Chilmark bylaw change aims to protect historic houses

A historic house on Murphy's Road in Chilmark. — Photo by Sam Moore

In an effort to preserve and protect historic houses, the Chilmark planning board is crafting a proposed amendment to the so-called “big house” bylaw that would allow property owners to exempt historic houses from any calculation of square footage when building a new house.

The designation is important under an amendment to the zoning bylaws approved in 2013 that set limits in relation to lot size on the allowable total living area of any new house built in Chilmark, and restricted the expansion of existing houses above a set threshold.

The zoning board of appeals (ZBA) is 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 bylaw was the first of its kind on the Vineyard.

Under the proposed bylaw, a historic structure would not count in the calculation. The bylaw provides the following definition of a historic structure: Historic House means any one of the historic structures listed in the Appendix to the 1985 Chilmark Master Plan (as may be amended from time to time), which is classified as either Pre-Revolutionary or Federal and Greek Revival Eras to Civil War.

“Any house on that list will be exempt from the square-foot accounting,” former selectman Pam Goff said, “and so property owners can have that house for free, plus the square footage they want for their house. It is an incentive to keep the old houses standing and taken care of and loved.”

Any addition to a historic house completed after 1980 would not be considered as part of the historic house for calculation purposes.

“There are three interrelated provisions,” planning board committee member Joan Malkin told The Times, “but they all relate to one single principle, and that principle is designed to amend an existing bylaw that we affectionately call the ‘big house’ bylaw.”

“To give you an example,” said Ms. Malkin, who also sits on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, “we have three-acre zoning for the most part in Chilmark, and if you had a three-acre plot of land you could build, without any special permissions, a 3,500-square-foot house — or a combination of structures that totaled 3,500 square feet.”

Ms. Malkin said the concern is that a property owner with a wonderful historic house in Chilmark who wanted to build a new 3,500-square-foot house on the property would be left with little choice but to tear the old structure down. “We thought that’s a shame, because the bylaw creates this inadvertent incentive to get rid of the historic house so that they could max out under the big house bylaw,” she said.

The planning board would like to eliminate the incentive. “The message to property owners is,” Ms. Malkin said, “You can build your 3,500, because all of that living space that is associated with that historic house — that doesn’t count.”

The zoning bylaw draft states, “The square footage of a Historic House shall be excluded from the Total Living Area if its inclusion would result in the Total Living Area exceeding the applicable limit.” In addition, a special permit will be required for any renovation, remodeling, or rebuilding that changes the exterior of the historic house.

The hope of the planning board is that a property owner would leave the historic house standing and then build a new house next to it.

The planning board would like property owners to restore historic homes, but they understand this is not for everyone.

Ms. Malkin said the expectation is that the property owners would want the dwellings on their land maintained and looking nice. “People take pride in their property,” said Ms. Malkin. “It is doubtful that someone would intentionally leave it there to take advantage of it and let it rot.”

No additional costs to property owners are anticipated. “I can’t foresee this having any cost impact,” Ms. Malkin said.

Ms. Goff agreed. “No, I don’t think there’s a financial burden,” she said. “We would assume that somebody would keep the house up, but if the house fell down, they would not get any benefit. It is really just a bonus for people who probably have the funds to build something.”

Another aspect of the proposed change is that the historic home could be counted as a guest house, even if it exceeds the 800-square-foot maximum allowed under the zoning regulations, assuming it meets the other requirements. This is a second incentive for property owners to restore the old home. “Or if it’s an addition,” Ms. Goff said, “the old part is free, and they can build a guest house somewhere else.”

The bylaw change originated with Ms. Goff, who approached the planning board and explained her reservations about the big house bylaw.

“It concerned me that someone who wanted more square feet would tear down an antique house to get it,” Ms. Goff said.

“We haven’t run across anyone who sought to demolish a historic home just so they could build a bigger house,” Ms. Malkin said, “but it could in the future, and because of the look and feel of the community — that of old houses — we didn’t want to find that the unintended consequence happened before we could say to someone, No, no, no, no, you don’t need to do that.”

Asked if she knew of any houses that had already been torn down that might have been saved, Ms. Goff said, “I don’t want to insult the people who did it, but we’ve had three go in the past seven or eight years. People will say the homes are too rotten to repair, but if you value it you can repair it.”

Ms. Goff summed up the goal. “If we save two or three, we think it’s worth it.”

Demolishing an old house is not quite straightforward. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission development of regional impact checklist now requires review of any plans to demolish any building over 100 years old.

A public hearing on the Chilmark draft amendment is scheduled for 4:30 pm, Monday, Oct. 26. Future changes are possible based on hearing comments and valid concerns.