A sprawling rental property on Chappaquiddick and the complaints it has generated from neighbors who claim the owner is running an inn in a residential neighborhood highlight the friction that sometimes erupts in communities dotted with vacation rentals, particularly those that are marketed to large groups, and the line that divides private property rights and zoning rules.
Over time, Stephen Olsson of Manchester, N.H., has cobbled together four abutting lots on Sampson’s Hill, and built three luxury estates with shared amenities that serve as high-end rental properties.
According to some of Mr. Sampson’s neighbors, the rural quietude of Chappaquiddick they enjoy is being systematically shattered by the constant activities associated with his rental properties.
The latest salvos in what has been an ongoing battle were exchanged at a public hearing on May 20 before the Edgartown zoning board of appeals (ZBA), where Mr. Olsson applied for a special permit to install a third swimming pool on his property. The ZBA unanimously denied the application, 5 to 0, with board member Nancy Whipple punctuating her strong “no” vote by upbraiding Mr. Olsson for being “a bad neighbor,” according to minutes from the meeting.
It was not the first time neighbors had turned out in force to complain about the properties. In August 2012, about 30 Chappaquiddick residents packed an Edgartown selectmen’s meeting to complain about the noise created by the property. Edgartown Health Agent Matt Poole said at the meeting that he’d been repeatedly denied access to the property, and that he was prepared to take out a warrant to make an inspection. Mr. Olsson was repeatedly accused of running a commercial enterprise in a residential zone — all of Chappaquiddick is zoned residential.
According to the property website marthasvineyardluxuryrentals.com, renters have their choice of three estates; each sleeps 16 people at $15,000 per week. “The Captain’s Home” is a “luxury 6 bedroom, 4.5 bath home;” “The Monet Estate” is a “luxury 4 bedroom, 4 bathroom home;” and “The Country Estate” has a main house and a cottage. Each property description lists access to heated full-size pool, a tennis/basketball court, and a volleyball court.
The battle for Sampson’s Hill underscores a conflict that comes up with increasing regularity on Martha’s Vineyard — when is a home-rental business considered a business?
“Fails straight-face test”
In a conversation with The Times on Wednesday, Mr. Poole said that he eventually obtained a police warrant to enter one of the three properties in February 2013. When he arrived at the property on Chapel Avenue, along with Edgartown Building Inspector Leonard Jason and and an Edgartown Police officer, Mr. Olsson, who had been notified of the warrant, was on the premises, along with a Barnes Moving truck.
“We found him moving beds and mattresses out of the house,” Mr. Poole said.
Mr. Poole found that there were at least four bedrooms in a house that was permitted for two bedrooms. “There were also more undefined spaces being used for sleeping space,” he said. Mr. Poole said that Mr. Olsson’s purchase and redivision of an abutting three-acre lot allowed him to allocate more land to the Chapel Avenue house, bringing him into compliance with the bedroom-to-land area ratio. Mr. Poole said the septic system on the property is adequate for four bedrooms. “He’s taken significant steps to come into compliance. I don’t know if I can say it’s fully compliant, but it’s more compliant than it was,” he said. “It has a history of being used in excess of permitting capacity; hopefully it’s a thing of the past. Towns don’t have the resources to birddog these problems.”
Mr. Poole said the property has a troubled history, but the issue of whether it’s a commercial entity in violation of town zoning bylaws is not under his board of health purview. “But if you look at his advertisements, a two-bedroom house that sleeps 14 fails the straight-face test,” he said.
According to minutes of the May 20 ZBA hearing, abutters said that the noise from the frequent pool parties, and often loutish behavior, were shattering the Chappy silence.
At the hearing, Mr. Olsson said he did his best to control noise on his property, and showed the board an informational sheet that he passes out to all his renters, reminding them of the Edgartown noise ordinance. Chappy resident Pamela Lindgren said that the police had been called on several occasions, “but it’s difficult to get the police to respond to noise complaints on Chappy.”
Chappy resident Joan Abdi wrote in an email that the existing two pools “already have contributed to the disturbances of our peace and quiet by virtue of the noise, the music, and the lights created by his tenants, often late into the night.”
Several contractors under Mr. Olsson’s hire, however, said they had never seen parties there. Mr. Olsson said that he rents to families mostly, not to college kids.
Abuse of neighborhood
Abutter Ron Monterosso showed the board copies of rental advertisements that describe Mr. Olsson’s compound.
“You can’t have separate properties with shared, elite amenities,” Mr. Monterosso told The Times on Tuesday. “How is that not an abuse of residential neighborhood? How is this not changing the character of the neighborhood?”
“He has golf carts so tenants can drive from one property to the next,” Mr. Monterosso said. “The only difference from a hotel is there’s no reception and there’s no one watching.”
Mr. Monterosso has also found himself on the receiving end of noise complaints from Mr. Olsson. Several times last summer, Edgartown police filed reports related to complaints of gunshots on Chappaquiddick. The source was a private firing range Mr. Monterosso had constructed on his property at 1 Handy Avenue.
The range, built in October 2013, has been examined by police and the building inspector, and complies with state law.
Asked in an earlier interview what he thought about how the noise affected the peace and tranquility of his neighborhood, as well as his relationship with his neighbor, Mr. Monterosso said his neighbor runs equipment, including chippers and brush cutters, on a regular basis.
“And his tenants play their stereos at the same decibel level as maybe a shot. So what’s the difference, it’s all noise,” he said. “What is so sacred about his noise? I don’t get it.”