MVC signs off on demolition of century-old Edgartown house

This illustration shows the house the new owner intends to build. — Courtesy MVC

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) voted unanimously last Thursday to allow the demolition of a 1890-era house in Edgartown following a review of the project as a development of regional impact (DRI).

The listed owner, Beach Street Property LLC., must adhere to any Edgartown planning board conditions and is also required to build the design the MVC reviewed.

Commissioners agreed the house, located at 2 Beach Street in Edgartown, was historically insignificant. Alexander Marx, owner of Beach Street Property, LLC, bought the house in November 2014 for $1,270,000 and requested permission from the Edgartown planning board, as well as the historic district commission, to demolish it and replace it with a house on the same footprint, but 137 square feet larger.

The MVC’s DRI checklist requires review of any building over 100 years old. The Edgartown planning board referred the project to the MVC, which last month voted 6-5 to review it.

Lawyer Sean Murphy of Edgartown represented the property owners. He emphasized that the town would be involved in the process. “This is not the final hearing, or remotely close to the final meeting,” Mr. Murphy told the commissioners.

Mr. Murphy said he had conducted thorough research into the house’s history, and came up with very little to show for it. Rumors had circulated that the building might have been partially built out of an old icehouse, per a book written by Henry Hough. Mr. Murphy said he could find no such record.

“When there’s nothing historic, it’s tough to find anything,” Mr. Murphy said.

He said that a property survey showed that a corner of the house extended onto the road. Regardless of what photos they looked at, Mr. Murphy said, that house would not exist in its entirety, because that piece of the house must be removed. He also said that the house might be removed without being demolished. Edgartown demolition bylaws require houses be offered to the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority. He said two private citizens have also expressed interest in moving the house.

Mr. Murphy disputed information in the MVC staff report that the neighborhood is a historic area, or that the house is highly visible from a public way. “Of the 16 closest properties, only five of them are old houses,” Mr. Murphy said. The majority, he said, were built after the turn of the 20th century, largely post-1940s.

He insisted that the attempts to preserve the house were arbitrary and inconsistent with the way the rest of the neighborhood has been treated.

“I have great respect for what the historic district commission does in Edgartown; I work with them a lot,” he said. “But they’re just reaching out here to try to find some reason to maintain this house.”

Mr. Murphy said it was unfair. He referred to the core of a DRI, namely a project that would likely present development issues significant to more than one municipality on the Island.

“This just doesn’t rise to that level,” he said. “It doesn’t even affect the neighborhood.”

Motion to motion

Lawyer George Davis attended the hearing on behalf of the Naylors, abutters located at 4 Beach Street. He said the planning board had required the Naylors to keep 25 percent of their structure intact for historic purposes. “I would argue apples to apples,” he said.

Mr. Davis said that, despite claims and agreement that the new house would be approximately the same size, in cubic feet the house would be significantly larger.

Commissioners went back and forth over the best way to allow the house to be removed under the oversight of the Edgartown planning board.

A motion to allow the demolition of the house spurred further discussion.

Commissioner Joshua Goldstein of Tisbury repeatedly attempted to move to approve the demolition of the house without conditions.

Land use planning committee (LUPC) chairman Linda Sibley of West Tisbury took a stab at it.

“I’m trying to make a motion that I think will minimize discussion,” she said. “That is that we approve it with limited conditions as specified by Mr. Murphy, that they build as proposed and offer it [the house] in good faith to someone. So we would approve the demolition with those very limited conditions.”

The ensuing discussion focused on whether or not the motion, as presented, allowed the Edgartown planning board to impose stricter conditions, such as maintaining 25 percent of the existing structure.

“That makes it impossible for them to then offer to give it away, because they can’t give away half of the house,” commissioner Joan Malkin of Chilmark said.

Ms. Malkin referenced Mr. Murphy’s earlier statement about the house possibly being removed and not destroyed.

“All right, Joan,” Ms. Sibley said. She began to defend her motion but was interrupted by general crosstalk.

Mr. Jason attempted to summarize the chain of authority between the MVC and town planning boards.

“So you say, you wanna knock it down, that’s fine. If you, the planning board, has a problem with that, you can condition it further. If they wanna give it away, no problem, we’ve already said they can knock it down,” Lenny Jason, who represents Dukes County and is also Edgartown building inspector, said.

Mr. Goldstein suggested that the MVC allow the planning board to “do its job.”

“If the planning board were to see its way clear to approve a replacement structure that was utterly different from what was presented to us, we wouldn’t care?” Ms. Sibley asked.

Mr. Goldstein responded that the town would be obliged to elect new planning board members.

“Then we would not have fulfilled our responsibility under chapter 831 with regard to character,” Ms. Sibley said, referring to the MVC’s enabling legislation.
“Well, that raises the question to whether there is a character,” Ms. Malkin said.

“Sure there’s a character,” Ms. Sibley responded.

“They also have a responsibility,” Ms. Malkin said.

“All right, I don’t care. If the Edgartown planning board wants to approve something utterly different, then Josh has probably got a point. Though I do think that it will have a regional impact,” Ms. Sibley said.

Mr. Murphy pointed out that if the owners should decide to build a “glass box” after they got through various permitting and committee approval, anybody could refer the project back to the MVC.

Ms. Malkin made a motion that they “approve the demolition to the extent that the demolition proceeds and that there is no contrary requirement from the planning board to retain any of the structure, that the structure should be built as presented, or offered.”

Mr. Goldstein seconded the motion.

However, before they could vote, and to the consternation of most of the commissioners, the body reviewed the list of all the benefits and detriments of the project.

In a roll-call vote, the commission voted 13-0 in favor of Ms. Malkin’s motion.