Historical commission, neighbors clash over Tisbury demolition

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission will perform a site visit, and continue its hearing until the local planning board chimes in.

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Owners of 33 Lagoon Pond Road are hoping to replace the recently demolished former structure (left) with a new building (right). —MVC

A request for the retroactive approval of the demolition of a Tisbury house was met with mixed reactions last week during a public hearing of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC).

While local historical commission members have called foul on plans to build a new, four-story duplex at 33 Lagoon Pond Road, following the razing of the site’s former structure, neighbors say the property owner’s plans are a welcome addition to the area. 

Those who provided testimony at the hearing said the unkempt and uninhabited house had long been a location that attracted knavery, and even criminal behavior, going back years. 

Sawyer Realty Group LLC is now seeking retroactive approval of the demolition of the century-old, two-and-a-half-story, two-family dwelling on Lagoon Pond Road, and the commission’s greenlight to replace it with a four-story duplex with a total of four bedrooms and two garage bays. 

Because the property sits within the flood zone, habitable living space in the replacement structure will begin at an 11-foot elevation, per Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) and state building code guidelines and requirements. 

If approved, the new construction would be the only four-story building in the neighborhood. This means it “will likely be more visible” from surrounding areas than the former structure, MVC development of regional impact coordinator Rich Saltzberg noted.

The commission’s review of the proposal is two-pronged: It’s charged with either denying or approving the already demolished building, along with deciding whether its proposed replacement would align with the existing character of the neighborhood. 

In a letter sent to the commission back in August, the Tisbury historical commission argued that the new building design, still in a preliminary phase, would not fit with the “architectural vibe” of Lagoon Pond Road. 

The site, which is zoned as a waterfront commercial property, is located in an area developed as early as the late 19th century — historically consisting of smaller, inexpensive, single-family homes inhabited mostly by Portuguese immigrants. 

“This is one of those cases where the historical significance lies in the structure and evolution of the neighborhood, rather than in the structures that comprise it,” the historical commission said, adding that the proposed replacement building is “in no way sympathetic to the neighboring properties,” and “should be redesigned in a more cohesive and complementary way.”

They also stressed frustration over the fact that “yet another building old enough to require a review got demolished without a review, further entrenching the ‘beg forgiveness, not permission’ mentality,” as the letter stated. 

But last week, Martha’s Vineyard commissioners were presented with a determination letter signed last year by Tisbury building inspector Ross Seavey claiming that the building was “extremely susceptible to catastrophic failure,” and ordering property owner Sawyer Realty Group LLC to remove the structure within 30 days. 

For some property abutters, like Dan Panico and Chicken Alley Thrift Shop’s director of operations Jessica Tartell, this was very good news. Both filed written testimony with the commission, supporting both the demolition of the former building, and the proposed replacement. 

“Prior to its demolition, the structure at 33 Lagoon Pond Road was an eyesore,” Tartell testified. 

“It deterred customers and donors from visiting our store, and before Sawyer [Realty] purchased the property, the Tisbury Police would regularly request to review our security camera footage with a view of the structure, so they could see the activity happening,” she said. 

“I have no doubt that what [Sawyer] does at 33 Lagoon Pond Road will only help to make the neighborhood more desirable for us all.”

Panico agreed, and said in his 10-plus years living in the direct rear of 33 Lagoon Pond Road, the property “always looked derelict,” and had a history of questionable tenancy and police visits.

The proposed project will improve the overall aesthetics of the area, he said: “The entire neighborhood is thrilled that someone is finally taking control of that lot.” 

Though most commissioners were in agreement that if the demolition request came for review before the actual razing, they’d likely have approved it, the public hearing focused primarily on the style and character of the building’s replacement, and whether the proposed project would fit in with the surrounding area — despite some questioning whether the regional planning agency even has the jurisdiction to review and/or put conditions on residential construction. 

“I don’t think we’re allowed to discuss the new plan,” commissioner Michael Kim said. “We don’t have a purview over one- and two-story houses.”

Under his understanding of the MVC’s current policy regarding demolitions, Kim said, commissioners can only decide whether to allow for the construction of a replacement building, not dictate what can be built.

If the demolition is approved, the property owners “are allowed to rebuild it,” he said. “And it should be limited to that.” 

Commissioner Fred Hancock, who helped draft the updated historic preservation policy, disagreed, and said per that new policy, the commission is to consider both facets of the proposal, and “if it’s determined that the building is historic,” commissioners would “be able to constrain the applicant to build something in that style.” 

Since approving a new historic preservation policy last year, commissioners have been tasked with reviewing any proposed demolitions of houses constructed 100 years ago or earlier.

The policy, formerly called the “demolition policy,” strongly encourages homeowners to consider five alternatives (preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, relocation, and reconstruction) before removing a 100-year-old or older house. 

The purpose is to maintain the Vineyard’s unique historical and cultural values, and combat the threat of overdevelopment Island-wide. 

Per the commission’s updated historic preservation policy, review of a proposed demolition must include consideration of “replacement structures, including in regard to their historic appropriateness and neighborhood context.”

Following some discussion on different interpretations of the policy, commission chair Joan Malkin suggested engaging the town’s permitting board before moving forward. 

“I think it would behoove us to let the [Tisbury] planning board do what it is capable of doing,” she said. “And the things that it’s not, leave to us.” 

“What’s the point of us doing something if [the planning board] has full authority over it?” she said.

Commissioner Ben Robinson, who also serves on the Tisbury planning board, agreed and said upon the board’s prior review of the 33 Lagoon Pond Road proposal, it was determined that property owners would need to obtain a special permit for the project’s construction. That special permit could be conditioned to limit the size of the structure, number of occupants residing on the property, and the extent of facilities on the property. 

While the commission waits to hear from the planning board, the public hearing will be continued to Nov. 2. Commissioners will be conducting a site visit to the property before that time. 

1 COMMENT

  1. Owner wants it, town wants it, abutters want it, but MVC denys it. Anyone wonder why we have a housing problem? Again more vague responses for why they are denying it.

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