The Edgartown planning board this week blocked construction of a massive residence on Chappaquiddick, a 10,000-square-foot home slotted for an exposed bluff overlooking Wasque. Tuesday night's vote on a special permit - three in favor and two against - fell one shy of the needed four-vote majority.
"I believe that this is the wrong size house for this location. I think that this planning board would not want to be remembered in posterity as the board which allowed this most special place on all of Martha's Vineyard to be turned into a site for this trophy home. This would forever be a loss to Martha's Vineyard," said Alan Wilson, a Chappaquiddick resident and one of two planning board members who voted against the special permit.
Planning board approval was required under the Cape Pogue district of critical planning concern (DCPC), an overlay district adopted in 1989 by Edgartown voters to protect the rural outpost with its sensitive sweeps of beach and wetland.
Two planning board members warned that a hefty lawsuit would certainly follow a vote to deny the house - a vote they argued amounted to overstepping the authority granted to the board in the overlay district's zoning articles.
"Is this the house we want to go to court for?" planning board member Michael Donaroma asked his colleagues, noting that the overlay district's goal of "preserving and enhancing the character of views" did not automatically grant the authority to reject a plan based on square footage.
"I don't feel right doing this. We must have a reason [to deny this project]. I don't see one except that people don't like it," he added moments before the vote.
The benchmark deliberation comes seven months after Richard Schifter, a Washington, D.C.-based investor, unveiled plans to raze the Leland family homestead - a house enlarged from the century-old family camp. He envisioned a sprawling two-story, eight-bedroom retreat for his growing family.
"With four daughters, a new son in law and, we expect, future grandchildren, we want a place that can accommodate all of us at one time. We look forward to the cousins, our future grandchildren, spending their summers together here, rather than debating who gets the beach house for which week," Mr. Schifter told the Gazette Wednesday, noting that the family "will regretfully have no choice but to resort to the courts for relief" if the planning board's written decision matches Tuesday's oral vote.
The planning board's deliberations cut to the heart of debates extending from Chilmark to Edgartown these days - arguments sparked by an unease with the Island's growing resemblance to communities like the Hamptons or Scarsdale, N.Y.
While several board members highlighted technical zoning language, planning board member Alison Cannon asked the board to take a step back and examine the appropriateness of Mr. Schifter's proposal.
"This reminds me of something Dick Johnson of Sheriff's Meadow said recently, talking about the tension between individual rights and the rights of the community. He said, ‘I find it ironic when landowners insist they have the unfettered right to exploit their land when much of the land's value, both monetary and in terms of personal enjoyment, is a direct result of others not exploiting their land fully,' " she said, recommending that the home be limited to 6,000 square feet, to match a zoning provision in the town of Weston.
"You can't just build a large house there because you want to," Mrs. Canon said to Mr. Schifter, who was forced to sit silently through the board's discussion.
The town of Edgartown has been standing at a crossroads for some time - forced to watch the advent of trophy houses with no zoning articles in place to address the new trend. A surge in high-end building has brought five homes over 9,000 square feet in the last five years. Only one of those homes was forced to pass through an Edgartown board for anything more than a landscape plan review. A 10,000-square-foot home on Oyster Pond fueled a lawsuit from neighbors after a conservation commission approval this year, but a Massachusetts superior court judge dismissed the neighbors' suit this fall.
Articles aimed to cap house sizes and heights on Chappaquiddick and around the Edgartown Great Pond made their way to the town warrant last April. None, however, were adopted.
"There is a silent majority that always shows up and turns these down," Mr. Donaroma said Tuesday night.
"But the opposition [to the Schifter house] is larger than the number of people that show up to town meeting," Mrs. Canon countered, noting the fierce outcry from neighbors that the house plan stirred. A petition with 546 signatures - from Island residents, summer visitors and to one-time vacationers on Chappaquiddick - urged the board to reject the house.
Mr. Schifter purchased the windswept, nine-acre property - which offers views of the Muskeget Channel, the Atlantic Ocean, Poucha Pond and Swan Pond - for $5 million in September 2001. Surrounded by conservation properties owned by the state and The Trustees of Reservations, the land is home to several rare birds and plants including plover, harriers, owls and osprey.
When Mr. Schifter acquired the property, the entire island of Chappaquiddick remained locked under a DCPC nomination, a special designation that town residents voted down in April after a year of work on protective zoning articles. After rejecting the district designation, voters subsequently killed proposed regulations which would have capped house sizes at 4,000 square feet.
Two petitions have been circulating in Edgartown since last week, proposing house size and height limitations both for the Cape Pogue DCPC area and for Chappaquiddick as a whole. Supporters hope that the articles will be placed on the annual town meeting warrant this spring.
Mr. Wilson and Mrs. Canon's unwillingness to embrace the plan signaled a refusal to step aside and allow Wasque Point to be topped by a large-scale home.
"This is not just any nine acres. This is the most visible nine acres in the whole town of Edgartown. The reason Rick Schifter likes the property so much is exactly what he wants to undo," Mr. Wilson said, noting that a century ago, Islanders saved the property from a speculative development known as "Chappaquiddick by the Sea." Nearly all the property was purchased and donated to The Trustees of Reservations, which now owns the bulk of the ecologically sensitive property once chiseled into 775 parcels.
Planning board member Kenneth Southworth expressed his concerns over the house plans for Wasque Point, even though he ultimately voted to grant the special permit.
"I've said it once, and I'll say it again. I don't think Rick gets it. I don't think he understands the intensity of opposition from his neighbors," Mr. Southworth said.
But Mr. Schifter said Wednesday that opposition has been fueled by misrepresentations and argued that those staging the public campaign to reject the proposal actually represent a minority of Chappaquiddick residents.
"We appreciate the support expressed by many of our neighbors on Chappy, who, once they reviewed the plans, were surprised by the opposition to our application. We are disappointed that some have relied on misrepresentations and distortions to drum up support for their position, and unlike the planning board and special advisory committee, fail to recognize the lengths we have gone to address legitimate concerns," Mr. Schifter told the Gazette.
In fact, Mr. Schifter worked with the board and advisory committee's requests to address every concern except one - the sheer size of the project.
Board members attempted one last time Tuesday night to persuade Mr. Schifter to shrink his family's dream house. He refused to budge.
"We would agree to certain changes, but not to the magnitude that I think Alan [Wilson] would agree to," Mr. Schifter said.