Poole then moved the main question and asked voters to come forward to cast their ballots.

After the motion passed there was applause but also some unhappy faces in the crowd.

In other business

In a related measure, voters passed a new zoning bylaw to define detached bedrooms and total living area and limit the permitted use on every property to one detached bedroom.

Voters also approved three overrides of Proposition 2.5. The first authorized an additional $300,000 in taxes to fund the operating budget of the Up-Island School District for fiscal year 2014.

They also approved an override question asking for an additional $80,000 to fund repairs at the Chilmark School and another asking for $31,000 to purchase and equip a new police vehicle.

All three override questions will need approval at the ballot box at the annual town election on Tuesday, April 30.

Voters also approved $7,064 for the county pest management program; $29,364 for the town’s share of the county-run Vineyard Health Care Access program; $7,670 in community preservation funds for window repairs at the county courthouse; $30,000 from the fire stabilization fund, to replace fire apparatus more than 25 years old; $200,000 to repair a section of Tabor House Road and $103,000 to repair part of North Road.

Voters also agreed to spend $18,000 to upgrade the self-contained breathing apparatus used by the fire department.

And they agreed to spend $39,000 from the general stabilization fund to pay the town’s share of the new ambulance for the Tri-Town Ambulance and $24,000 to re-shingle and repaint a section of town hall.

The meeting adjourned in just under three hours.

Correction: The Times account of the Chilmark town meeting, published April 22, in the print and online editions, reported correctly the total number of registered voters at the time of the meeting. That number was 913, but the number of registered voters eligible to vote at that meeting was 911.