Calling it a “blatant disregard for the rules,” but still wondering aloud what action they can take, members of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) began their review of the premature demolition of the Mill House in Vineyard Haven at their land use planning committee (LUPC) meeting Monday evening.
Commissioners and the applicant’s lawyer both agreed the historic building was taken down prematurely.
MVC executive director Adam Turner began the meeting by reading chapter 831 of the MVC Act, which specifies the commission’s duties to protect the natural, historical, ecological, scientific, and cultural values of the Island. Turner then read the MVC’s definition of demolition, which triggers a development of regional impact (DRI) if more than 50 percent of the historic portion of a building’s floor area or 25 percent of any façade of a historic building is to be removed.
“They did take down 50 percent of the historic structure, and therefore it is a DRI,” Turner said.
Sean Murphy, the attorney representing the applicant, agreed, and gave commissioners a timeline stretching back to September. “This should have come to you not when [builder Peter Rosbeck] met with [building inspector Ken Barwick] about the middle section, it should have been here back in September of 2018, because the house was on a Massachusetts historic register,” Murphy said.
Murphy’s comment contradicts what architect Patrick Ahearn wrote in a letter to Weston officials about the demolition. Mill House property owner Lise Revers is in a legal battle in the small town over a Chapter 40B project proposed near her horse farm.
In that letter, sent by Revers to Weston officials, Ahearn wrote that the project was not referred to the commission by Barwick because only 1,375 square feet of the structure was built prior to 1900. “The mill portion of the structure is 925 SF constructed prior to 1900, and the portion of the structure deemed the remnants of the original Cape was 445 SF constructed prior to 1900,” Ahearn wrote. “Therefore, 67 percent of the structure constructed prior to 1900 remains. The threshold for review by the M.V. Commission is that if 50 percent of the historic portion of the structure constructed prior to 1900 was to be demolished, [then] the project should be forwarded to the M.V. Commission for comment or review. This is simply not the case.”
In a report on the former building, Turner showed how the house was split into several parts that were built at separate times. The oldest portion of the house dated back to 1750, operating as a sailor’s tavern during Revolutionary War times, according to documents from the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System. The mill was moved to the site and added in the late 1800s, and other additions were added in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.
Since all of the building besides the mill was demolished, commissioners wanted to start collecting information on the house to establish a record of what was there.
Commissioner and LUPC chairman Richard Toole said they wanted enough information to take a “virtual tour” to determine if the commission would have tried to salvage any portion of the building.
“This was a blatant disregard for the rules,” Toole said. “What I’m hearing is a total ignorance of the rules. Whoever did the whole permit process, total ignorance. Even though the building inspector said one thing and you guys have been around for … as long as I have.”
“I don’t understand why we’re here. Is this to figure out how hard to spank them for screwing up? Or tell them how to rebuild the house? Where do we go from here?” Commissioner Trip Barnes asked. “I think it sends a signal we’ve got to get pretty militant in the future about what’s going on.”
Rosbeck, who did the demolition and was at Monday’s meeting with building inspector Ken Barwick, told commissioners his crew lifted the historic 1750 portion of the building with the intent of filling in the foundation with concrete, but the building was so deteriorated and rotten it wouldn’t hold together when they raised it.
“I’ve been … in a situation of doing renovations and trying to keep parts for them and been successful at it. In this situation I went to him because I was concerned,” Rosbeck said. “Any of this, I wouldn’t have brought it upon myself. There was nothing I was trying to do to get around any rules or anything.”
Dana Hodsdon of the Williams Street Historic District Commission was especially perturbed at Rosbeck’s actions. “You’re asking the fox what’s happening in the chicken house,” Hodsdon said.
Barwick made no comment during the hearing, but has told The Times that the building was taken down while he was off-Island attending to a family matter. The building permit he issued called for only interior demolition. Barwick has since introduced a new protocol to review records before issuing a permit, and is compiling a list of structures in town that are more than 100 years old.
Going forward, commissioners asked Rosbeck to submit a written narrative of the project and why he felt the need to demolish the structure. Murphy said he will continue to gather as much information as he can on the former building, and meet with members of the historic district commission and Turner before returning to LUPC in July.
As they gather information, it’s still unclear what, if any, punishment the commission could issue for the apparent violation of protocol.
In other business, the LUPC began the DRI process for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) casino project.
The project, which proposes to build a 10,000-square-foot Class II gaming facility with 250 gaming machines and 100 workers, which will include alcohol services, began clearing land in March, but is now in federal court after the town of Aquinnah filed a motion requiring the tribe to comply with local building and zoning requirements.
Aquinnah and Chilmark both referred the project to the MVC with concerns about traffic, drainage, and other impacts. Turner said that was all the MVC was looking at.
“We informed the tribe that we were not interested in contesting the gaming operation,” Turner said. “To us that was the very first thing said — that this isn’t about the gaming operation.”
Due to the MVC’s referral timeline process, Turner said, commissioners have to move ahead with the mandatory referral despite a lack of communication with the tribe, and no representatives showing up to Monday’s meeting.
“Have we ever had a hearing where the applicant didn’t show up?” Toole asked.
Turner said they have to move forward and hold a public hearing with the full commission on June 6. At that meeting, commissioners can postpone the hearing at the applicant’s request.