Two Edgartown homeowners who tore down a historic backyard barn on their property at the corner of Cooke and Summer streets in March of 2005 without town approval have agreed to pay the town $10,000.
Last Friday, attorneys for Joseph B. and Donna M. McPherson of Duxbury and Edgartown agreed to the terms of a judgment negotiated by town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport on behalf of the Edgartown historic district commission. The judgment is a key victory for the town historic commission, which is increasingly concerned about safeguarding downtown Edgartown's white colonial and Greek revival homes from the current trend of tear-downs and unfaithful historic reproductions.
The demolition dispute dates back to late 2004, when the McPhersons first applied for permission to tear down the barn, which was believed to date back to the 1800s. After two public hearings, where members of the historic commission made clear their concerns about preserving the barn, the McPhersons applied for an adaptive reuse permit to refurbish the structure and keep it intact. Then in early March of 2005, the barn was ripped down over a weekend and the remains tossed in a dumpster, all without a permit.
The town responded by issuing a cease and desist order on all construction at the site and filing a lawsuit in Dukes County Superior Court seeking penalties of up to $500 a day from the date of demolition.
The McPhersons later returned to the commission and asked for approval for plans to continue new construction of a replacement barn that would function as a two-car garage on the lower level and a bedroom and bathroom on the second floor.
While the town proceeded in court against the McPhersons, the commission approved plans for the new garage, and the structure was completed earlier this year.
In August, the McPhersons proposed a settlement to the historic commission, offering to donate $5,000 to a charity of their choice. Mr. McPherson claimed he has spent a total of $85,000 in legal costs and architectural fees because of the redesign and lawsuit.
"Although the town proposes a fine for my poor judgment, they should consider the costs that I have entailed since their stop work order," Mr. McPherson wrote in his settlement offer.
Mr. McPherson also expressed regret at the events that had transpired. "There have been many lessons learned here. Not to blame anyone other than myself, in the future I would pursue the permitting process in a completely different manner," he wrote.
The town rejected the offer and the case had been scheduled for trial during the current fall sitting of the Dukes Country Superior Court. The McPhersons agreed to the $10,000 payment to the town on Friday morning, and judgment was entered in favor of the town. A counterclaim by the McPhersons against the town was dismissed with prejudice, and all rights of appeal waived.
The court could have demanded a fine of $500 a day since the date of demolition, meaning the overall penalty could have climbed to over $500,000. But the $10,000 fine is still one of the largest ever levied by a historic commission, according to Mr. Rappaport.
"It's perhaps the largest fine I've seen for this type of violation. Considering the circumstances, it's a figure the [historic] commission was comfortable with," he said.
Ursula Prada, historic district commission secretary, said the settlement sends a clear message the town is serious about preserving its historic properties.
"I hope this will show people that they will face consequences if they go and do something without getting the proper permits. You can't just go and tear something historic down because you want to build something new - it doesn't work that way," she said.
James Cisek, the chairman of the historic commission, said the loss of the barn was one of the last vestiges of historic Cooke street, once Edgartown's prime commercial street.
"It was just a little barn, but it was a link to the town's past," Mr. Cisek said.