West Tisbury voters approve house size restrictions

Funding approved for Howes House and Island Autism’s project; sustainable energy goes to the state. 


West Tisbury voters voted overwhelmingly, 352-11, to approve a proposed zoning bylaw that would restrict the size of future houses during the town’s 2022 town meeting. According to the warrant article, the bylaw takes effect on Wednesday, June 1. 

Before the meeting went through the 51 warrant articles, West Tisbury meeting moderator Dan Waters asked for a moment of silence for people who had died over the past year, and West Tisbury’s poet laureate, Spencer Thurlow, read a poem he wrote called “On a Winter Walk.” 

The bylaw proposal was suggested by Preserve West Tisbury, a subcommittee of the West Tisbury planning board. Preserve West Tisbury member Samantha Look explained the work to get the bylaw proposal to town meeting took two years, and the first question the subcommittee reviewed was whether the town actually needed the bylaw. Look said this bylaw lets the town control building scale and community development. “The focus is that it takes one small step in doing our best to protect our natural, cultural, and overall character,” Look said. 

According to Look, people from the building industry, such as engineers and architects, were consulted in crafting the bylaw. She also mentioned that there were sessions held to gain feedback from the public

“What we learned from the data and feelings from our residents is that our community is growing at an incredible rate. We need to make sure decisions we’re making today don’t further erode our ability to make our community affordable, to keep it farmable, and to make it resilient to a world changing due to climate,” Look said. 

The bylaw restricts new houses to be 3,500 square feet in size, on three-acre lots. For every acre over three acres, an extra 250 square feet of house space is allowed. An extra 2,000 square feet of space is allowed for nonresidential structures, such as garages and workshops. If people want to build houses larger than this, a special permit is required. Look said the bylaw does not affect people who build 3,500 square feet or smaller, even on lots smaller than three acres. 

During the meeting, most voters who spoke supported the bylaw.

“I speak as a builder who builds medium and large houses, and on occasion very big houses,” voter Gary Maynard said. “I thoroughly support what they’re trying to achieve. The impacts are environmental, cultural, and aesthetic. There are some negative impacts that have to do with finances for the workforce and probably the town coffers, but I think they’re seriously outweighed by the benefits.”

“I worked in Chilmark for a long time, and they have a similar bylaw, and I executed it for over 10 years,” voter Chuck Hodgkinson said, commending the board and subcommittee. “I think this is a fair and reasonable bylaw.”

Voter Dan Larkosh spoke against the bylaw. “This bylaw, I don’t think I can support it,” Larkosh said. “I don’t see posh homes being issued. I think that to a certain degree, you’re trying to tell other people how to live their lives.” 

Larkosh pointed out that people may have their reasons for wanting homes over 3,500 square feet on a three-acre lot, such as having a large family: “Large homes — they’re not for everyone, but they’re part of the American dream.” 

In other business, voters approved sending a bylaw to the state legislature for consideration. The bylaw would have two renewable energy requirements for new and substantially remodeled or renovated buildings. One is to have the wiring be able to accommodate an electric vehicle charger, and the other is for these new and substantially remodeled buildings to be required to use electricity instead of fossil fuels for power. 

“They help us begin to transition to all-electric by not adding to the number of structures in the town that rely on fossil fuels to support them,” West Tisbury energy committee chair Kate Warner said. 

Voters approved the town to raise and appropriate money for a variety of purchases and projects. The town will spend a total of $523,000 for the renovation and reconstruction of Howes House. When asked by Warner whether the building will be run by electricity, town treasurer Kathy Logue said, “That is the intent.” 

Voters also approved $143,900 from Community Preservation funds to pay for West Tisbury’s portion of Island Autism’s project to provide affordable housing for Martha’s Vineyard adults with autism. The warrant article states Island Autism’s total budget for the project is $2 million.


  1. It is a misunderstanding that the bylaw restricts house size to 3500 square feet on a lot size of three acres. This is merely the limitation on living space on the first and second floors of the main house. Basements can be fully finished and even have above grade windows within limitations. Guest houses under 1000 square feet are exempt from this total, as are garages, pool house, workshops and accessory apartments. A 3500 square foot, single story house with a 3500 square foot finished basement, a 1000 square foot guest house, a garage with an accessory apartment, a barn and a workshop add up to a very generous compound, not an onerous restriction. What the bylaw achieves is the reduction of monolithic massing of residences into one very large structure. There is also a clear and reasonable appeal process where arguments can be made for sizes above the base limits.

  2. This is not something where you get a “waiver” just for stating your reasons for wanting a big house. The bylaw deprives people on a current 3-acre buildable lot certain certain rights to build a large home. I don’t see a proliferation of huge houses in WT. What are examples of this as a problem? There are very good reasons why someone might wish to “mass residences into one very large structure.” (The bylaw doesn’t prohibit design of “monoliths”).

    • Dan– West Tisbury is being proactive.
      My opinion is that it’s better to prevent a problem than try to fix one.
      As Gary pointed out with his comment above, this bylaw allows for 8,800 sq.ft. of living space –On a 3 acre lot.
      The problem that I have with that is that most people who have the kind of cash to build like that are not likely to live here during the winter. But they will keep the heat on. I have been on properties where the swimming pools are at 80 degrees all year long in case the owners want to jet in for an unplanned “weekend getaway”.
      When they are here in the summer the a/c is cooling all that space, and the dehumidifiers are running non stop to keep it from getting moldy.
      To me, it’s about the energy usage. Like it or not, it is inevitable that we will have energy shortages that will at the very least result in higher prices. They don’t care about that, as they can afford it, but it has an impact on the average hard working citizens.
      When push comes to shove, and the demand can’t be met, the average hard working citizens sweat in the dark, while those in the McMansions have their generating systems kick on with barely a flicker.
      Large energy hog houses will be around for a long time. They are major contributors to the problem, but suffer no consequence.

      • Why be concerned about seasonal residents who leave their appliances and climate control on etc while they’re gone, when the goal here is to have more year-rounders living here? The energy consumption would likely be higher in that case. I wonder if it wouldn’t behoove us to look at more affordable, environmentally sustainable energy sources like nuclear? Especially knowing the wind power the Island is being dragged toward is such a waste and so awful for the environment and so expensive for the people…

        • Heidi My point is that a larger house inherently consumes more energy regardless if the owners are here or not.
          While nuclear is one of the cheaper ways to generate electricity, it comes with a unique set of risks and problems. Even after the Pilgrim plant closed, we are still having discussions about putting radioactive water in Cape Cod bay.
          Large scale wind farms are price competitive, and much more environmentally friendly than almost any other form of electrical generation. There are cost/benefits for all forms of electrical generation.
          But clearly, the most cost effective way to “generate” electricity or fossil fuels is to conserve it.
          Building ginormous houses does nothing in that regard.

    • The movement in WT to tie permissable house size to lot size gained steam a few years back when someone tore down a 1,500-sf home and built a 6,000-7,000 square foot mcmansion on a pre-existing 1-acre lot in a neighborhood of modest, 1,500-2,500 square-foot homes. So the problem does exist and affordable (by today’s standards) homes are, in fact, being torn down for huge dwellings.

  3. It’s incredible that in the same meeting to get a housing bank, a decision is made which greatly exacerbates the housing crisis. This is sad.

  4. Not sure if this bylaw achieves anything, here is just one example. If I build a super insulated 6,000 sq ft house that uses 100% solar for heat and electricity, and then build a 2500 sq ft house that only meets the minimum insulation needs, and has no solar or wind energy supplementation, which house is better for West Tisbury? That’s my point. The critical factor is energy usage, not size.

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