Vineyard Commission addresses demolition policy

Stakeholders air concerns about subjectivity of reviews.

The Martha's Vineyard Commission met with dozens of stakeholders to discuss a newly adopted replacement for its demolition policy. — MV Times

A forum hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Wednesday afternoon shed light on the review process of Islandwide demolition proposals. 

Dozens of Island realtors, brokers, architects, builders, and municipal historic commissioners attended the meeting in order to discuss the commission’s updated preservation policy, which was approved in May of last year.

Per the new policy, “historic buildings on Martha’s Vineyard should be preserved to the greatest extent possible, and that demolition should be considered only as an extreme last resort.” 

The newly crafted guidelines are meant to encourage property owners looking to demolish a structure to consider alternatives, as a way to maintain the Island’s character. 

This was in response to a recent “uptick” in demolition proposals that were submitted to the commission during the COVID-19 pandemic, MVC developments of regional impact (DRI) coordinator Alex Elvin said.

Buildings that are located within historic districts, or listed on Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS) as being culturally or historically significant are subject to review by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Elvin said, along with structures that are 100 years or older. 

Upon receiving an application for demolition, the commission must determine the appropriateness of the proposals, taking into account the age of the structure, historical/ cultural significance, design and construction, any previous alterations, and the contribution the building has made to the area’s streetscape. 

Around 55 proposed demolitions and alterations have been reviewed by the commission since 1987, when historic demolitions were first included in the DRI checklist, Elvin said. He added that “the vast majority of demolition proposals since 1987 have been either approved, sent back to the town without full review, or withdrawn by the applicant.” 

That amounts to 22 approvals, 15 requests that were remanded to the town, 9 withdrawn applications, and 5 “unconfirmed or on hold.”

The commission has only denied four demolition requests in that time, Elvin said.

The preservation policy, which applies to both commercial and residential structures, deliberately encourages consideration of alternatives to demolitions.

Those alternatives, which were borrowed from the guidelines laid out by the Department of Interior, include structural preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction.

The commission also recognizes relocation as a possible alternative; all of which are expected to have been considered by applicants requesting permission to demolish existing structures.

Generally, “these alternatives are looked at for their feasibility,” Commissioner Joan Malkin said. 

Shelly Christianson, real estate broker and member of a handful of historic district commissions, asked for a better definition of what is deemed “feasible.” 

Malkin acknowledged the vagueness of the term, and said “every situation is different,” but the commission welcomes input regarding a better definition. 

What’s not a factor when determining whether alternatives to demolition are feasible, Elvin noted, are any stated financial restraints. 

The policy, which also emphasizes structural preservation when considering any alterations to existing historical buildings, raised some concerns.

According to the commission’s renovation requirements, a historic structure must maintain at least 25 percent of its original facade. 

Chuck Sullivan, of Sullivan and Associates Architects, highlighted the difficulties of preserving portions of a building when tasked with designing and building a replacement. All builds need to meet energy, egress, and structural requirements, he said, which impacts the ability to create the homeowner’s preferred space and detailing. 

“By saving a rafter, saving a stud, saving a floor joist, the interior house is shrinking,” he said, which “affects where doors can go, where hallways can go, where stairways can go.”

The whole configuration of the structures’ interior would change or have to be revised when required to preserve even small portions of a historic building, he said.

Architect Phil Regan took issue with the requirement that alterations or demolitions of every structure estimated to be 100 years or older would now need to be evaluated. 

“That caught me off guard,” he said. “As a professional in the community, I can only imagine what it would do to homeowners who had no idea that now, all of a sudden their property could be subjected to additional review and cost. . . I just don’t think it’s fair.” 

Additionally, homeowners may be met with further “limitations in terms of what they might want to do to their house, that just happened to turn 100 years old last year.”

Regan noted that a large number of Island buildings will soon fall into that category. 

“We’re going to get into houses that are 100 years old, built in the 20s, 30s, 40’s before too long,” he said, noting many of them lack historical significance. “That’s going to impact a lot of the built environment on the Vineyard,” he said.

“Something needs to be done differently to accommodate the fact that that database is going to be growing dramatically each year,” he said. 

Regan also raised concerns about the subjectivity of the review, particularly what distinguishes old from historic. 

Although MVC Executive Director Adam Turner said the commission works with the information from the county’s property appraisal cards to determine how old a structure is, and any importance it may have, Regan noted oftentimes those records lack accuracy.

Elaine Miller, who serves on a number of Tisbury boards and committees, praised the commission for crafting an historic inventory, which helps to identify culturally and historically significant buildings on the Island, but questioned how that will impact homeowners and real estate agents, since each year there will be more houses that are 100 years or older.

She suggested that homeowners be notified if they reside in or own a building of historical importance, and that it would be beneficial if all stakeholders were properly informed of what that means for future alterations to the property. 

“I’d want [home]owners to know in advance,” she said.