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Big Houses in the News

Due in at least some part to VCS advocacy, high-impact residential development – or, to put it more bluntly, really big houses– has received a recent boost in attention from the Island newspapers. As reflected in a recent letter to both papers by VCS executive director Brendan O’Neill, VCS supports efforts by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) to use its powers to bring additional review before construction of enormous estates. Reviewing Developments of Regional Impact (DRIs) and designating Districts of Critical Planning Concern (DCPCs) are the two powers granted the MVC under its legislation (General Laws Ch 831). With the MVC currently undertaking its periodic review of the checklist of “triggers” for referring developments for DRI review, VCS offered public testimony suggesting that now is the time to design triggers for high-impact residential development.

In the past week and a half, both papers have weighed in on the issue with thoughtful commentary. The Vineyard Gazette argued that decisions about community character should be made by individual towns, and that they should enforce the regulations that already exist. Following reader feedback pointing out that towns do not already possess the necessary regulatory abilities (towns are prohibited by state law from regulating house size), the Gazette amended their position to suggest that towns use the authority of the MVC to create a town-wide DCPC, as Aquinnah has done, which would give them the ability to review very large house proposals. VCS would support this as well, and has suggested the DCPC approach in the past; see here for more information.

In contrast to the clarity of the Gazette’s concise commentary, this week’s much longer editorial in the M.V. Times provides a great amount of food for thought, but struggles to make its point as clearly. The framing device of the article appears to be that the proponents are dreaming up the new regulatory rules they want before the community has a chance to decide if we even want additional regulation. Whether or not that’s true (that is, the dreams of those unnamed advocates), it’s immaterial. The process of debating, in the open, whether this is something that should be regulated is happening right now, in part due to the efforts of their newspaper, as well as VCS and others.

Regardless, there are two elements of the piece that warrant addressing, because they could lead to a misunderstanding of the issue, and possibly to the position of VCS:

First, in support of the general thrust that increased review is being considered “because such structures abuse the eye of this beholder or that one,” and that “these measures will be subjective, even whimsical,” the article ignores the objective objections to very large houses, principally the outsized impacts on the natural environment. This is not an accidental omission; the article clearly states that “The foundation for folding such buildings in the regulatory embrace is always expressed as a subjective, aesthetic worry” (emphasis added). However, these are not subjective matters; the increased nitrogen contamination and carbon emissions associated with heating, cooling, and dealing with the wastewater of huge houses are very tangibly real. Further, they're hardly aesthetic concerns; while one may find algal blooms on the ponds unattractive, that's not really the point.

Second, this is less clear, but there seems to be a slippery slope argument folded into the Times' editorial: that today, the environmentalists want to stop people from building 20,000 square foot houses, but who knows what crazy thing it will be tomorrow. We want to make the position of VCS very clear on this issue. This is no camel's nose poking into the foyer of the mega-mansion. Not every issue warrants a slippery slope argument (in fact, rather few do), and this is certainly not one of them. Our purpose is to advocate for enhanced regional review of high-impact residential development and to support the towns in their leadership role and the MVC in their planning role to work out how best to accomplish that.