Don't call tiny houses 'tiny' in Chilmark

The tiny house on display at the Agricultural Fair in 2015 was a huge hit. — Photo by Michael Cummo

At least one Chilmark selectman thinks tiny houses might just be too small. But the consensus at the board of selectmen (BOS) meeting on Jan. 11 was that they are a housing idea that should be pursued.

Marina Lent, the administrative assistant and inspector for the Chilmark board of health, began a tiny house presentation to the BOS by relabeling the proposed homes “small” instead of “tiny.” BOS chairman Warren Doty mentioned she had already made another presentation to the Housing Committee earlier that day, and they had decided at that meeting “that perhaps ‘small houses’ was a better way to describe it,” Ms. Lent said.

“As I was preparing this,” she continued, “I went through the housing needs assessment, and I was actually stunned at how many of the households on Martha’s Vineyard — a full 75 percent — are one- and two-person households. The concept is to make better use of town land by having a number of small houses be considered the equivalent of one large single-family four-bedroom home, and the sharing of land, septic, and drinking water is really a way of cutting the most expensive and most difficult factors to fit in and can be done without creating the feeling of extreme high density. The houses are so small they are not slam-jammed together.”

Ms. Lent said that four small houses would be equivalent to a single four-bedroom family home. She noted that a public water source is required if there are 15 hookups, or 25 individuals, living too close together to allow for effective septic systems. Her scenario does not reach this population density even if the houses had more two inhabitants rather than one. She said that even if there were 10 houses on three acres, that would only be 20 people.

Selectman William Rossi said he was more comfortable with small homes “up to 800 square feet.”

“I understand the need, but I don’t know if I could live with someone in 400 square feet,” Mr. Rossi said. He also said he thought that a house that small is just not sustainable as a suitable living space over time and would get turnover.

Ms. Lent and Mr. Rossi discussed small house “communities.” They agreed they would need to be permanent and not moveable, in addition to being fully building-code compliant.

Mr. Doty said that each small house would cost much less than a more traditional four-bedroom “affordable” family home that might be built at an affordable housing location. “When you are building far fewer square feet, the savings does add up,” Ms. Lent said.

Chairman Doty said the town has three building lots at Peaked Hill, each about three acres, which were part of the original Peaked Hill subdivision, and they’ve owned them for a long time.

“Is it a good idea to take one of them and put it to a project like this, whether you wind up with four houses or six houses or three houses — is that something we want to do?” Mr. Doty asked.

“I think it’s something we should look into,” selectman Rossi said. “We need to look into what is going to be viable on a three-acre lot.”

“I just don’t like the concept of tiny houses,” Mr. Rossi said. “Small houses I can live with.” He said that there may need to be a zoning bylaw to allow for the higher density of houses per acre.

“If we have six kitchens on one property, we have a problem,” Mr. Rossi said.

Town Clerk Jennifer Christy will ask planning board chairman Rich Osnoss to get the tiny house idea on a near-term agenda.

“This is a creative idea,” Mr. Doty said.