The Martha’s Vineyard Commission held a public hearing on yet another demolition request on Thursday night. The request to demolish West Chop’s 1133 Main St. came to the commission from owners Susannah and Brian Bristol, who argued the house is “under-structured.“
The Bristols are requesting permission to replace the four-story, seven-bedroom dwelling, which is believed to have been built around 1890, with a three-story structure that, according to architect Paul Weber, “will try to capture the same character as the existing house.”
Susannah Bristol told the commission that although she has been living in the winterized house year-round, “it doesn’t support full-time living.”
Despite the owner’s declaration that the house is structurally unsound, and may pose “possible safety concerns,” in his presentation, development of regional impact coordinator Alex Elvin noted, “Town agencies have not indicated any safety issues with the house.”
However, in an email to The Times, Tisbury building inspector Ross Seavey said that the Tisbury building department was not asked to give any input.
“We do not inspect homes for safety issues outside of an active building permit or an obvious and immediate safety hazard, nor were we asked to weigh in on this project, or really any other project,” Seavey wrote. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to be using us as counter-evidence when we were not consulted. Structural integrity, if raised as an issue, should be reviewed and analyzed by a registered design professional; building-code-speak for an architect or engineer.”
There were 19 letters of support — 18 of which were written by West Chop residents — sent to the commission. They did little to outweigh correspondence from the Tisbury historical commission, which emphatically cited the significance of the structure, noting if it were to be demolished, “it would tear a page from the history of West Chop.”
“The challenges of rehabilitating such dwellings are considerable,” the letter states, “but many houses on Martha’s Vineyard, some more than a century older than 1133 Main St., have been successfully updated and thus preserved.”
In reviewing planning concerns, Elvin listed material use, energy, wastewater, drainage and landscape; he explained that according to the town assessor, the structure is in above-average condition, and the project would call for the removal of several mature oak trees.
The project would call for a new Title 5 septic system, and roof gutter drainage system, both of which the Bristols state they plan on doing. Additionally, because the building is currently oil-heated, the Bristol’s stated they would like to install electric heat pumps, which they allegedly cannot do without a full demolition.
Per the demo application, the Bristols stated that they will try to salvage some existing interior features of the house. “Certainly the front door will be the front door for ever and ever,” Susannah Bristol told commissioners.
Commissioner Linda Sibley questioned why the oak trees need to be removed, to which Bristol responded the goal would be to save the trees, and it may be possible to avoid the removal. “There are ways you can put in steel barriers that protect the roots,” she said.
Commissioner Brian Smith questioned the safety concerns regarding the existing building, and inquired as to whether the house has balloon framing. Contractor Gary Maynard said he has “not opened up the whole building,” but believes there to be indications that it is “lightly framed by today’s standards,” and could not speak to whether it poses possible safety hazards.
Commissioner Kate Putnam, who had successfully rehabilitated her own home that had similar structural issues, asked the applicant about the cost of demolition versus the cost of alternatives.
Maynard replied that a “ballpark estimate” is that demolition would cost 25 percent less than rehabilitating the dwelling. “That’s just a gut check,” he said. The applicants told the commission that any alternatives to demolition is “financially infeasible,” triggering some further financial inquiry by commissioners, which was subsequently met with reluctance from the applicant to go into specifics.
“We’re not asking for definite dollars,” said Commissioner Fred Hanock, adding that the commission is merely looking to understand the reasoning for the demolition.
“There are more cost-effective solutions that would get at protecting the building,” said Commissioner Ben Robinson, which was agreed upon by Maynard.
Additionally, Robinson asked Bristol about the proposed replacement structure’s size — a total of 7,178 square feet — and advocated for more thought to be put into possibly minimizing impact by decreasing square footage. Bristol said visiting family will already be “packing into a smaller house with fewer bedrooms … That’s one way of sharing, rather than having a vast expanse that is seen in other parts of the Island.”
The public hearing via written record will remain open until August 4.
In other business, the commission enthusiastically approved the proposed Island Autism master plan in West Tisbury; a campus featuring a 4,807-square-foot central building with guest rooms, an apartment, kitchen, and office space; in addition to five separate living units, a barn, and a farmstand. After deliberations, commissioners decided that the benefits of the project outweigh the detriments.
“It’s such a pleasure to review a project that is so well-thought-out and provides such a tremendous service to the community. It’s great,” said commission chair Joan Malkin.
Although the commission was slated to approve the written decision to deny EduComp building owners’ proposed redevelopment on Thursday, Malkin said the agenda item was tabled to allow for “a little more time [in order to] make sure the decision accurately reflects [the commission’s] deliberation.”