Commission Accepts the Nomination of Mullen Way as Critical District

By IAN FEIN

Suggesting that historical middle-class neighborhoods might be of irreplaceable value to the Island, the Martha's Vineyard Commission last week unanimously agreed to consider a narrow tree-lined street in Edgartown for designation as a district of critical planning concern (DCPC).

The first new critical district nomination in more than five years, it was brought by a group of Mullen Way residents who felt existing regulations could not protect them from a large subdivision proposed at the end of their road. As designated special places, DCPCs allow towns - through the enabling legislation of the commission - to adopt zoning regulations that would otherwise not be allowed by law.

Edgartown attorney Ronald Monterosso in a presentation to the commission last Thursday acknowledged that the district would encompass only a dozen homes lined along a side street off the Katama end of Pease's Point Way. But he argued that Mullen Way, with its modest bungalows and small-town charm, represents an important piece of the fabric of the Vineyard community.

"Yeah, it's a small neighborhood in Edgartown. But if you take the stance today that this neighborhood is not of regional importance, then developers can pick off these types of neighborhoods across the Island, one by one," said Mr. Monterosso, who lives on Chappaquiddick and is assisting the Mullen Way residents at no charge. "Each community, in and of itself, might not be of regional importance. But if you allow developers to keep pulling away these threads, eventually there won't be any fabric left," he said.

Mr. Monterosso also said that, if approved, the new district could be a model for similar middle-class neighborhoods on the Vineyard that are losing their cultural character and being transformed into trophy suburbs.

"A lot of people on this Island have given up, or are ready to give up. They go to public hearings and try to save their neighborhoods from development, but they're told by the town boards that there's nothing they can do," Mr. Monterosso said. "If we can get this one done, it could be a rallying point - a sign they don't have to give up. Other neighborhoods could say, ‘We're like that. We're like Mullen Way.' "

The nomination is still in the early stages of the DCPC process, which can take as long as a year, and the commission has not yet decided whether to actually designate the neighborhood as a critical district. The next step is a public hearing, scheduled for early September, where the proposal will get a full airing.

But by accepting the nomination last week, the commission triggered an automatic building moratorium that stays in effect while the DCPC process runs its course.

Developers Michael Kidder and Douglas Ward this month withdrew plans for a nine-lot subdivision proposed on eight acres at the end of Mullen Way, after the Edgartown planning board referred it to the commission as a possible development of regional impact (DRI). Dubbed Tall Trees Village, the subdivision would essentially double the number of homes on the street and, according to neighbors, permanently alter the character of the neighborhood.

Mr. Monterosso described the proposed homes as large, million-dollar mansions with three-car garages, attached guest houses and pools. He said he expects the developers to resubmit their project with even more homes, as they will need to maximize their investment in the land. The developers bought the property for $6 million, more than three times its assessed value of $1.6 million.

The subdivision proposal inspired commercial fisherman Robert Coad, who has lived on Mullen Way for more than 30 years, to gather signatures for the DCPC nomination. He needed 75 taxpayers to sign the nomination, and received more than 100.

Mary Jane Rogers, who is married to Mr. Coad, told commission members on Thursday about her experience in the neighborhood. She said residents gather for block parties, walk their dogs together in the street, and share a small-town lifestyle that is disappearing from the Island.

"When I moved to Mullen Way, I finally felt like I was a part of something," Ms. Rogers said. "It's this sweet little neighborhood that just warms your heart. And there has got to be some intrinsic value in that."

The street is closely lined with bungalow-style homes, many of which were built in the 1920s and 1930s, according to Mr. Monterosso. An old white farmhouse at the end of the street, slated for possible demolition by the subdivision developers, might be one of the oldest homes on the Vineyard.

Ms. Rogers said she works as a nurse with older patients, who express grave sadness when they hear her talk about the proposed subdivision. She said the commission might be surprised by an outpouring of similar sentiment at the upcoming public hearing.

"The Island feels like it's being taken away, one house at a time," she said. "They disappear, these little houses, they get swallowed up and replaced by much larger homes. If we can't protect this little neighborhood, then there's something awfully wrong."

It is unusual - though not unprecedented - for such a small geographical area to be designated as a critical district.

Shortly after its creation in 1974, the commission received a flood of DCPC nominations, out of which it developed three Islandwide districts. One of those, the special places district, includes a number of small sites spread throughout different towns.

DCPC coordinator Jo-Ann Taylor said yesterday that the commission could likewise create an umbrella DCPC for special neighborhoods, under which towns or residents could nominate different areas.

If the commission decides to designate the Mullen Way neighborhood as a critical district, then four town boards - the board of selectmen, planning board, conservation commission and board of health - will be responsible for proposing special regulations for future development in the district. The regulations must be approved by the commission and a two-thirds majority at town meeting.

When considering a DCPC nomination, the commission is required to look at whether existing regulations can assure protection of valuable resources. Mr. Monterosso noted last week that the Edgartown planning board, which sent the proposed subdivision to the commission as a discretionary referral, could not consider during its review whether Mullen Way - one of the narrowest town streets in Edgartown - could safely accommodate another nine homes.

Commission member Christina Brown, who is also the administrator to the Edgartown planning board, noted that town boards can only act within the subdivision control laws.

The remark prompted a quick response from commission chairman Linda Sibley of West Tisbury: "And that's why the state legislature said, ‘Let there be a Martha's Vineyard Commission.' "