With a newer, simpler design in tow, the Mill House project in Vineyard Haven moved through a tense public hearing at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Thursday night.
The historic home, portions of which dated back to 1750, was demolished in April without MVC review, which is required if more than 50 percent of the historic portion of a building’s floor area is taken down. The home is also listed on the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS). The mill portion of the home, built in 1886, is the only portion of the home that remains.
The controversial demolition came to the commission’s attention after The Times story detailing the demolition was published. At a Land Use Planning Committee (LUPC) meeting in June, commissioners voiced their frustration over the demolition, but offered little indication of what actions could be taken. Instead, they focused on gathering as much information as possible to determine what would have been saved, if anything, pre-demolition.
The property was purchased by Lise N. Revers in 2017 for $3.8 million. Revers’ builder, Rosbeck Builders, applied for and received a building permit from the town for “interior demolition, new foundation, [and] new addition” with plans drawn by architect Patrick Ahearn. The permit was applied for on August 14, 2018, and approved Nov. 14. Ahearn’s initial drawings showed a building that looks similar to what was there, albeit with a lot more windows facing the harbor, and that features the mill as part of the living space. The updated design was created with the help of Harold Chapdelaine of the Williams Street Historic District Commission to replicate what was torn down.
Attorney Sean Murphy, Peter Rosbeck, and Ahearn went before the commission to further explain that the premature demolition was a failure of process. “It was basically a failure of the process, not an attempt to subvert the process,” Murphy said.
Rosbeck, who did the demolition, also offered to donate $25,000 to the MVC to create a Tisbury database to list all properties on MACRIS and properties over 100 years old.
Last month, the members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) examined dirt from the demolition, but found there were no artifacts.
“Everyone knows there was a breakdown in the system. The one benefit to any of these types of failures is that we all get to contribute to the solution,” Chapdelaine said.
The original plan for the property was to lift the 1750 portion of the house, pour a foundation underneath it, and set it back in place. According to Rosbeck, the house was not structurally sound, so he asked former Tisbury building inspector Ken Barwick, who gave him a verbal go-ahead to tear it down.
Looking over the original building plans, commissioner Ben Robinson said he couldn’t find where there were plans to save anything but the mill. “Shouldn’t we be honest about this?” Robinson asked. “There was no intent to save any of the middle section.”
Ahearn said that wasn’t true, and placed blame on Barwick. “It’s not the responsibility or the role of the owner, the architect, or the builder to refer the building to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The sole responsibility is the zoning administrator and the building inspector, and he had two bites at the apple, and he chose twice not to do that,” Ahearn said.
During public comment, Margaret Snow told commissioners her parents purchased the Mill House property in the early 1960s before selling it in 2008. One day, while cleaning the windows in the cape part of the home, Snow said, she found an incision that said “Joseph Merry 1764.”
“Losing this home to me was like losing a member of my family,” she said. “It’s a loss of history.”
Commissioners closed the hearing, but left the written record open until August 30.
Subdivision causes division
After failing to win over the commission and the public, developers for a 54-acre lot subdivision in Edgartown scrapped their original plans and presented a brand-new project to the MVC.
The completely redesigned project — dubbed Meeting House Place — significantly changes the former layout. Plans now call for a 28-lot subdivision with an additional cluster of 10 below-market-rate townhouses for first-time home buyers and “empty nesters.”
Developers Douglas K. Anderson and Richard G. Matthews, operating as Meeting House Way LLC, purchased the property in June 2017 for $6.6 million. Both have listed addresses in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The 10 townhouses are in addition to the $1 million monetary contribution toward Edgartown affordable housing that the developers are proposing. “We were trying to come up with something that’s a benefit to Martha’s Vineyard as a whole,” Murphy said.
But several members of the public — many of whom appeared at prior meetings for the project — voiced their concerns about the project’s potential impact on traffic conditions, Island urbanization, nitrogen loading, and animal habitat loss.
Edgartown resident Jeffrey Agnoli said the property should be conservation land, and called the project “a pig’s ear that is not going to turn into a silk purse.”
Emily Reddington, a biologist at the Great Pond Foundation, expressed concern over the environmental impacts of the project, and specifically algal blooms. “We’re already at the tipping point for [Edgartown Great Pond],” Reddington said. “We need to reduce what’s already there in terms of nitrogen and phosphorus coming into the pond.”
Morning Glory Farm owner Jim Athearn, who asked commissioners to deny the project at the first public hearing in February, doubled down on his comments.
“We’ve been furiously building, building up this Island for the last 50 years, so when do we stop?” Athearn said. “You have the power and you have the legal responsibility to be looking out for the interest of the people of Martha’s Vineyard … that growth, it’s just time for the commission to address it.”
Commissioners decided to close the hearing, but leave the written record open for another week.