William Street historic commission severely short-staffed

The commission currently has only four members, but is meant to have seven, along with seven alternates.

A map outlining the William Street Historic District, in black, within Tisbury. —Courtesy National Park Service

Updated September 20th.

On Wednesday, Sept. 13, Judy Federowicz, active chair of the William Street Historic District Commission, requested assistance from the Tisbury Select Board in securing a paid secretary for her commission.

Jay Grande, Tisbury town administrator and personnel director, hopes to find an in-house Tisbury candidate who is eligible for additional work hours. The secretary’s work would primarily involve eight to 10 meetings a year, according to Grande.

However, the commission also lacks an architect member, which is required by its bylaws, and lacks a builder member. The commission’s current total of four members is the minimum required in its decisionmaking process. If a member’s home were to neighbor an applied-for project, that member would have to recuse themselves from that case.

The William Street Historic District Commission handles historic preservation by approving or disapproving of plans to change building exteriors, or plans to introduce new hardscaping. Tisbury does not issue building permits in the district without the commission’s approval.

The district, on the National Register of Historic Places, is predominantly residential, and also includes structures such as Tisbury Town Hall. “[The district] has a special history that’s related to the harbor, whaling, shipping, and how all the houses came about because of whaling captains,” says Federowicz. “Really, it’s one of the jewels of Vineyard Haven.”

The district features smaller homes of the Greek Revival architectural style, built between 1833 and 1858, and its oldest home is the Timothy Chase House, built in 1720. Federowicz also notes the district’s access to the harbor, and attractiveness for walking tours.

At the meeting, Federowicz spoke of her commission’s reduced capabilities, resulting from what she says is the worst staffing situation in its history. “[A full alternates roster] has never been filled,” said Federowicz at the meeting, “but it’s always been nice to have these alternates, who could come to meetings, kind of have on-the-job training, and be able to serve more thoughtfully when they do step onto the commission full-time.”

Federowicz attributed the commission’s shrunken membership to COVID and member health issues, as well as members retiring and moving out of the district. “We’ve had some rough moments,” said Federowicz. She added that lacking a secretary, “we worry about our liability with the town by not having complete minutes, and it has reached a point that the current commissioners are discouraged.”

“We really need to have access to professionals who can advise us. We are laypeople, volunteers essentially,” says Federowicz.

According to Federowicz, the commission has changed significantly since she joined in 1983, and now has to deal with more complex applications. “In recent years, people who have bought in the district are successful people. They can invest in these properties, restore them, and renovate them. That means applications are much greater.” More recent applications have also involved lengthier and more complex processes.

In terms of projects in need of addressing, Federowicz highlights the wall leading to the Tisbury Village Cemetery. “The wall is leaning into the street … We’ve been trying to get that done, almost about 10 years we’ve been talking about it.”

She would also like to restore the historic Liberty Pole on Main Street, which currently stands as half of a flagpole after rot was discovered in its center. “Things like that shouldn’t be neglected,” said Federowicz.

Outgoing commission chair Christine Redfield says that the commission’s requests from yesterday’s meeting had first been made last December, but that conclusive solutions have not been reached.

Federowicz is working with Grande toward exploring solutions. Federowicz says these could include securing experts to contact for certain projects, and possibly changing commission bylaws to no longer require an architect member. Grande is also interested in adding a local history expert to serve on the commission.

At the meeting, Federowicz stated that changing commission bylaws would require a three-fourths vote from the select board. 

“I believe the commission has a very incredible history, and support from the town meeting, so I’m not overly concerned about the quantum of vote that is required to make these changes, because I think they’re necessary, and believe the commission can make a very strong case,” Grande says. 

“We’re really fortunate; at this point we don’t have any applications before us … At the moment there is a pause, a perfect time for us to consider how to arrange the commission and work with other boards,” says Federowicz.