Edgartown historic district expansion attracts concerns

The proposed expansion, in blue, would nearly double the district. The black dots on the map indicate the estimated home and building locations. — Photo courtesy of Edgartown Historic District Commission

Edgartown homeowners packed into the selectmen’s meeting room Tuesday night for a historic district commission (HDC) public hearing on a proposal to expand the town’s historic district. The hearing was intended to be informational, and attendees were instructed to address the commission, but commissioners answered few questions and participants regularly responded to one another throughout the meeting.

As the district now stands, it begins at the Edgartown harbor and extends inland in choppy spurts. The proposal would smooth out the borders and nearly double the current area. Homeowners under the HDC’s jurisdiction are required to go before the HDC for approval before making any changes to the exterior of their houses.

Much of the discussion centered around the clarity, or lack thereof, of HDC regulations for homeowners seeking to make changes to their houses. Many of those who spoke explained that they were unsure what tangible effects an expansion would have on their properties. Homeowner Sarah Loomis described the expectations of homeowners in the historic district as “very gray.”

“Each one is taken on a case-by-case basis,” Bricque Garber, HDC assistant, said.

Homeowner Agnes Williams said that she owns three houses in the expansion zone, but that one of them is in such disrepair that she can’t install an HVAC system until it is rebuilt. She said she was worried that such strict restrictions would make that a much larger challenge.

“And I know I’m not the only person in Edgartown who owns a dilapidated house,” Ms. Williams said.

Edgartown architect Patrick Ahearn, who has been a proponent of the expansion, spoke at length about how HDC regulations protect the greater good. Mr. Ahearn said that a single “box” of a house could “singlehandedly destroy the character of an entire street.”

The HDC commissioners largely heard concerns without offering many answers.

“It can be daunting for homeowners who have never gone through this process,” HDC commissioner Robbie Hutchison said. Ms. Hutchison highlighted the resources in town, such as Mr. Ahearn, who is versed in HDC regulations.

Mr. Ahearn told the crowd that they should consider the HDC as an ally, because after attaining HDC approval for construction and alterations, homeowners can then go before other town bodies, such as the planning board, with a stamp of HDC approval on their side.

Ultimately, it will be up to annual town meeting voters in April to approve the new boundaries. Several homeowners questioned who could vote.

“Do you have any idea, in the town of Edgartown, with one- or two-month vacationers, what percentage actually can vote on this?” asked homeowner Ellen Bender of Maryland.

Ms. Bender expressed concern that the final deliberation would exclude many seasonal residents. Ms. Garber said she wasn’t sure how many seasonal residents are registered to vote in Edgartown, but only registered voters may vote at town meeting.

“In every town in Dukes County, it’s the registered voters,” said Ms. Garber.

“Not the taxpayers?” asked Ms. Bender.

“No,” Ms. Garber said.

The proposed expansion will be sent to the Massachusetts Historical Commission for approval, after which another public hearing will take place within 60 days. The final proposal will then appear as an article on the town warrant at the annual April town meeting. An expansion requires a two-thirds majority vote.