A small but vocal group of residents, builders, realtors and members of town land use boards turned out to express their opinions this week on a proposed Chilmark bylaw that would regulate house size. Some quibbled over specifics of the plan, while others argued that the proposed regulation is not strict enough. The town planning board presented the latest version of the much-debated bylaw at a public hearing held Monday night.
The bylaw would require a special permit for new houses over 4,000 square feet. Home size would be capped at 6,000 square feet per three-acre lot, the minimum allowed zoning in Chilmark.
Planning board chairman Janet Weid-ner said the intent of the bylaw is to plan for the town’s future, and is designed to allow most property owners to build on their land while “reining in some of the very large houses.”
“As your elected planners we’ve spent a year looking at [data] . . . and we’ve come back with an approach we think makes sense for the town,” she said. “It is scary . . . I think people do feel in a way that it’s almost un-American to not allow people to do exactly what they want to do with their property. But this is not your average town in America; we have a lot to protect here,” she said.
This is the first time the bylaw was presented to the public for comment. A final version of the bylaw is slated to come before voters at the annual town meeting in April.
Because the bylaw establishes a ratio of building size to land area, it would place limits on so-called substandard lots as well, which measure less than three acres. For one-acre lots, the special permit process would begin at 3,500 square feet. All applicants would be permitted an additional 250 square feet for each additional acre. Homeowners whose existing living area exceeds the threshold would be allowed a one-time exception to increase their home size five per cent.
The bylaw also would establish a list of checks and balances for the zoning board to consider during the permitting process. Items include the impact of the project on the existing rural character, retaining natural buffer areas and natural features of the site, landscaping, contours of the land, lighting and maintaining the visual integrity of ridgelines.
In a separate issue, the planning board is proposing a definition for a detached bedroom in an effort to differentiate the term from guest houses and accessory structures. No definition exists in the current zoning bylaw and confusion among the three terms became an issue during construction on a recent Nashaquitsa Pond project, which was widely criticized as being too large.
The new definition would limit the size of a detached bedroom to 400 square feet, similar to existing bylaws in the towns of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs. The bedroom may contain a bathroom but no stove or refrigerator. A special permit from the zoning board would be needed to build more than one detached bedroom.
Zoning board chairman Chris Murphy commended the planning board for the effort to date, but pressed at the public hearing for clearer language. He also argued to lower the trigger number to 2,500 square feet per one acre.
“I think you’ve done a terrific job, I really do; the process you’ve gone through and came up with really works,” he said. “The one thing that seems arbitrary, and I think you erred in the wrong direction, is the 3,500 square feet [referral limit]. If you think the people in the town should have control over the way the town develops and you’re going to have a review process, it’s too big a starting point.”
“That means that half of the town would have to come to the zoning board, which is absurd,” said Frank LoRusso, a member of the zoning board of appeals.
“I think that number should come up, if anything it’s a little too low and I would increase it by 500 square feet [to 4,000 square feet]. However, I’d be happy with that one [the existing number],” said Mr. LoRusso.
Ms. Weidner presented data from the Chilmark assessor’s office, which shows a total of 1,278 primary residences in town. The average square footage is 2,350 square feet; more than half the houses are smaller than 2,500 square feet. There are 26 houses larger than 6,000 square feet; one of the largest is around 14,000 square feet, she said. Since 2000, a total of eight houses have been built that exceed the proposed limitations.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Joe Chapman, a builder, of the bylaw. “I think the minimums are too little . . . no one likes to see that mega-mansion. I don’t even like building those things, it’s a challenge but they’re very wasteful. Within the parameters we’re dealing with, [the minimums] should be raised up a little bit and it might pass the two-thirds vote.” He warned that the bylaw could intentionally contribute to more subdivisions in town as a mechanism for property owners to skirt the bylaw.
“There’s probably not a subdivision already planned, but this is what’s going to happen when you start limiting the size of homes — people are going to start working around it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s very American or constitutional to say what size of house I can have. We have to be careful on the size and limitations that we decide on.”
Selectman Bill Rossi said if the goal of the bylaw was to preserve the rural character of the town, other factors need to be considered.
“If we’re talking about preserving water quality and nature . . . we should be look at landscaping and irrigation, not house size. Those are issues that need to be explored, too,” he said. “We’re going in the right direction in that regard, but there are other issues that need to be looked at besides house size in preserving the rural character of Chilmark.”
The character of the town needs to be part of the bigger picture, Chilmark resident Steve Bernier said.
“We have rural character we all love and appreciate here . . . but we’re resting on our laurels a little bit and need to look 20 years down the pipeline,” he said. “I had a few people mention to me this summer that [Chilmark] is the Hamptons east. Why did they say that? Because the rural character of the community is intact and everything is hunky dory? I don’t think so.”
“There’s a wolf in the bushes not too far away, be careful when you’re out in the dark,” he continued. “You’re in the first chapter of the book. There’s more work to be done and we have to keep going . . . we’ve got a bunch of work ahead of us to build the right infrastructure for this town,” he said. “We need to keep digging . . . if we don’t look at the big picture and look out over the horizon we may be selling ourselves short.”
The planning board closed the public hearing, but left the written comment period open until Jan. 7.