Edgartown Trophy House Plans Stir Controversy

By JULIA WELLS

The jokes and gritty remarks about trophy houses and the Hamptons have been circulating on the Vineyard for a couple of years, but last week the Edgartown conservation commission got its first real-life glimpse of a starter castle now planned for an unspoiled point of land on the Oyster Pond.

The footprint for the 15,600-square-foot house planned by Robert Levine was unveiled at a public hearing before the conservation commission last Thursday night. Mr. Levine bought the 80-acre property eight months ago for $15.5 million. Now called Black Duck Preserve, the property was formerly part of Pohogonot Farm. The property is divided into three separate parcels.

Mr. Levine has now filed a notice of intent with the conservation commission for a massive private home project. The project is still in its early planning stages. Floor plans for the house were shown to the conservation commission last week. The current plan envisions a sprawling home with a two-story center section flanked by two long, one-story wings. The plan also calls for a pool, a pool house, a gate house and a boat house. Project engineer Richard Barbini said a bridge planned for the property had been eliminated.

There is no landscape plan yet, but Mr. Barbini said the owner will ask the conservation commission to waive its rules to allow a 10,000 square-foot-lawn.

Pond regulations allow a maximum of 2,500 square feet of lawn in that area.

"You are aware of that?" said conservation commission member Steve Ewing.

"Yes," Mr. Barbini replied.

He said the large lawn is simply a function of the extremely large scale of the house. "To give you an idea - 2,500 square feet, that is the size of this stone patio," Mr. Barbini said, pointing to a small area on the floor plan.

The architect for the project is Kyle Webb of K.H. Webb Architects in Vail, Colo. The landscape architect is Kris Horiuci of Falmouth.

Public opinion among neighbors and town residents has begun to heat up over the project. Several Oyster Pond residents and two attorneys attended the hearing.

"This isn't your ordinary project," said Michael Vhay, a partner at Hill & Barlow in Boston who represents Oyster Pond resident Richard Friedman.

Mr. Vhay and other residents urged the conservation commission to refer the project to the Martha's Vineyard Commission for review as a development of regional impact (DRI), although John Montgomery, a partner at Ropes & Gray in Boston who represents Mr. Levine, said there is no precedent for such a referral.

"This is a single-family dwelling in a remote area," Mr. Montgomery said.

"I think this house is very obviously what we would call a trophy house, and people who have trophies put them in a case to show them off," began Oyster Pond resident Peter Jones. He continued: "My perception is that this is going to completely dominate the pond. This is the kind of stuff that you see in the Hamptons and in Aspen - and this is just a first step," he added.

"You folks are being confronted with a defining moment, and how you deal with this isn't only going to have an impact on Oyster Pond, it's going to have an impact on the entire Island and its culture," said Oyster Pond resident Bill Maloney.

"The big issue to us is the scope of the house - it's hard to ignore," said Bill Helman, a resident of Oyster Watcha and spokesman for the Oyster Watcha Midlands Association.

"To call this a single-family house - I am a hotel developer and this is the size of a 30-room hotel," declared Mr. Friedman. "This is a single-family village of sorts," he said.

Kelly Cardoza, a landscape biologist who works for Mr. Friedman, said the property is biologically sensitive and includes rare maritime oak forest and a number of state-listed rare plants and animals, including rare moths, the eastern box turtle and the Nantucket shadbush. She said the owner did a habitat survey in the month of December, when most plants and animals are dormant.

"I am deeply concerned about the vernacular architecture of Martha's Vineyard, and I know the Oyster Pond from fishing and shellfishing there," said Chris Scott, an Edgartown resident who is also executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust. "I think to describe this project as something other than massive would be an understatement. I don't see the harm in a referral to the Martha's Vineyard Commission, and I am concerned about applicants coming to you and asking you to quadruple your standards. I am concerned that this is a watershed," Mr. Scott said.

The conservation commission received a number of letters from area residents - all of them opposed to the project.

Mr. Barbini pledged to work with the conservation commission. "We will provide you with any study that you want in order to make an informed decision," he said.

The property has also been cited as a highly sensitive Native American archaeological resource. In a letter to the conservation commission, Mark Harding, the deputy tribal historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, said the Levine property could contain important pre-contact historical sites. Among other things, Mr. Harding said historic documents and oral histories show that the Oyster Pond area was once used as the Mashakeemmuck (Great House) of the Sachems.

Jeffrey Madison, a member of the tribe, attended the hearing to speak about the need for sensitivity to Native American archaeological resource areas, especially burial grounds.

Mr. Montgomery said the entire town of Edgartown has been named a highly sensitive area for Native American archaeological resources by the state Public Archaeology Laboratory (PAL). He also said that unlike the town of Aquinnah, Edgartown has not adopted a formal process for protecting these resources - and he cautioned the commission against using Mr. Levine's home building project as an experiment for regulating archaeological resources.

"What we are concerned about is that cemeteries not be disturbed," Mr. Madison said. "If this were proposed for a place where there were headstones and crosses, then there wouldn't be any question about not disturbing it. Well, my ancestors did not put crosses on their gravesites, and through the years the pine needles and oak leaves have a way of covering up the little stones that mark the burial places for ancestors who go back further than the ancestors of everyone in this room except for me."

When Mr. Madison finished, conservation commission member Steven Ewing looked at Mr. Montgomery and said: "You should probably talk to this guy."

The hearing was continued to Oct. 18; a site visit to the property was planned for yesterday.

Four members of the conservation commission are reviewing the project: Mr. Ewing, Robert Avakian, Stuart Lollis and Lillian Province. Board chairman Edward W. Vincent Jr. recused himself because of a possible conflict, and board members Christina Brown and Edith W. Potter did not attend the hearing.