‘Dilapidated’ building will remain, for now

Sawyers pull the plug on Chapter 40B that proposed workforce apartments.


Robert Sawyer has withdrawn an application seeking to demolish a building at 3 Uncas Ave. in Oak Bluffs — a 4-bedroom house with a one-bedroom cottage — he sought to rebuild into eight workforce housing apartments, some of them affordable under the state’s guidelines.

Sawyer wrote a detailed email withdrawing the application. He referred to the need for approval from three separate historic commissions — Cottage City Historic District Commission, Copeland Plan District, and Oak Bluffs Historic Commission — as “triple jeopardy.” 

The project would also require permits from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the zoning board of appeals, but could never get beyond the demolition permit stage.

“We enjoy a long and highly creditable reputation for serving and working with our community and, even though our attorney advises us we will prevail on the issue in court, it is not our style or desire to go to war with the town of Oak Bluffs which will be costly and very time consuming for all,” Sawyer wrote in an email to Cottage City Historic District office administrator Alexa Arieta. “Our objective here has always been to obtain the right to demolish this dilapidated, eyesore of a building and replace it with eight small workforce housing units which the community desperately needs like it requires air to breathe and including eight dedicated parking spaces and bicycle racks.”

Sawyer cites the “terrible state of disrepair” the building is in. Indeed, a walk around the perimeter of the property shows missing siding, graffiti, and broken windows. “It was built as a summer house and does not have even minimal insulation or heating capability,” Sawyer wrote.

Sawyer mentions requirements to hire a structural engineer and “selective discrimination” as other reasons for the application being withdrawn.

Matt Cramer, chair of Cottage City, told The Times Sawyer’s letter, which was read into the record, is “subjective and inaccurate.” Minutes show Cramer didn’t like the design as presented by the Sawyers and felt that if it had been in keeping with the “Victorian character” of the neighborhood, board members may have been more open to the plan to demolish the house.

“I felt it could be demolished and make way for a new structure. I was in the minority. We didn’t have a chance to vote on it because the applicant withdrew,” Cramer said. “No doubt it’s a historic structure and has been treated poorly by the current owners. But the majority of the board felt it shouldn’t be torn down.”

Sawyer told The Times he was willing to do whatever it took within reason to appease the historic boards, including having a more Victorian design for the new building. However, presenting detailed plans without a demolition permit would have been cost prohibitive, he said. “They wanted to see detailed drawings and if they weren’t happy with them they were not going to approve,” he said. “That’s speculating on tens of thousands of dollars.”

Minutes show that there was significant pushback from the Copeland and Cottage City historic boards required to sign off on the demolition permit. In order for a building to be bulldozed in those districts, the building must have no historical significance or the owner must show financial hardship.

Minutes showed members of those commissions believe the existing house, which is just on the outskirts of the historic Martha’s Vineyard Campground, could be restored. Some members also questioned the number of parking spaces and the design of the building — something Sawyer said was outside their jurisdiction and would be taken up by the MVC and zoning board.

Barbara Baskin, a member of the Cottage City panel, referred to the 1874 house as being listed on the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS) as “Victorian eclectic,” according to minutes.

“What does Victorian eclectic mean?” Sawyer wrote. “One needs only view the definition of eclectic to understand there is no consistent value to this architecture.”

While Sawyer suggested there is “financial hardship” in keeping the building the way it is because there is no way to recoup money to offset the mortgage payments and taxes, commissioners argued that the owners actually caused some of the damage by allowing a SWAT team to train in the building and by doing asbestos abatement before they had permission to raze the house and leaving it exposed to the weather without siding.

Sawyer told The Times the house was already unlivable. He said when they went for a building permit, they were told to have an asbestos inspection. When that showed the house was loaded with asbestos, “we hired a firm to go in and remediate inside and out.”

Asked why siding wasn’t replaced after the abatement was complete, Sawyer said, “Why would we go and spend money to fix up the exterior when we’re trying to demolish the building?”

The Copeland board voted 5-0 to reject the request for demolition with Amy Billings, a direct abutter, joining the vote despite her apparent conflict. Minutes from that March 18, 2019 meeting indicate Billings told the committee she could be impartial.

Asked if Billings should have voted, Copeland chair Gail Barmakian said that’s a question for Billings.

In a phone conversation, Billings said had she not voted as a representative of the parks department that day, there would have been no quorum for a vote. She said the Sawyers did not object at the time to her voting. Billings did sympathize with the Sawyers about the process, which is complicated by the many boards involved. “It’s very tricky. I wouldn’t know where to begin either,” she told The Times.

As a member of the Cottage City Historic District Commission, Billings recused herself from the discussion when the project went before that panel. She did offer her thoughts as an abutter.

In his email, Sawyer specifically calls Billings, an abutter at Cottage City Appliance and a member of the Cottage City Historic District Commission, saying she was a “constant and outspoken critic” of the project.

Billings declined to comment on the record to The Times about the overall project citing her conflict being on the commissions and being an abutter.

Barmakian said she has not seen Sawyer’s email as it went to the Cottage City commission. As for Copeland’s role, she said they took a vote based on what they knew at the time.

“When the state gave its conditional [40B] approval, one of the issues that had to be addressed was to deal with the demolition issue because there was the decision not to demolish the building,” she said. 

Sawyer never reapplied to Copeland for a demolition permit, she said. She added that letting a property intentionally go into disrepair is grounds for not allowing such a permit.

Sawyer, whose push to have the lot rezoned commercial at a town meeting was rejected, called the residential zoning for 3 Uncas “spot zoning” — noting it’s in a neighborhood that includes the appliance store, a bank, and Barn, Bowl & Bistro.

An original plan to have a drive through bank window as part of the site was scaled back to just an ATM by the Sawyers after negative feedback from the town.

“In sum, we merely sought to demolish this ramshackle and uninhabitable house in its horrid state of disrepair and create beautiful new workforce housing units,” Sawyer wrote. “Because of the affordable nature of this proposed project there is no room for frivolous and wasteful expenses as requested by CCDH in order to keep this project reasonably profitable. This is a sad saga and both the town of Oak Bluffs, the Martha’s Vineyard community, and we all lose.”

Sawyer told The Times he’s not sure what he’s going to do with the property. “We haven’t decided yet,” he said. “It’s a nightmare to make it work for us financially to renovate the existing house.”


  1. This is so upsetting to read. There seem to be two sets of standards for people wanting to demolish houses. I’ve read about approvals for beautiful homes to be demolished and they were given the ok, yet this dilapidated eyesore has value? Something is seriously wrong here.

Comments are closed.