Proposed West Tisbury building demolition takes flak

Neighbors ask MVC for preservation, but town officials say that won’t suit affordable housing goals.

To raze or not to raze? That's the question at the heart of an MVC hearing. - Rich Saltzberg

Updated 9:45 am Feb. 20


A proposal to demolish the Old Courthouse in West Tisbury received considerable pushback at Thursday night’s meeting of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC).

The Old Courthouse Road building, built in 1895, iis considered a development of regional impact (DRI) because it’s over 100 years old and considered an “historic structure.”

West Tisbury town administrator Jennifer Rand presented the case for demolition to the Commission.

Rand told the commission the building is beyond repair and the town would be better served by a new building.

“The town recognizes that there’s value in the wood and granite of the building,” Rand said. “As part of whatever package is assembled for a demolition contractor, the value of those materials will be factored in to lessen taxpayer burden.”

In June, West Tisbury selectmen voted unanimously to level the building on Old Courthouse Road, to make way for affordable housing.

“The board of selectmen has voted unanimously to go forward with the request to take this building down, which I will say, actually, we don’t take lightly,” she said. “The fact that [selectman] Skipper Manter voted to demolish a building is nothing short of miraculous,” she said.

Commissioner Michael Kim, the state’s representative, asked if the town considered selling the building to buy something more suitable for affordable housing with the proceeds.

“My instinct is that we could not purchase another piece of land for what we could sell this one for because land is at a premium, particularly in West Tisbury,” Rand said.

West Tisbury selectman Kent Healy said uses for the building have been studied a number of times. Repurposing the building as a highway barn was explored, but the town could not find a way to economically bring the building up to code.

Speaking from the audience, West Tisbury Affordable Housing member Ted Jochsberger said the building needed to come down and that it’s a potential hazard. He said a plaque would make an appropriate historical tribute.

Old Courthouse Road resident Jason Napier was one of two dissenting voices from the public.

“I’ve been in the construction industry here for 25 years, I would say personally the building is in great shape,” he said. “If you look at the photos, the walls, the ridge, it’s straight and true. And I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near being a dangerous building.”

Napier went on to say he thought the building was among the oldest of its type in town, and that it had historic value.

According to an environmental survey conducted by the town in 2005, the building contains lead, asbestos, and mercury. Rand later told The Times the mercury is in old fluorescent bulbs and is therefore not really part of the structure.

The demolition has the approval of the West Tisbury planning board and the historical commission, DRI coordinator Paul Foley noted.

Napier also said he believed the lot size is overstated, which will mitigate septic possibilities and diminish the resale value of the property. Rand said she would investigate.

On Friday, Rand told The Times the lot was a bit over half an acre in total size as opposed to three quarters of an acre as she previously believed. She attributed her previous estimate of scale to erroneous assessor’s card data. The size of the lot would reduce the number of permissible bedrooms in any affordable project there to two — down from three as previously planned. Rand stressed that the DRI is limited to evaluating the request to demolish the building.

On Feb 13., the MVC received a letter signed by residents of Old Courthouse Road asking the commission to monitor the potential for the establishment of a property union between the town’s parcel and the proposed Huseby Mountain Farm development. Should these somehow link, the the affordable development potential for the town’s parcel may “stray” to a different degree of allowable occupancy, the letter states, and therefore “change the rural character of our road.”

MVC  chairman Jim Vercruysse closed the hearing after a little over an hour of commentary. He left the written record open until Feb. 26 at 4 pm.

Phillips Hardware rehab plunges ahead

In other business, the commission voted to approve a modification to another DRI demolition project — the Phillips Hardware building at 30 Circuit Ave. in Oak Bluffs. On November 2016 the MVC approved razing the structure and rebuilding it to include eight apartments, four 2-bedroom and four 1-bedroom. However, at that time, Oak Bluffs zoning law stipulated that the proposed apartments must be classified as hotel rooms, and limited the owners to three units. Oak Bluffs voters unanimously voted to amend the bylaw at special town meeting in November.

Two of the new apartments will be stipulated workforce housing.

The approved modification request also called for permission to carve out 1,000 square feet of floor space from Phillips Hardware on the ground floor for use as a third retail unit.

The commission also held a public hearing on a proposed stabilization project for East Chop Drive in Oak Bluffs. The three-phase project is projected to cost between $28 and $35 million, according to an MVC staff report. CLE Engineering vice president Carlos Pena told the commission the project was in a gathering stage for funds and permits, and that politicians were essential to the process.

“As I mentioned before, the key to the project getting funded is support from local state reps and local state senators,” Pena said. “I mean that’s the beginning of where the funding mechanism comes from.”

Pena said funding from state agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers is being sought.

“Our objective right now is to get the permitting and design done as quickly as possible,” he said, pointing out that “self-ready” projects are most likely to get bankrolled. Pena told the commission that presently it seems wise to initiate “the ask”—a request of Oak Bluffs to begin seeking outside funds.

After discourse on technical aspects of the project, the hearing closed without any comment from the public.