West Tisbury faces pushback on bylaw change proposal


The West Tisbury planning board hosted another presentation by Preserve West Tisbury, a subcommittee of the board, about a proposed “residential construction size bylaw” during a Thursday evening meeting. The meeting attracted more than 40 people.

Samantha Look, a member of Preserve West Tisbury, led the presentation. It was in the same format as when the subcommittee first introduced the bylaw proposal to the public, alongside some changes they implemented that were also presented to West Tisbury residents

According to Look’s presentation, the proposed bylaw would restrict the size of future houses in West Tisbury to 3,500 square feet, alongside a potential extra 2,000 square feet for “accessory floor area” (e.g. detached garages, studios, workshops, etc.). Other aspects of the bylaw include requiring the usage of renewable energy, certain exclusions to the limits (e.g. nonhabitable attics, accessory structures exclusively for agriculture, porches, etc.), and special permits. The bylaw is meant to increase the amount of year-round housing for West Tisbury residents and support the town’s goal of being run by 100 percent renewable energy, among other objectives. The proposed bylaw change also helps to protect West Tisbury’s “rural character.” 

A public comment session was held after Look’s presentation. A couple of people asked questions, such as how this bylaw proposal would affect current houses, and whether this was enough time to make a bylaw change proposal and put it on the warrant article for the April town meeting. 

Colin Whyte, who operates a company that builds large houses, said he “objects to this whole concept,” with a lengthy justification for large houses, such as the number of people employed in the construction and maintenance of the property, alongside how these properties are usually hidden away in a remote area.

“I think this is … like a chokehold is being placed on landowners,” Ben Hall Jr., an Island attorney, said. 

Joanne Cheng, a seasonal Islander, said she “respects what the planning board is trying to do.” However, she wishes the proposed bylaw were “less restrictive.” Cheng does have a property in West Tisbury, and thinks the limitations will restrict her ability to build an addition that will allow her nuclear and extended family of 11 people “to live comfortably” during the summer. 

West Tisbury resident Hilary Moore, who has been attending these presentations, thinks that despite the changes implemented by the subcommittee, they are not truly listening to the public.

Attendees Mark Tonn and Scott Stearn expressed concern that there wasn’t enough time between the presentations and the town meeting in April to properly develop a satisfying bylaw change proposal. “I just find it difficult to swallow,” Stearn said. 

West Tisbury resident Jefrey DuBard was one of a few voices who spoke in favor of the proposed bylaw change. “I’m amazed we’ve gotten to a point where these square-foot restrictions are considered to be constrictive,” DuBard said. “I just want to remind everyone that the sky is not falling here. They’re putting some restrictions in place that require someone to do a little more work before they build out of the realm. It’s simply erring on the side of preservation … when something is done, it can’t be erased. We can be cautious in what we allow to do, but we can’t undo these things.” 

For those who could not attend the meeting, contact Look or the board at planningboard@westtisbury-ma.gov to make a comment or ask questions. 


  1. At least there were a few voices of property rights at the meeting. Just because Chilmark did it does not mean it was right. A group gets together who does not like how other people live they make up a number for a house size and tell you that’s all you deserve. Why do people feel they need to control other peoples lives? Then they try and tell you how to heat and cool your home. Please stop the over reaching into how someone wants to live. If you want a small house live in a small house. If you want solar put in solar. There seems to be no end to groups on this island dreaming up ways to make us all the same.

  2. Agree 100% with Mr. DuBard. Just because you own property , doesn’t mean you have carte blanche to ignore community preservation & environmental responsibilities. All that additional septic seeping into the soil : Yuck!

  3. Frankly, I do not understand the logic of this house size restriction proposal. Say there is 27 acres of WT woodland for sale, located in the Tisbury Great Pond watershed.
    – One potential buyer wants to build an 8000 s.ft. summer retreat for their extended family of 20 + friends – let’s say 25 people for the 3 summer months. This would cause roughly 62 pounds of nitrogen pollution to the TGP annually (2.5 lbs N/person/3 months) – and would add zero kids to our school system. And most of the 27 acres would remain as woodland ecosystem.
    – The other is a developer who wants to subdivide into nine 3-acre lots, each with 2500 sq.ft. home for, say, 2 adults and 3 kids + guest house for 2 adults. That’s 7 people year-round per 3 acres, which adds up to 63 people year-round on those 27 acres. Their septic systems will each add roughly 70 pounds of nitrogen annually (10 lbs/person/year) to the groundwater that flows into the TGP – that’s 630 additional pounds of nitrogen pollution. In addition, 3 kids per lot would add 27 kids to our school system (at what cost to us taxpayers?). And how many trees would need to be cut down, thereby severely impacting the entire woodland ecosystem, and beyond.
    Which seems like the wisest choice for West Tisbury? Do the math, dear friends.
    Now, re energy, I totally agree that whatever is built, it has to be all renewable and zero carbon. Fortunately, this would result in big savings, and, if combined with batteries, would also provide total security when the grid goes down and no gas or oil is available for fossil-fueled generators. We all know this could happen any time – and, given the frailty of the grid and it’s total vulnerability to terrorism, this could last for months.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts Anna. Yet, the two scenarios for use of those 27 acres are not the only options. In fact they are both too much. Restricting the first does not necessitate the second. In fact, it does not even make the second more feasible. 3500 SF houses on 3 acres are still unattainable for year round islanders as each would certainly cost more than $1.5million in the current market. Additionally, the division of 27 acres into 9 lots would not happen without need for special permit or affordable housing restrictions, let alone wetlands and other environmental constraints which make it even more unfeasible. I know you are committed to more sustainable living practices which is critical. In fact the most significant problem with both scenarios is the inefficiency of how we live and build. These are simply matters of degree. The logic of the restriction is progress in working towards how much house we need to live or enjoy. Progress is how we work towards something more perfect; for the environment and our year round community. These must and can both be protected. They are not in direct opposition.

  4. While 3500 sf may not be the appropriate threshold, sensible conservation should put some cap on size and septic.

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