Edgartown neighborhood dispute stalls Beach Street house demolition

Abutters pressed members of the planning board to consider that the house could be included in an expanded historic district.

Part of 2 Beach Street juts into Dunham Road, which town officials attribute to the gradual development of Edgartown.

A months-long effort by the owners of a 124-year-old house on Beach Street to gain the needed permits to tear down the structure and build a new, slightly larger house in its place hit another hurdle — the possibility that the house could fall within a proposed expanded historic district.

At a meeting of the Edgartown planning board on Feb. 2, abutters Kim and Barrett Naylor, the most vociferous opponents to the planned demolition, argued that if voters approve the historic district expansion at annual town meeting in April, the house at 2 Beach Street would fall within its boundaries. Planning board members continued the hearing to March 15.

Alexander Marx bought the 1890-era house in November 2014 for $1,270,000, and sought a permit 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 house sits on a small (0.09 acre), nonconforming lot.

Because the house was more than 100 years old, the planning board was required to send it to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) for review as a development of regional impact (DRI). Although the Naylors have found much they think ought to be preserved about their neighbor’s house, the MVC did not. In a vote on Oct. 1, the commissioners agreed the house was historically insignificant and sent it back to the planning board with a request that Mr. Marx and his neighbors try to make peace.

Five months later, the house remains, and the Naylors remain adamant that it should continue to stand, and that its planned replacement is too large. At the Feb. 2 meeting of the planning board, the Naylors and their lawyer, George Davis, submitted a lengthy letter detailing a laundry list of problems with both the proposed demolition and the architectural plans for the new house. Planning board assistant Georgiana Greenough read the letter out loud.

“The applicants have denied any of our requests to engage in any sort of meaningful conversation,” the Naylors said. And they asked the planning board members to consider the potential historic district expansion in their decisionmaking.

“Although 2 Beach Street is not currently in the historic district, there is every reason to believe that the expanded historic district will be approved at the town meeting this April, and we strongly urge the planning board to take the likelihood of the expanded historic district into account,” they said.

They cited the location and size of windows that they said would provide an obtrusive view into their own home, unsightly architectural design, and the effect the construction could have on parking spaces on the street.

A second letter was submitted by Diane and Tom Durawa, who live on Dunham Road, requesting more clarification about project plans.

Vineyard Haven lawyer Geoghan Coogan represented Mr. Marx. He asked the planning board members not to listen to only one side of the dispute:

“I know you’ve got a letter directly from one of the abutters saying that there was no dialogue. I’m not going to sit in front of you and get into an argument. The direct abutter has an opinion about how much involvement there has been, and we have an opinion.”

Mr. Coogan said he didn’t believe the Naylors would ever be in complete agreement with the project.

Town employees weigh in

The meeting turned testy when Mr. Coogan said Ms. Greenough appeared to be taking the side of the abutters, and they engaged in a back-and-forth dialogue.

Ms. Greenough cited a lack of clarity about the square footage of the new house. “You mentioned in there that the applicant has not responded to any specific square-footage requirements,” Mr. Coogan said.

“Three times,” Ms. Greenough said, “I have asked for how they arrived at the square-footage numbers. We have not received this.”

“They’re all right on the plan,” Mr. Coogan said.

Mr. Coogan said that the staff notes Ms. Greenough read seemed to hold the opinion of the neighbors in higher regard than that of Mr. Marx.

“I understand the staff notes, but you’re taking the opinion of the neighbor in terms of communication,” Mr. Coogan said. “It said right in there that there has been no work on our side to communicate with the neighbor. I completely disagree with that.”

Mr. Coogan said that planning board members had expressed no opinion on the architectural designs presented, despite the fact that the designs had been recently altered. “We haven’t had any opinion or dialogue about the new look of the building,” he said.

Planning board members did not respond, but did ask if there had been any square-footage reduction in the most recent iteration of design plans. Referencing the designs, Mr. Coogan and architect Bill Sense said that the square footage had not decreased. The most recent revision decreased the volume of the house by lowering the roof, Mr. Sense said.

The planning board then opened the hearing to public comment.

Mr. Davis invoked the potential for the house to lie within the historic district. “It would be a shame if, three or four months down the road, this building stands out like a sore thumb,” Mr. Davis said.

Ms. Greenough, shedding any notion of impartiality, asked the planning board members to carefully consider what their responsibilities were.

“I just want to let you know that Mr. Coogan is constantly saying that the only thing in front of you is to make sure that it’s in keeping with the neighborhood. That’s not your only job. You have a hugely nonconforming lot and a hugely nonconforming structure in the coastal district … I don’t think you’ve ever had a property or structure as nonconforming as this situation.”

Ms. Greenough said that accurate information was not consistently provided: “The way you make decisions is in getting correct information. You haven’t been getting the correct information regarding square footage, what their assumptions are, and how they arrived at the square footage. I still don’t know what those numbers are. I think it’s important that you have that.”

Mr. Coogan took issue with those comments: “You have it in front of you — this is really clear — the building is 132 square feet larger than what it is now.”

“How did you get to that number?” Ms. Greenough asked.

Mr. Coogan said the numbers had been on the blueprints all along.

“I’m not an architect. I’m not an engineer. But I can read the square footage … I don’t really know how that’s inaccurate unless you’re challenging the work of the architects. You can do that if you want.”

Ms. Greenough said that there had been a discrepancy insofar as a garage or a deck were considered part of the living space calculations. She said that taking the square footage from the existing garage and redistributing that square footage into living space in the remodel was not allowed.

“I just think this is a little scary,” Ms. Greenough said.

Bricque Garber, historic district commission assistant, expressed the concerns of the historic district commission. “Our concern is not square footage, but it certainly is the massing,” she said. “More than that, it’s the loss of the façade that is charming in order to gain a hundred-and-odd square feet … We’re losing a very charming façade in favor of a box. That loses for everyone, I think, in Edgartown.”

What input counts

The planning board is not to make decisions based on aesthetics or neighborly spats, planning board member Alan Wilson said in a phone conversation with The Times Friday. “We look at the zoning, the bylaws, and do they comply,” Mr. Wilson said. “Very often, we have neighbors who, naturally, don’t want a house next door or their views blocked, in this case. We can’t make a decision based on architectural design or views, or things like that.”

Ms. Greenough had another take. She said that the planning board may disapprove a project that is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. In that regard, she said, aesthetics can come into play.

“A special permit is a special permit. If there’s something about the aesthetics that doesn’t go with the rest of the neighborhood, then they absolutely could discuss it,” she said.

When asked why a planning board member would consider aesthetics to be unacceptable criteria, she said, “Technically, if it doesn’t go with the neighborhood, in their opinion, it’s not really aesthetics. [That’s] the phrase that we use. It needs to fit into the neighborhood. If they don’t feel that it does, then they have a right to say that.”

In an email to The Times, Mr. Coogan said, “I believe there was a discrepancy between some detail provided and how that detail was understood. I have since discussed that issue with Georgiana, and have a comfort level as to how best to make sure everyone is on the same page in understanding that detail moving forward.”

As for the weight aesthetics will have on the decision, he said that they are certainly important.

“This project has multiple layers to it, and we realize it is a sensitive spot. That said, if the project can minimize its impact as much as possible in terms of size, and fit in with the character of the neighborhood, that will be the determining factor, and we recognize that’s what’s needed to be done,” he said.