Does a bridge need a building permit?

It may depend on the building inspector.




As the legal quarrel over a building permit for Squibnocket Farm’s access structure (a.k.a. a bridge) moves to the state level, there is historical precedence for a private up-Island bridge project over wetlands triggering lawsuits, board skirmishes, and intense opposition from neighbors. Beyond comparative scale, what differentiates the West Tisbury project from the still unfolding one by Squibnocket Pond is that it received a building permit.

As The Times reported July 3, 1991, in the wake of hard-won state and local approvals, builder Paul Adler erected a 70-foot bridge off Lambert’s Cove Road in West Tisbury.

Town documents show that after written assurance from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) regarding the commission’s earlier approval of the project, the late Ernie Mendenhall, longtime West Tisbury building inspector, approved a building permit for the piling-supported bridge off Lambert’s Cove Road. The bridge was meant to access a subdivision owned by Paul Adler through Spring Cove Realty Trust.

In a series of telephone conversations, Mr. Adler told The Times that he commissioned the late George Wey, an Oak Bluffs engineer, to review and stamp plans for the wooden bridge. He included options for a Vermont-style roof to hedge against timber rot, but later the MVC rejected a covered bridge because they believed it would become a tourist magnet.

As The Times reported on Dec. 24, 1986, Mr. Adler originally requested approval for the installation of two cast concrete culverts to span the wetlands at their narrowest point for access to the 14.7 acres he hoped to develop. That idea was denied by the MVC. Mr. Adler then returned with a bridge project that the MVC ultimately approved, albeit without a roof.

According to Mr. Adler, when it was completed, the 70-foot structure was the largest private bridge on Martha’s Vineyard. He said it was a five-year slog to arrive at the point of construction. Abutters, local boards, and the MVC all took issue with the project, but he eventually appeased, defeated, or bypassed all opponents, he said.

Mr. Adler said he was “very surprised” that Chilmark hasn’t required a building permit for the 300-foot-plus project C. White Marine is currently erecting. “I’ve never heard of such a thing,” he said.

Aquinnah, Chilmark, and Edgartown building inspector Lenny Jason, a current MVC commissioner, sat on the MVC in 1987 when it ultimately approved the bridge. In a telephone conversation with The Times, Mr. Jason said he and Bob Morgan were the only dissenting votes. The Times has yet to locate documentation of the roll call vote for verification. Mr. Jason said the details Mr. Adler provided the MVC weren’t complete enough, to his mind, and he had concerns that the pilings might breach a layer of clay below the boggy ground the bridge would span.

Mr. Adler recalled both Mr. Jason and Mr. Morgan leaving the hearing, and questions whether they voted at all. Mr. Adler recalled his project winning MVC approval by a single vote.

Mr. Jason declined to offer an opinion on why Mr. Mendenhall requested a building permit for Mr. Adler’s bridge. He also declined to comment on Mr. Mendenhall’s permit versus his own rejection of the need for one for the Squibnocket Farm bridge.

In addition to a building permit, a Chapter 91 license, which protects wetlands and waterways, may have been required for Mr. Adler’s bridge, but he said he was unsure if it was indeed Chapter 91 or simply an order of conditions. The Times is awaiting word from Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on exactly which wetlands law was brought to bear.

Despite the biting cold, construction on behalf of Squibnocket Farm continues to take shape — without a building permit, something opponents have, to date, unsuccessfully brought up as an issue.

On Thursday, Jan. 4, attorneys representing Squibnocket Farm, attorneys representing Doug Liman and David Stork, and Chilmark’s town counsel were scheduled to journey to Milford for a State Building Code Appeals Board hearing on whether a building permit is necessary, but it was cancelled because of a winter storm. A new hearing date was scheduled for Jan. 18.

C. White Marine subcontractor John Keene told The Times last Friday that his crews spent the frigid day grading slopes at either end of the structure. He said he still anticipates breaking ground in late February or early March for the work the town of Chilmark has slated for the beach, revetment, and parking lot. He is general contractor for that job.