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Zoning Diversity and Historical Background at Meetinghouse Way

In the more recent context of second-home development on Martha's Vineyard, what Meetinghouse Place proposes — large, luxurious houses on small lots in a rural (for the time being) setting — is somewhat unusual. Over the past few decades, land appraisers have determined that the the most profitable use for most undeveloped land on Martha’s Vineyard was the creation of large estates on large lots (so-called “kingdom lots”). On an island where nature is prized, and for a clientele inclined toward privacy, creating fewer building sites could actually produce more real estate value than subdivision into as many lots as allowed under zoning, particularly when costs of improvements (road construction, sewage, power, etc.) are included. Only time will tell whether the Meetinghouse Place proposal is more of an aberration or a harbinger of things to come.

In many towns, zoning alone would prevent this proposed subdivision, due to the large minimum lot sizes required outside of the town centers. But not so in Edgartown, where a diversity of zoning exists, intended to provide people of more modest means the opportunity to own a home. Zoning there ranges from a 3-acre minimum lot size down to one-half-acre, or 20,000 square feet, aka “R-20.” This zoning persists today in areas near the Edgartown Great Pond. However, instead of providing affordability, one of the last large R-20s in town has been acquired by a Utah-based developer for the purpose of building out luxury houses. 

In the broader scope of the struggle to shape the future of the Vineyard, the debate over Meetinghouse Place feels a bit old fashioned — a flashback to the subdivision fights of the 1980s. Then, as now, we see a clash of priorities between those focused on the long-term, seeking to preserve shared natural resources and an Island way of life, and those focused on the immediate, working to feed new stock into a booming real estate market as quickly and efficiently as possible. Yet under that takeaway lies a message about our changing economy, conservation challenges, and human needs.

Simply put, times have changed. As compared to the subdivisions of the 1980s (whether actually built or averted by community advocacy), the houses of this proposed development would be larger and more luxurious, and thus further out of the reach of year-round residents. We hope that our colleagues who have undertaken the noble challenge of advocating for and providing affordable housing will see the bigger picture beyond the substantial cash payment the MVC would exact from the developer (“off-site mitigation”) and join us in opposition. Building more luxury housing — the primary driver of our need for labor and resulting housing shortage — on the very land that was intended to provide affordability raises a painful question: In the long run, where is the subsidized housing, whether paid for via development exactions, philanthropic giving, or new taxes, supposed to go?

Developments such as Meetinghouse Place suggest that, going forward, building single-family homes on undeveloped lots may be an impractical model for affordable housing, no matter the lot size allowed by zoning. Instead, VCS (and others) have long advocated for creating more environmentally sustainable, and economically practical, housing by increasing density in town centers, building up where reasonable (“top-of-the-shop” is an excellent model downtown), and the creative rehabilitation of existing housing. Sustaining our natural environment and our human population need not be mutually exclusive!

In an interesting historical footnote, Edgartown’s diverse zoning played a role in securing a landmark conservation outcome by insulating the town against legal attacks. During the 1990s battle over the fate of Herring Creek Farm (which ended well with the Nature Conservancy brokering a conservation sale), developers attacked town zoning as a deliberate effort to “zone-to-exclude.” The state’s high court rejected their argument, pointing to the existence of smaller lot sizes — such as the R-20 zoning on Meetinghouse Way.